Sunday, February 25, 2007

Essay 1764

From The Chicago Sun-Times…


A movie record that leaves you reeling


Odds are that when this weekend’s 79th Annual Academy Awards show fades to black, Jennifer Hudson will be hugging an Oscar. The Chicago South Sider’s meteoric rise from an “American Idol” wannabe to a “Dreamgirl” to a Golden Globe Award winner is the stuff of “A Star is Born” script. And Hudson won’t be the only African American going home with the gold. Chances are the names of Forest Whitaker and Eddie Murphy will be spoken after “and the winner is” gets read. Let’s celebrate the moment, but not forget the past.

From “The Birth of a Nation” to “Gone With the Wind” to “The Color Purple,” Hollywood movies have played a leading role in the stereotyping of African Americans for audiences at home and abroad. So, on Oscar weekend, I thought it might be useful to compose of a list of Tinseltown’s Top Ten Racist Movies. I called my friend, Sergio Mims, for some professional advice. Sergio knows movies. He co-founded the Black Harvest Film Festival. He taught film at the School of the Art Institute and Columbia College. He hosts a radio program about movies and he reviews movies for print.

Right off the bat, we both agree on America’s first feature film, “The Birth of a Nation.” The 1915 silent movie started out as “The Clansman” but went through a name change when it traveled to movie theaters above the Mason-Dixon line. Set during Reconstruction, white men in blackface play Negro characters who take over Southern state legislatures. Once in power, they are portrayed as mainly interested in shooting craps, eating chicken, boozing and landing white women. The first law they want to pass is for “equal rights, equal marriage.” Just in a nick of time, the noble, heroic Ku Klux Klan comes to the rescue after a white woman is almost raped by Gus, the renegade Negro. After a quick lynching, the KKK valiantly resubjugates the blacks and restores the good white citizens to their rightful place. “If you compare it with today’s box office,” Sergio said, “it’s one of the most successful movies in American cinema.”

It was also one of the most influential. By romanticizing America’s homegrown terrorist organization, “The Birth of a Nation” ignited a second surge of lynchings. Thousands of African Americans, Mexican Americans and Jews were publicly tortured and murdered to the maddening cheers of Southern white mobs, sometimes during a family outing. D.W. Griffith’s film worked so well as a propaganda vehicle for white supremacy that it’s used to this day as a recruitment tool for the Klan. It also set the standard for stereotyping blacks for generations to follow.

One down and nine to go. But before I could add “Gone With the Wind,” with its scene featuring Butterfly McQueen’s character Prissy proclaiming, “I don’t know nuthin’ about birthin’ no baby,” Sergio argued that my Top Ten plan was both too ambitious and too limited.

Like “The Birth of a Nation,” “GWTW” also glorifies the KKK, but like scores of other Hollywood productions, it deserves to be vilified as part of the sum. And in “The Color Purple,” Danny Glover’s character, Albert, is no renegade Negro, but he’s cut from the same violent, sex-crazed cloth as “The Birth of a Nation’s” Gus. And none of “Purple’s” nine other major male characters would be likely candidates for Man of the Year.

“It’s the collective, constant stream of images in one movie after the other,” Sergio said. Those images portray black men as lazy, lying, head-scratching, raping, violent coons and buffoons. Black women are mammies, maids and whores. And Tarzan is the king of the jungle. In the 1940 movie, “The Ghost Breakers,” Willie Best plays the eye-bulging, knee-knocking butt of Bob Hope’s corny jokes. That same year, in the “Santa Fe Trail,” John Brown was the villain because he tried to free the slaves. “In one scene, a fire breaks out in a barn and the slaves are terrified,” Sergio said. “‘If this is freedom, I want no part of it,’ one slave says. He wants to go back home to the master’s plantation and rock til Kingdom come.”

So when Jennifer Hudson accepts her statuette, I will remember: We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

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