September 18, 2011

Roll Film

As many of you know, I'm fond of old movies. Part of the reason for this is because I've already seen a good number of them and don't feel as if I have to give them my full attention. I know when parts are coming that I don't care to see...usually related to how African-Americans are depicted.

Filmmakers have done black Americans a great disservice by featuring the caricatures of the slow-witted, cowardly (if men), no-sacrifice-is-too-great black servants. Actors like Willie Best (often billed as "Sleep 'n' Eat") and Butterfly McQueen specialized in these types of roles. I never fail to cringe (and often change the channel) when actress Juanita Moore tells Lana Turner in the 1959 version of Imitation of Life, "Just let me do for you." (In other words, she'll work for no pay.) On the other hand, I cheer at scenes like the one in Christmas in Connecticut (1945) where restaurant owner S.Z. Sakall asks one of his black waiters about the meaning of the word "catastrophe" and the waiter tells him in an intelligent manner...or that Clark Gable/Jean Harlow movie I saw from the 1930s in which Gable pleads with a black minister to marry him and Harlow (the minister, at first reluctant, eventually agrees)...or how in Cass Timberlane (1947), Spencer Tracy calls his maid, a woman clearly older than he is, not by her first name, but "Mrs. [Surname]."

I've always admired Hattie McDaniel for playing her roles with such honesty and feistiness; only once did I see her insisting on taking care of a family for free (yuck). Clarence Muse also always appeared dignified, and then there was foxy Theresa Harris, who played Barbara Stanwyck's best friend in Baby Face (1932), even though she was also her maid.

The other day I saw a movie I hadn't seen in many years...1970s star-studded Airport. It's been 41 years now since this film was released, but one thing that stood out to me was how well black Americans were represented.  Sure, they showed black skycaps, but the role of head of security at the large Midwestern facility, with many men working under him, was played a black man, the same actor who would portray Alderman Fred C. Davis on Good Times a few years later.  Among the passengers on the Rome-bound flight were actors playing an Army officer and a doctor, respectively.  The army man was shown offering assistance, and the doctor was shown wearing his stethescope and and attending to the injured.

This might not seem like a big deal to modern audiences, but for me, familiar with the stereotypical "Yassir" dialogue of older movies, it represented a real turning point, possibly the first movie with so many positive African-American images.

See you at the movies.


DonnaD said...

I loved "Imitation of Life" because I thought that the way the Lana Turner character treated the black maid was more kind and not at all patronizing. I couldn't stand the daughter character, and her falling all over herself at her mother's funeral was too much.

I love "Driving Miss Daisy." I know Morgan Freeman got unfairly criticized for playing a "stepin-fetchit" character. But that was only at the surface. There was an incredible dignity in Hoke. He knew his place, but by refusing to accept less than, he slowly moved Miss Daisy to see him as the man he was.

Personally, I am more offended by some of the characters now coming out thanks to Martin Lawrence and the Wayans Brothers (among others).

bettye griffin said...

Donna, I did like the way the screenwriters put in a scene that shows how Lana Turner's Lora character never expressed any interest in Annie's personal life until Annie was on her deathbed, saying, "I didn't know," to which Annie replies, "Miss Lora, you never asked." (I would have loved it if Annie had a boyfriend, but of course most black women have been portrayed as devoid of any sex appeal.) BTW, Juanita Moore, now in her late 80s, and Susan Kohner, who played Sara Jane, both appeared at the Turner Classic Movie festival last year and did a Q&A session about the movie. Wish I could have been there.

I agree that some of today's portrayals are downright embarrassing.