Weekly musings on the arts and current events.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
The cartoon cel shown here is of Mammy Two Shoes, a recurring character from the Tom and Jerry series. Her appearances have been mostly edited out of current versions, replaced by a skinny white maid. She was based on Academy Award winning actress Hattie McDaniel who played Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939). At the time of her Oscar, the NAACP was critical of Hattie, saying she perpetuated the stereotype of the happy black menial. Some even called her a "handkerchief head". However, when Mo'Nique won her Oscar last week, she paid tribute to Hattie McDaniel, the first black actress ever to attend the Oscars, much less win one. Mo'Nique has a film in development of McDaniel's life.
Another story in the news last week was renewed criticism of the Charlie Chan movies occasioned by the reissue of a forty two year old documentary on this controversy. Asian groups have rightly objected to the fact that the detective was always played by white actors. Less persuasively, they have denounced Charlie as a racial stereotype: "an inscrutable Oriental." I think he is a richer character than that, holding his own among Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, or Columbo.
Instances of historic racial insensitivity are often easier to condemn than to understand. For example, The Jazz Singer (1927) has an odious minstrel sequence with Jolson in blackface. However, we should also note that Jolson's father, Cantor Rabinowitz, was played by Swedish actor Warner Oland.
There are two racial issues here. First is discrimination in hiring or crediting of minority talent. Second is the image of minorities as depicted in films of their day. Ironically, Hollywood was often guilty of lauding a given group while denying members of that group a chance to work. Oland went on to play Charlie Chan (1931-1937). Did the producers count themselves liberal by casting a Swede as both a pious Jew and a brilliant Chinese? Or did it never cross their minds? As for Hattie McDaniel, when film work stopped coming her way, she took over the radio role of "Beulah" from a white man and memorably said, "I'd rather play a maid than be one."