Sunday, June 05, 2016

Watching old Hollywood movies and shaking my head at the "racism"

i can't resist it--Cleopatra is on TCM.  It's on so I can look at the spectacle, not listen to inane dialogue.  Cleo is being drawn into Rome on a "float" shaped like the Sphinx, and being pulled by hundreds of slaves/warriors.  Wow.  This was the most expensive movie up to this time, $44 million, I think I read. 

The entrance of Cleo, AKA Elizabeth Taylor (still beautiful but way too old for the part and starting to put on the pounds) was preceded by dancing by scores of Africans in provocative dress.  I couldn't help think of Beyonce.  Please don't take that wrong--the camera focused on one woman dancer who was doing some pretty Beyonce moves; I've seen enough video clips to know.  True native dancers would not have worn bathing suit style outfits that were salacious enough to titillate the crowd but not hackle the censors.  If such dancers had really preceded Cleo, they would have been naked or more covered. 

The bad side of watching TCM movies is that we come face to face with how, even in my childhood, African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics were portrayed so, well, insensitively.  I am not sure it was racist, although it may seem so today.  It was just exploitative, I think.  The subtext is "we will use non-whites in ways that recognize they exist in society but rarely as human beings, only as roles."  Maids, porters, farm workers, Chinese restaurant servers, not schoolteachers, educated persons, business owners, even though there were many such immigrants and minorities. 

We watched Showboat the other night, the 1936 version, and that one is probably more sensitive than most--the African Americans actually have lines that move the plot along, but the "shiftless" male with the long-suffering domestic wife (in this case Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel) made me uncomfortable. I can only think of a few pre-1970s films where the black character is portrayed as a good family man with a photo of his family in his wallet like a white man would.  (Lifeboat by Alfred Hitchcock, one of his best).  Showboat is at its core about the divide between the races. 

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