Saturday, February 16, 2008

Imagery Saturdays: Blackface

By Odienator

The title is a misnomer. It's Imagery Saturday, but there won't be any images of the titular condition. You know what it looks like.

Instead, I want to tell you a Presidents' Day story. Presidents Day is Monday, and if you're like me, you've got a nice long weekend to relax. I'm doing that right now. In fact, I'm nowhere near this blog. As you read this, I'm on a much needed mini-vacation until Monday. (I'm on vacation--Black History Mumf is not! It's called planning ahead, folks.)

So herewith, Odienator's Presidents Day Tale.

When I was a kid, I was a big Fred Astaire fan. I liked Gene Kelly too, and I was in awe of the Nicholas Brothers. Basically, I liked tap dancers. I even took lessons, which until this very moment, very few people knew. Whenever Top Hat or Flying Down to Rio came on, I'd want to watch it. Hell, Astaire sang my favorite Oscar winning Best Song, It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp. (Just kidding! It's The Way You Look Tonight.)

One of my favorite Astaire movies at the time was a 1942 movie he did with Bing Crosby called Holiday Inn. They ran it 9 million times on the independent stations in NYC, and I watched it probably 7 million times. I thought it was a great movie, and the concept of a place that celebrated all the holidays intrigued me as a kid. It was full of Irving Berlin songs, and I knew Berlin and I shared a birthday. Plus, Bing sings White Christmas, which should have been a warning to me. I always said singers tell you their secrets in their songs. Michael Jackson sang P.Y.T. ("I want to love you, PYT, pretty young thing..." Uh-huh.) R. Kelly said he didn't find anything wrong with a little bump and grind. We didn't realize he meant size, not quantity. (Just check the first line of that song--Robert's confessing to you and you didn't listen.)

Bing dreamed of a White Christmas, and it took PBS to show me just how White all the holidays at the Holiday Inn were. The independent station had Holiday Inn run through all the holidays it depicted except one. Since this was in the days before IMDB, the Internet and VHS rentals, I would never have known anything was missing. It's an old movie; I didn't expect anything to be cut out of it. IMDB spoils the surprise for you if you go to their listing for this film. Thank goodness for PBS. They ruined the movie for me by showing me the light.

This was back in the day when the P in PBS didn't stand for punk ass. PBS was where I saw my first foreign movies, uncut and uncensored. PBS ran All That Jazz. PBS had those African National Geographic specials where the women were topless and the guys' dicks were so big they caused my cousin to faint in front of her TV. The old PBS, home of Big Bird and Big Dick, not that Elmo shit channel we have now, the one afraid to run More Tales of the City. Holiday Inn was coming on PBS, and I couldn't wait to see it without the commercials!

The movie ran as I remembered it, but then PBS revealed that something new had been added. There was a Lincoln's Birthday number about which Channel 5 never told me. Bing Crosby came out in blackface and sang an Irving Berlin number about Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves. There's a mammy character (whom I did know about prior to this) who sings a part of it from her kitchen, and soonafter, Bing is joined by co-star Marjorie Reynolds. She too is in blackface, with giant pickaninny braids in her hair. She bops around in a minstrel fashion as they sing the song. My description of this number does little to express just how horrific it really is.

I watched Reynolds and Der Bingle in utter shock. It was like finding out that the guy I looked up to had turned out to be a serial killer. I was 11 years old and movies were my thing. I fell in love with them because I hadn't yet been hit by puberty. But at that age, I was coming to the realization of what it meant to be who I was, a Black male, and all the ramifications that were associated with it. Sure, I had been told before what it meant, but it's nothing like discovering it for yourself. Here I'd been, devoting time to this movie whenever it came on, getting people to watch it with me when it did, and just enjoying it to no end only to discover there's a fucking blackface number in it, and not just any blackface number, one of the worst I have ever seen.

I have not seen Holiday Inn since.

This raises an interesting question for me. I always try to view movies in the context of the time in which they were made. Jimmy Cagney appears very briefly in blackface in Yankee Doodle Dandy, but I have to say I still love Cagney and I still like that movie. [Ed. note: Cagney's character is portrayed by a younger actor in that scene, not Cagney.] Ben Vereen even came on TV in blackface once (and my mother damn near pulled an Elvis on the TV). I'd read and seen that several Black singers of the 20's also appeared in blackface. So why did it bother me so much in this movie's incarnation? Perhaps because it was so unnecessary. It felt like the makers of Holiday Inn merely wanted to humiliate Black people, turning Lincoln's emancipation into a hideous Jim Crow cartoon.

So, was I being done a favor by having the scene censored from me? I'd be inclined to say yes, but I know better. I'm not 11 years old anymore, and life has whipped my ass enough times for me to know better. Like it or not, this is what Hollywood was up to in 1942. It was perfectly acceptable back then, and while I may find it repulsive, it certainly shouldn't be removed. Why should we be shielded from it? If nothing else, it's a reminder of where we were and how far we had and have to go.

So that's my President's Day story. It's probably not what you were expecting here at Black History Mumf, but if you figured I'd be predictable, y0u haven't been paying attention.

Your Homework assignment:

Watch BET. The more things change...


Anonymous said...

Browsing the tubes as I fast-forward past the infamous "Abraham" scene. I am interested to hear more about black people performing in blackface. I had never heard of that. Why on earth do you think they chose to do it? And what's wrong with the Supremes anyway?

Anonymous said...

I do not recall Cagney in blackface in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Cagney played the adult George M. Cohan.

There is a brief scene in the movie that shows the Cohan family onstage, in blackface. In the scene Cohan is a child, played by either Henry Blair (Cohan at age 7), or Douglas Croft (Cohan at age 13).

Correct me if I am wrong, because I make the leading website about blackface, and want to provide correct information to the public.

odienator said...

bambizzoozled, you are correct. Yankee Doodle Dandy was on TCM and it is Cohan as a child who appears in blackface, not Cagney himself. I don't know why I remembered it the way I depicted in this piece, but thank you for the correction.

You run the leading website on blackface? That's interesting. I wrote this piece (and it's one of my favorites in the two year series) because I wanted to address how blackface made me feel, but more importantly, to discuss the dangers of taking it out of the movies in which it appeared. Learning of that number in Holiday Inn felt like betrayal. I haven't seen the picture in over 25 years.

After your post, I thought I should re-check my other reference to blackface. I called my mother (whose memory is better than mine) and verified that Ben Vereen did appear in blackface on TV. He was doing a tribute to the guy Kander and Ebb paid homage to with Chicago's Mr. Cellophane. I also recall, courtesy of That's Entertainment III, that Joan Crawford did blackface. You'd know more than I would.

Anonymous said...

If you paid attention when you watched the uncensored version of "Holiday Inn" you would have known that the Abraham Lincoln holiday tribute was not planned to be in blackface, but was changed at the last minute when Crosby's character learned that Astaire, his rival for Marjorie Reynolds, would be in the audience. He then insisted on doing the scene in blackface hoping to prevent Astaire from recognizing Reynolds. I guess some people have to see a film 7 million and two times to understand the plot.

Anonymous said...

using blackface to hide something is still BS and does not make it okay as "that's the plot." it's a racist piece of garbage.

Anon said...

This is a very difficult subject. The depiction in the Abraham scene is repulsive, no question. But it is a part of the film as released, and a such a snapshot of history, good or bad. I work in a field that involves interpretation and preservation of historic sites. I have often said to my colleagues "history is not pretty." History is what actually happened, not what we wish had happened. I have been involved in projects involving structures related to slavery. Site operators, or interest groups have sometimes wanted to sanitize those sites by eliminating those buildings because of the uncomfortable subject that it forces us to acknowledge. We have steadfastly refused because it is part of what actually happened. And it can be used to educate. I respect anyone who refuses to watch Holiday Inn because of this scene. But I also think it should be presented in its entirety as a true representation of attitudes that sadly existed at that time. I would support all presentations being accompanied with a disclaimer/warning that can be make this a teaching moment.

odienator said...

Anon, I agree that these things should not be excised from these films. Above, I wrote:

"Like it or not, this is what Hollywood was up to in 1942. It was perfectly acceptable back then, and while I may find it repulsive, it certainly shouldn't be removed. Why should we be shielded from it? If nothing else, it's a reminder of where we were and how far we had and have to go."