Ben's Top Pick for July
SLAVERY IN FILM - July 18 & July 25
The scrolling text during the prologue of Gone with the Wind is an early indicator that slavery is about to be whitewashed, that its brutal truth will slip away majestically with the setting sun on the horizon of Tara:
"There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South...
Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow..
Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave...
Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind..."
For many classic movie fans, myself included, Gone with the Wind is a picture that pulls us in two distinct directions, perhaps appropriate for Hollywood's signature Civil War epic. On one hand, it is the epitome of Golden Age filmmaking; the flag bearer of film's finest year, 1939; and a clear signal sent to the world that Hollywood was the gold standard for cinematic storytelling.
Then there's the other side--Gone with the Wind gently caresses slavery into a piece of warm Americana, celebrating the false equivalence of "Knights and their Ladies Fair" to the relationship "of Master and of Slave," as if slavery were a nostalgic piece of labor history, like the United Auto Workers and Ford in Detroit during the 1970s.
To help us reconcile these disparate images of Gone with the Wind, film historian Donald Bogle joins me for two nights of programming to contextualize how Hollywood has handled depictions of slavery in movies. Donald, a longtime friend of TCM and a frequent contributor to the annual TCM Classic Film Festival, teaches at both NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and the University of Pennsylvania. He's written extensively on black faces in cinema, notably Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in Film, as well as a 1997 biography on Dorothy Dandridge.
Donald provides the context needed to fully appreciate not only Hattie McDaniel's Oscar®-winning performance as Mammy, but Oscar Polk's Pork and Butterfly McQueen as Prissy, a performance that often induces repeated cringes. On the first night, we'll look at more than Gone with the Wind, examining both a silent slavery picture, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927), as well as--believe it or not--a Shirley Temple slavery movie, The Littlest Rebel (1935), which includes an unfortunate moment of Shirley in blackface, though to the film's credit, it's not done entirely for laughs.
We start to see some progress in night two, albeit slight, in The Foxes of Harrow (1947), with Rex Harrison and Maureen O'Hara; and Band of Angels (1957), starring Clark Gable, Yvonne DeCarlo and Sidney Poitier. Like Gone with the Wind, both movies go out of their way to antiseptically anaesthetize slave owning Southerners. Indeed, in all three movies, they're heroic characters. But there's a far more notable change in the other two movies Donald and I will present on the second night. Tamango (1959) stars Dorothy Dandridge as a slave owned by Curt Jurgens, the captain of a slave ship bound for Cuba from Africa with its human cargo below. Dandridge is in far better circumstances than the slaves held down in the hole, but she's still forced to choose sides in a battle with a predetermined outcome.
Which brings us to our final movie, Richard Fleischer's jaw-droppingly brutal Mandingo (1975), with James Mason and Ken Norton, a blunt force trauma picture that, for some, is as challenging to watch as Gone with the Wind, but for diametrically opposite reasons. There's tremendous value in seeing the two movies together--and there's no better person to contextualize them for us than Donald Bogle. So, I hope you'll join us for these two important and informative nights of programming.
by Ben Mankiewicz