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How to Think About Classic Hollywood’s “Problematic” Movies

There’s an admirable new series, titled “Reframed,” that’s playing Thursday nights on TCM. It features the channel’s hosts—the film scholar Jacqueline Stewart alongside Ben Mankiewicz, Dave Karger, Alicia Malone, and Eddie Muller—contextualizing classic movies that may be “troubling and problematic.” The series, with introductions and post-broadcast discussions, débuted last week with an obvious but nonetheless crucial selection, “Gone with the Wind.” Stewart’s post-broadcast discussion with Muller, a film-noir specialist, is fruitful; its most salutary effect is, quietly but powerfully, to demolish the historical illusion of the so-called mainstream. The discussion is launched by Mankiewicz (yes, relation to the protagonist of “Mank”—he’s his grandson), who quotes Malcolm X saying that, when he was in the theatre watching “Gone with the Wind” and saw the performance of Butterfly McQueen, who played an enslaved woman named Prissy, he “felt like crawling under the rug.” Malcolm’s reaction, Stewart says, exemplifies the fact that there was “a range of responses to the film—it was just not universally praised.” Which is to say, it was only among white viewers, critics, and journalists that the movie’s adulation was both virtually unanimous and oblivious to its harmful distortions.

Many of the films in the series have sequences that should make any viewer cringe now, such as the blackface routines in “The Jazz Singer” and “Swing Time” (by Al Jolson and Fred Astaire, respectively) and the depiction of Native Americans in “The Searchers”—and that doubtless made many viewers cringe at the time of the films’ release, even if their voices were hardly reported in the “mainstream” (i.e., white-run) press. The “Reframed” series has the virtue of putting a warning label on those movies, a skull-and-crossbones sticker indicating that the contents of these movies are poisonous and should be approached with caution, not casually or heedlessly consumed. But there’s another kind of Hollywood film and another kind of toxic cinematic practice that tend to fly under the radar of critical reframing, because their sins are more ones of omission than of commission: the large number of classic Hollywood movies that give characters of color no substantial identities or discourse at all. That silence resounds appallingly throughout the history of Hollywood filmmaking, and it has to do with a fundamental dereliction of aesthetics, one that should call into question Hollywood’s artistic influence in the world of movies to this day.

A telling example is found in the drama “Come and Get It,” from 1936, directed mostly by Howard Hawks and then, after he was fired, by William Wyler. It’s the story of a Wisconsin logging foreman named Barney (Edward Arnold), who jilts the woman he loves, Lotta (Frances Farmer), in order to marry his boss’s daughter; many years later, having become a paper-mill tycoon, he meets the woman’s daughter (also played by Farmer, and also named Lotta) and falls in love with her. There’s a scene in which Barney, the younger Lotta, and two others travel together by rail, from Wisconsin to Chicago, in a private train car. There, a Black porter ushers them in and awaits orders from Barney, who addresses him as “Snowflake” before cheerfully dismissing him. Barney’s casually racist bonhomie may be in keeping with the character and the times (the action is set in 1907); the question is what the porter himself has to say about it. At some point in the journey, the porter would inevitably be in the company of other Black employees, and they would talk to one another—in ways that would obviously differ drastically from the way that they’d address the train’s white patrons. But the film never makes the porter or his perspective a part of the story; he is merely there to get the foursome into their private car and, from there, into the train’s public dining car.

Read entire article at The New Yorker