Whitening Blackface

Like to pretend racism never existed in Hollywood? Flip on the cable box. Movie-revival channels such as American Movie Classics (AMC), Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and the Cartoon Network are bowdlerizing cinema's racist past by trimming out movie scenes featuring ethnic caricatures or refusing to screen these films altogether. The latest incident arose two weeks ago, when the Fox Movie Channel (FMC) cancelled a planned summer festival of the 1930s Charlie Chan film series because the network was “made aware” that the pulpy classics “may contain situations or depictions that are sensitive to some viewers.”

“In the hope that this action will evoke discussion about the progress made in our modern, multicultural society,” concluded FMC's self-congratulatory press release, “we invite you to please visit our website to send us your thoughts on the matter.”

While some film geeks groused about the missed opportunity to see the rarely shown B serial, many media observers expressed relief. Particularly happy were Asian American advocacy groups for whom the Charlie Chan series—which had white men Warner Oland and Sidney Toler donning yellowface and spouting dictums so clichéd they're not even worthy of fortune cookies—remains a grotesque legacy of Hollywood's Asian-character aesthetic. One such activist told the Los Angeles Timesthat the Charlie Chan movies and other yellowface depictions such as Mickey Rooney's buck-toothed romp as a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany's are “no less hurtful and dehumanizing for us than blackface has been to African Americans.”

That's true. And that's why viewers should have the opportunity to view Charlie Chan and all other vintage filmic racial stereotypes. Uncut.

The relationship between race and American cinema is an uneasy one, of course, with many important innovations or memorable moments usually occurring in films with blatantly prejudiced themes. D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), for example, introduced such now-commonplace, then-revolutionary concepts as the closeup, the tracking shot and the idea of cinema as epic; it also glorified the Ku Klux Klan. The Jazz Singer (1927), while not the first film to employ dialogue, did popularize its use—and had star Al Jolsen smear on blackface and howl a minstrel tune for the finale. And many of the first starring roles minorities attained in Hollywood usually were as stereotypes that Americans associated with the actors' ethnicity, such as Lupe Vélez's “Mexican Spitfire” shorts of the late 1930s, the Charlie Chan serials (which cast real-live Asians Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung as Chan's No. 1 and No. 2 sons), and the Stepin Fetchit catalog.

Movie-revival cable television networks rarely air such racially insensitive films because executives fear negative publicity. These networks also cut out offensive incidents in programs they do show in a sort of preemptive move against complaints. The most prominent culprit is the Cartoon Network, which plays many of its classic Warner Bros., Paramount and MGM cartoons sans racist scenes, or—in the case of the Warner Bros.' Speedy Gonzalez series—never shows them. The network even goes as far as redubbing the voice of Tom's black female owner in the Tom and Jerry cartoons so that she no longer sounds like a Hattie McDaniel mammy and gives the character a less “black” timbre.

Bugs Bunny uttering grunts like a cinematic redskin is racist, to be sure. And Toler/Oland pretending to be Chinese was ridiculously wrong. But to ban such scenes or films from viewing is attempting to rewrite history in order to make it more palatable for the present. As the FMC press release acknowledges, the Chan series was filmed “at a time when racial sensitivities were not as they are today.'' So why try to hide the past? Hollywood became successful because it dramatized the thoughts of mainstream audiences. And audiences for years demanded that onscreen minorities be subservient to their white massas. Denying this reality is ignoring the racist foundation of American cinema—and the United States, for that matter. Showing these films on cable television is a painful but vivid reminder of why racial discord is still a major problem in this country.

Besides, pulling Chan and his stereotypical brethren creates a slippery slope that could deem most Golden Age films eligible for outlawing. If Chan is offensive because it had actors of one race portraying another, what to do, then, with Touch of Evil, Orson Welles' mystery masterpiece set in a seedy U.S.-Mexico border town that also happens to feature an outlandishly hilarious Charlton Heston in brownface playing a Mexican official? Or Lawrence of Arabia, were Brit Alec Guinness took on the role of a hook-nosed Bedouin and Mexican Anthony Quinn that of a grumpy sheik? Racism is part of our history—and history ain't always pretty.

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