Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks!

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I have always had an aversion to going to the movies.  I always knew why but those feeling wehe solidified when I took a class at FAMU entitled African-Americans in film taught by a great professor by the name of Derek Williams.  If you think Bamboozled by Spike Lee was revolting, you haven’t seen anything yet.  Remember Birth of a Nation? This propaganda piece by D.W. Griffith based on a novel “The Clansman” by the racist Thomas Dixon and thoroughly endorsed by president Woodrow Wilson was the greatest piece of anti-black propaganda ever produced in a motion picture .

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In this clip you are introduced to what is known as the “Lustful Glare.”  That is the long propagated stereotype of black men desiring white woman.  The funny thing about this picture is that most of the black faces that you see are not those of black people.  They are white people in blackface.  The basic theme of the picture is that blacks are out of control and only the Ku Klux Klan can restore order and save the day.  To this day, many organizations try to exhibit this picture at various film festivals.  In the history of American film making this is the absolute worst film made depicting blacks with Walt Disney’s Song of the South following a close second.  With this movie, many whites who had never had any dealings with blacks took the film literally and believed that it was an actual representation of blacks.  And did you notice the eating of all those yummy pork chops?

Song of the South has a unique distinction!  It was the first film to integrate animation with live action while unofficially being the only movie to be banned for sale in the United States.   James Baskett won an honorary Oscar for his portrayal of Uncle Remus which in its self is funny because there is a best actor category.  Uncle Remus fits the category of Tom who is happy to be where he is, on the plantation where he was once a slave.  Uncle Remus also befriends Jonny, the white son of the plantation’s owner, where he acts as a surrogate father singing songs and telling stories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox.  The underlying message of the movie as well as others of the period show that blacks are only happy when they still live under slavery conditions.  What is odd about the black cast is that they are truly back.  They go beyond blue black, they are blurple!

Way Down South tells the story of a young slave owner whose father tragically dies and struggles to keep his slaves and plantation intact.  Of course he is too young to run the plantation and an evil conservator is appointed to run the affairs.  Stymie of the Little Rascals shorts learns of the villain’s plan to sell the slaves and keep the money for himself and promptly alerts the young slave owner of the nefarious plans.  It was almost as painful to watch the slaves in mourning, learning they were to be sold and dealing with the death of their benevolent master.  If I was a slave I’d like to think that I would be happy over the death of massa.  What is truly sad is that the movie was written by Langston Hughes and star of the film Clarence Muse.  I am sure that the finished product was not what the writers intended.  Clarance Muse as Uncle Caton falls into the category of Tom because he is more concerned about his master than he is about himself.  Notice the eye rolling when he heard a voice other than that of the master and his son?

Stepin Fetchit gave rise to the most dehumanizing portrayal of blacks in early twentieth century films, the Coon.  The coon was portrayed as a lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate buffoon.  Some of the favorite activities of the coon character were stealing chickens, eating watermelon, and shooting crap.  Later versions of the coon were zip coons and urban coons.  These coons would wear outlandish zoot suits and the weapon of choice was a straight razor.  Other Famous coons were Mantan Moreland and even the great Louis Armstrong.

While black leaders of the time lambasted the image of the coon, one important development happened.  It allowed the emergence of Sidney Poitier to enter the scene.  Sidney was safe and often cast in roles as an asexual man who posed no threat to white masculinity.  But because of Sidney, he would open the door for the buck character a few years later.

The role of the mulatto is often portrayed as that of a tragic one.  Often trying to escape their black heritage and to pass for white, they are ultimately found  out and as a result they tend to lead lives that alienate them from the white world that they want to live in and cause great suffering to the black mother they desperately try to ignore.  Note – It is always a black mother with a white child.  Imitation of Life is the greatest picture to exploit this phenomena.  The great black filmaker Oscar Micheaux often explored this theme in his pictures.

The most enduring and visible negative representation is that of the mammy immortalized by the likes of Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers.  They were fircely loyal and always portrayed by ovrweight women clad from head to toe in black dresses and white head scarves.  This was an overt practice to eliminate any thought that a servant could be attractive and thus capture the eye of the man of the house.  Some of the worst moments would be an encounter between a mammy and a coon.  When once asked whe she took on such degrading roles, Hattie Mcdainel said “I’d rather make $500 a week playing a maid than make $50 a week being A maid!”

The next group of characters to emerge from Hollywood was the buck after years of watching a docile Sidney Poitier.  Notable bucks were Ron O’neal as Superfly, Richard Roundtree as Shaft, and Melvin Van Peebles as Sweetback.  They were cast as gangsters, hustlers, and pimps.  Other notables were Jim Brown (Cleveland Browns runningback), Moses Gunn, and on the lady side, actresses such as Pam Grier.  This was the era of the Blaxploitation films but the money was still controlled by white producers.

Even now, when we have the money to produces our own films, we still produce the likes of Tyler Perry’s fictional character Madea.  This drag queen is about as funny as watching paint dry.  This is why I do not patronize Hollywood in any shape for or fashion.  With the exception of a Denzel Washington picture and even then, I wait until it comes out on video.  However, I must make one confession. I am a huge Clint Eastwood fan and I will write about him very shortly.

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3 Comments

Filed under Society

3 responses to “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks!

  1. spencercourt

    Very nice history of racism in film Nick.

    I saw Secret Life of Bees, and if you’ve not seen it I highly recommend it. It’s at the dollar movies.

    Dakota Fanning is a white teen growing up during the civil rights movement in South Carolina with her sorry father after her mom died. She runs away from home and ends up living with an independent family of black women who have a thriving honey business.

    I can’t say more without giving away the plot but it is a fine film. I think Fakename said it won 2008 “People’s Choice” Award for best film of the year.

  2. eehard

    I read the book a few years ago as a part of my Intro to Religion class. I hate to ruin a good book by watching the movie adaptation. I am going to break with tradition and go see Clint Eastwood’s Grand Torino. I hear it will be his last on screen performance.

  3. fakename2

    I’m definitely going to see Gran Torino myself.

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