Racisms and Souths: John Ford’s Judge Priest

by zunguzungu

John Ford’s 1933 Judge Priest opens with a strange claim: the prologue floating across the screen after the credits notes–meta-textually–that this will be a film whose protagonist is “typical of the tolerance of that day and the wisdom of that almost vanished generation.”

Ah, the tolerance of the good old days! Yet while Will Rogers’s ability to play “typical” is not to be misunderestimated, “that day” turns out to be 1890 and that “vanished generation” turns out to be Kentuckians who fought for the confederacy. Turn that over in your pretty little head for a moment. How do you get “tolerant” out of a community which not only fought a war to perpetuate racial slavery but still (as the film makes clear) fight that war on a daily basis? How does that work? Ford plays some games with the framing; one might, if one were inclined, make the argument that putting the prologue explicitly in the voice of the writer, Irving Cobb, is a sort of Conradian way of opening up space between the auteur and the narrator, and this would be a very Fordian thing to do. But I’m not convinced by that argument; I don’t think you can watch this movie without coming to the conclusion that Ford more or less endorses what that writer is saying, and that a film with Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel playing the “darkey” roles that made them infamous is actually supposed to be about tolerance.

For example. At the start of the film, the villain is trying to jail the famously sloe-eyed Stepin Fetchit for stealing chickens, but to no avail: Rogers, the eponymous town judge, uses the awesome power of his transcendent folksiness to derail the trial, first by recalling how confederate officers once ordered their men to steal chickens, and then by segueing into a mediation on poultry theft as the existential key to the southern identity. After the trial has become a discussion of the best kind of bait to use on catfish, the camera cuts from the courthouse to a shot of Rogers and Fetchit walking down a country road, fishing poles in their hands, the iconic picture of a white gentleman and his darkey servant. This is, essentially, a microcosm of the entire movie: not only is the patriarchal order of the old south re-asserted–and the standard iconography of racial subjugation heartily endorsed–but this is done via a mechanism of reform, of distinguishing the good southerner from the bad southerner.

How, to be blunt, does this work? How is it that this mode of racial caricature, married to a certain “lost cause” figuration of southern identity, gets served up as a statement against prejudice and intolerance? And can we take it at its word that it is? The easy solution is simple: No! It’s a whitewash, a travesty of history, an apology for racial oppression, and a racist movie. And in some sense, it is all these things, I think. But while the simplest explanation may tend, all things being equal, to be the true one, it’s also the least interesting one, and I find it extremely interesting that a racist movie can also be against racism, or at least that it can think that it is. So rather than simply close down that discussion-and this is usually what calling a thing “racist” does-I want to open it up, to try to understand why.

For a start, let me go to David Roediger, again. Roediger’s argument in The Wages of Whiteness is that “whiteness” in the antebellum period was produced by making “blackness” into a very particular kind of fantasy (what he calls, via George Rawick, “a pornography of his former life”) and that this was a thing which people enjoyed performing and seeing performed in blackface. As the United States was industrializing, goes the argument, “white” workers were under incredible pressure to pattern their lives according to the needs of industrial discipline, which meant a lot of dramatic and traumatic changes in lifestyles. Instead of having lots of children to help out on the farm, for example, it was necessary to control sexuality and refrain from having kids you could not (in an urban environment) support. Instead of working by a rural timetable–that is, according to the seasons and relaxing when there was no work to do–urban workers had to learn to work all the time, because there was always work to do. Instead of enjoying drink, music, and the cameraderie of community, they had to learn to pinch their pennies instead of drinking them, to avoid the blandishments of impure entertainments, and to stay away from drinking halls and other houses of ill repute. This was a hard transition. The seventh and eighth chapters of Charles Sellers’ still awesome The Market Revolution do a good job of showing what a shocking period of adjustment this was for so many people (and why it happened so fast), as well as illustrating how cultural important this stressful experience was. But the central idea for me is that a Polonyian “Great Transformation” was happening to people who could remember, only a generation or two ago, a time when everything was different, when work didn’t so obviously and severely impinge upon one’s ability to have a good time.

Roediger’s argument, then, is that “white” people in the midst of this shocking transition not only longed for that time back when they didn’t work and worry all the time-a time within living memory-but they placed this nostalgia for the past on an image of blackness that could become a figure for that childlike, youthful, innocent, and carefree past. The thing that makes minstrelsy work as a cultural product, therefore, is not so much its racism, per se, but the way it uses “race” to figure something that could be both desirable and forbidden at the same time, something that a good white worker could only vicariously enjoy, but from which he could safely insulate himself. Blackface, a mask that could be put on and taken off, offered exactly this opportunity: a white person could enjoy the pleasures of the pre-industrial past, performed for him by a minstrel show, and then get up and work the next morning, secure in the knowledge that he was a securely white worker who would never do any of the things he had so enjoyed watching the night before. Like a suburbanite reading the National Geographic, the technology of the proscenium allowed spectators to both experience the forbidden and reassure themselves that they were not part of it, to inhabit the “blackness” being performed and distinguish themselves as different, as white. And this, goes the argument, whiteness is born.

Roediger’s argument takes place in the pre-civil war Jacksonian era, Sellers’ own period of focus, but it feels to me to be at least as appropriate a hermeneutic to use on the post-reconstruction South. After all, the abrupt end of chattel slavery and its replacement by a tenancy system was an extremely violent transition for everyone concerned, and blackface only flourished all the more in its wake. And as it did in the Jacksonian period, blackface could function as a powerful reinforcement of a social identity under threat by the invasion of capital from the north. Just as Sellers illustrates how canals, steamboats, and railroads integrated relatively self-sufficient local communities into larger capitalist markets, in ways that fundamentally (and traumatically) restructured them, the reconstruction of the battle-torn South involved a century-long process of tearing the heart out of old patterns of commerce and replacing them with industrialized, centralized, and capital-intensive forms of agriculture, a similarly traumatic process, and one which was so dominated by outside capital as to leave the “usa gainst them” metanlity at the heart of Southern politics.

It would be reasonable, then, to lightly paraphrase Barack Obama paraphrasing other people and suggest that this class of poor and defeated whites, who had no history of slave ownership themselves, would cling to the iconography of slavery and racial caricature as a means of dealing with this transition, of establishing that even though they were working like slaves–which was the essential thrust of the tenancy system–they were not, themselves, slaves, because they were not black. However politically inexpedient it was, Obama was more or less right in saying that cultural markers like guns and religion have to be seen as responses to economic pressure, as identities which an economically subjugated people might find useful in combatting the psychologically destructive effects of their subjugation. Similarly, the use of blackface as a cultural means of dealing with economic pressures becomes more and more legible the farther we remove it from the actual “event” of slavery itself, an institution that most blackface audiences had no direct experience with themselves.

I’ve wandered pretty far from Judge Priest, and it might seem like I’ve put aside the question I started with, which was how “tolerance” emerges from the interstices of a film that nostalgically “remembers” a patriarchal slave order. But the first step in making sense of that, I think, is to disassociate black face from slavery and understand it as an act of culture work which theorizes identity by reference to the desires and fears of a contemporary condition. As the opening to Judge Priest wants to argue, the good southerner is a person who–instead of economically exploiting black labor–participates in a racialized rebellion against that system of labor, going fishing instead. This allows the “Southerner” to not only render the stealing of chickens a “southern” cultural trait (thereby southernizing Fetchit) but something very much like the inverse: by rebelling against a system of exploitative labor (this time by Yankee capital), the Southerner takes on the guise of the mistreated slave.

A good parallel would be Huck and Jim, rafting away from responsibility and fishing together, even speaking the same dialect, and while they never come anywhere near to challenging the idea that “whiteness” and “blackness” are the sine qua non of their relationship, what those idenities can signify becomes something quite different by the process of their dialectic entanglement. If Jim becomes a human being (something I tend to think Twain discovered to his great surprise), then so too does Huck become a slave, an outsider, and a savage in need of being civilized. And like Huck and Jim, Rogers and Fetchit are just another iteration of that black/white pair so beloved of Leslie Fiedler, who located that symbolic structure at the heart of the American novel: by establishing the white man’s ability to share in his black boy’s resistance to capitalist bourgeois culture–as a mask he can put on and take off–racial difference gets located not in essential qualities, but in control over culture. Yet in doing so, the quiddity of that racial identity, the content of that mask, cuts deeply into the heart of ongoing questions about what exactly “southern” means.

When Mark Twain establishes his command of dialect in that fascinating front matter to
Huckleberry Finn (claiming an ethnographically voiced authority over dialect) he does what blackface does, establishing whiteness as inhering in the white person’s ability to dip into (but stay distinct from) other cultural reportoires. And in Judge Priest, it shouldn’t surprise that blackface is part of Will Rogers’ schtick: at one point, he “does” Fetchit’s voice as a way of deceiving his nephew’s rival, thereby clearing the way for the completion of the romance plot (and in the similarly nostalgic In Old Kentucky, Rogers plays opposite Bill Bojangles and at one point actually blacks up to escape from jail; another key plot element is Rogers’ character learning how to tap dance from Bojangles in order to impress his love interest). Yet in all cases, the economy of desire which this kind of culture work establishes is one in which, however central “black” and “white” have become, “Southern” becomes the most important term, and a term in which neither half of its dialectic is dispensable. This is important; we can still call it “racist” if we feel like that’s necessary, but if you compare it to stuff like Birth of a Nation, in which combatting the threat of miscegenation is the origin story of southern culture, or Gone With the Wind, which theorizes southern identity through a lily-white romance plot (and needs black caricatures around specifically to establish the whiteness of the South’s modern Adam and Eve), it should be clear that the very act of theorizing the south in such racist terms is an implicit argument against racial segregation. This is, in fact, what John Ford always said, and he got mighty pissed when people tried to tell him otherwise or called him racist in any sense. He had his flaws-the bizarre Prisoner of Shark Island, in fact, is exactly what Judge Priest isn’t-but it becomes easier to understand how Ford would go on to make movies like Donovan’s Reef and Sergeant Rutledge, without having to posit some kind of St. Paul on the road to Damascus narrative.

It also makes me particularly sad that the lynching scene was cut from Judge Priest. The film apparently originally contained a scene in which Rogers protected Fetchit from a mob of rampaging Southerners. The opening of the movie still does essentially the same work, asserting a kind of good white southerner against bad white southerner dichotomy which it uses the body of an infantilized black man to figure, but when that scene was cut by the studio-to Ford’s dismay-the particularly violent valence of that narrative was cut. And it’s to Ford’s credit that his original version of this film was willing to leaven its gauzy nostalgia with visceral brutality; even if such a lynching scene was played comedically (and Ford comedy is incredibly dark), it would be impossible for it to be anything other than what it is, impossible for it to be anything but an origin story of the South that proceeds from a very different tree of knowledge, with a very different kind of fruit.