Plus ca change
My first thought was, wow, Shirley Temple lives. The part where she wags at her finger (at about 1:03) nearly made me lose my lunch, and watching her prance around Jamaica (I guess) with her little minstrel band of happy darkies has thoroughly destroyed my hope for humanity.
It got me thinking, though; the things that struck me when I was watching Judge Priest (blogged here) and The Little Colonel (blogged here) was how weird it was that movies like these are actually meant to be fables of reconciliation. And this is what makes them surprisingly live wires today, I suspect. One branch of Hollywood’s race thinking has often been about portraying black people as rapists, of course; draw a line between Birth of a Nation and Stepin Fetchit’s most unwatchable moments and you get a narrative of black masculinity first as a threat to true womanhood and then as a threat blotted out by a fantasy of black impotence, a threat registered by its hysterical denial. The first narrative is pretty much dead; not completely, but on life support. But the second narrative is alive and well.
The character Bojangles played so many times, for example, a descendant of Uncle Tom and a predecessor for what Spike Lee called the “super-duper magical negro” is still practically required. Instead of fearing and denying the problem of black masculinity, Temple’s various pairings with Bojangles were about finding a way to imagine a black presence without having to worry about a thing: old enough to be a wise uncle but not young enough to be a sexual partner, Bojangles fixes the white protagonist’s problems without ever having problems or desires of his own, becoming a simple adjunt to her desires, and her plot. I think that sort of narrative is still really attractive for people who want to be liberals but who are still basically uncomfortable with difference, and with black difference in particular.
That obscenity above isn’t really about black masculinity of course — though the black dad does make a threatening appearance in the classic “saving brown women from brown men” way — yet it is about making black stuff safe for white people, and it does this precisely by ostensibly being about something else, by working through framing. This is the other link to Temple: by displacing the black performer with a white one, placing her in a position of authority and power over the people from whom she’s appropriated, and then making clear that the black people in the scene are subject to her in some sense, it makes blackness legible only as a marginal presence. It isn’t enough, then, to say that this video isn’t about blackness; it’s about not being about blackness, about taking blackness and transforming it into not black anymore, while retaining that blackness in the frame as a kind of shell emptied out of its content.
Of this, there’s a long tradition. For example, you have the great Marlene Dietrich singing “Hot Voodoo” from Blonde Venus, in which she emerges from a gorilla suit to demonstrate how extremely white she is:
A recent find for me is Fred Astaire’s “Slap that Bass” from Shall We Dance, in which he seems to get some soul from hanging out with the black crew members in the belly of a cruise ship, yet (as the scene goes on) comes first to take center stage and then simply replace them, dancing up and away until they’re forgotten and he gets to commune with modernity without their help:
There’s also “Like a Prayer” by Madonna, which is in some ways even more gross; it starts with racist violence against the idea of interracial sex, but goes on to co-opt the religious moral authority of the civil rights movement in service of white sexuality, transforming the lynched black man into a de-sexed jesus icon and making the female gospel choir into a backdrop for Madonna’s writhings:
Each of these are different, and one could spend a long time thinking about the particularities of each enunciation. But there’s also something to be gained by placing them in a continuum, looking at the ways they do analogous work differently.