Yesterday evening to wind down Christmas Day, I watched a classic movie called “Holiday Inn.” I believe it is the only movie in which Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby starred together. This is a dynamic combination which is why I bought the movie. However, I was shocked to find a “black face” scene in it. Bing himself put on black face which during 1942 when the film was made was not uncommon. The context of it seemed harmless enough because it was to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birth and how he freed the slaves. But even within this context, is it justified?
Here is an innocent movie whose plot has absolutely nothing to do with racial relations and yet there are clearly comments being made on the African American race. Although this scene is the most outright with its racism, Bing’s character in the movie also has an African American cook who he calls Mammy. In addition, when Bing’s character convinces his white female costar to perform their song in black face, her lines reflect a much deeper meaning than wanting to honor dear old Abe. As Bing spreads the black make-up onto her face, the main female character says how she’s so disappointed to have to wear this because it will make her look ugly.
On top of that, there is a clear disrespect for women as Mammy herself is given the pivotal lines of the story which encourages Bing’s character to fight for his “woman.” She explains to him that women don’t know what’s best for them until a man explains it to them in the right way. What way is that? And why have an African American woman share that information about women?
So do intentions matter? You bet they do! Is racism a thing of the past? In one of my last classes before the end of the semester a fellow student made a racist comment. They said it was in jest and I said that it didn’t matter. They continued to protest as I told them how once they get out into the real world and get a job, if they make comments like that, they are going to find themselves with few friends and no job. They finally conceded to admit their mistake.
We think we’ve come a long way and can use joking or words like “now don’t be offended” to cover up our prejudices, but in the end the intentions are still the same. Racism, no matter how it’s presented is wrong. Keep your eyes and ears out for it – it might be closer to home than you think!