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Some Things You Just Can’t Censor

January 10, 2011

There’s been a furor recently over the decision of one publishing company to issue an edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn with certain redactions—i.e., “slave” for “nigger” and etcetera. It could be an interesting conversation; sadly, I think most people really miss the point in the discourse about American media, art and narrative in the context of the American identity and racism.

The question is less about whether language in Huckleberry Finn is racist. Certainly one could argue that the use of the term “nigger”, which was considered pejorative by Twain’s time, is used artfully in the context of the book as a critique of the mores of race at the time. And that in a sea of awful people, Jim is certainly the most moral, and that his emotional landscape is well-explored. These are the two main strands of defense from the charge of the book’s racism.

But there are other problems with this book, stemming from a deeper,  more troublesome racism than simple pejoratives and aggravated by the fact that, though now buried in history and multiple re-prints, the current iteration of Twain’s book is already censored. Mark Twain’s book, as he envisioned and directed it to print, is no longer available. In that volume, African-Americans, in the form of Jim, foremost, are nothing but a series of iconic images of black subordination and ugly stereotype–and they were commissioned and heartily approved by Twain. This glaring echo of the deep racism that suffused the era in which Twain was writing, was later “corrected” to fit the popular depiction of the image of Mark Twain of later eras.

The illustrator for the original 1885 publication of the book, E.W. Kemble, later became famous for his [in today’s view ludicrously offensive] portrayals of African-Americans, “Kemble’s Coons”, “A Coon Alphabet”, “Coontowns” and others.

Kemble was chosen personally by Twain, and his images enthusiastically approved of by the writer. But Kemble’s Jim is almost always depicted as wide-eyed and gape-mouthed.

It’s quite possible that Twain, as others comment, was quite a progressive thinker, and did indeed loathe the treatment of African-Americans. But it seems that even the remarkable Twain couldn’t escape the racism at the heart of 19th century America. Twain could imbue his African American character with a just and moral heart, but he couldn’t give him an intellect that could match that of the other characters in the work.

In one scene in particular, the reader is treated to Twain’s negative view of the intellectual capacity of African-Americans when Huck fakes his death, and then, inconceivably, convinces Jim that it was nothing but a dream. Twain’s idea that Jim could be so easily convinced of such a thing, is an uncomfortable detail usually skipped over when it comes time to laud the writer for his heart-felt depiction of African-Americans. Superstition, in fact, serves as Jim’s main way of understanding the world, combined with foolish boasts and exaggeration. We are also briefly told of how Tom once fooled Jim into thinking that witches stole his hat, and informed that Jim himself, as a classical fool, embellished the story to the point where the witches had ridden him like a horse all over the country. Other African Americans, of similar mental stature, came far and wide to hear this story. Throughout the book, Jim is driven to odd and foolish acts by simple superstition.

In another scene, Jim is an iconic image of black superstition and subservience.

We see a hysterical Jim on his knees in an image that has typified (and continues to typify) the representation of African-Americans and other people of color, especially in film and television.

Such scenes are fairly accurately illustrated by Kemble. Twain was, in fact, happy with the results of the illustrations, although he had sent previous drafts back. Of the final drawings, Twain remarked, “I knew Kemble had it in him…this batch of pictures is rattling good. They please me exceedingly.” Kemble made his name with Finn and became the country’s preeminent “negro” illustrator, going on to create iconic racist imagery of post-reconstruction era print media–what Michael Patrick Hearn calls “a national cesspool of xenophobia and bigotry.” As Stephen Railton notes:

In what he [Kemble] says there we hear a racism so deeply held and so naive that it is not even faintly aware of itself, especially when he talks about the white boy whom he hired to pose for all the book’s characters, and how much that boy enjoyed impersonating “Jim”: “he would jam his little black wool cap over his head, shoot out his lips and mumble coon talk”

Its ironic, then, that those arguing against the current effort to censor Twain’s work are almost certainly only familiar with a previously censored work, excised of these Sambo-like images, as culture and times turned away from such obvious and derogatory imagery.

Kemble was only conveying quite accurately the characterizations that Twain himself created, something people seem to blind themselves to when discussing the book for various reasons. Perhaps they excuse such characterizations as a product of the times, and consider that the positive virtues of the Jim character outweigh the stepinfetchit detritus. But the book remains problematic. While it shouldn’t be censored (again), it certainly shouldn’t be described in the glowing terms it continues to be as a discourse on racism. How it continues to be is a mystery that can only be solved by investigating the modern primacy that such depictions continue to enjoy.

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Something about the Twain discussion echoed in the new Coen Brothers film True Grit for me.

I don’t think its an exaggeration to say that the Coen brothers are directors who have defined the modern concept of film, and their ouvre is tremendous when compared to most filmmakers—they’ve produced, directed and written one film on an average of 14 months since the late eighties. By any measure, they are probably the most economically and artistically successful filmmakers that have ever put their minds to the medium. Film-goers of all kinds love Coen Brothers films, as do the critics. In terms of content, as well, they are uniquely cohesive. They write, produce and direct most of their films. In short, they really do make films in their entirety, unlike so many other film-makers, who are either confined to directing or writing, but rarely dare to aspire to both.

Which is why their issues with race should seem so obvious. Of the seventeen films they have been responsible for, none have had a non-white lead or significant protagonist. None have dealt with issues concerning non-white communities. More significantly, many of their films do include people of color in peripheral roles, but as objects of derision, exotic inscrutability, violence or comedy. The Asian American character in Fargo, for example, supplied for the comic relief, apparently, of an Asian American speaking with a northern midwest accent. Again, in A Serious Man, Asians provide comic relief but receive no substantive character development. In No Country for Old Men, “Mexicans” are the butt of jokes “I’ve heard a coyote won’t eat a Mexican”, and function as the object and cause of murder throughout the movie. And the film seems to imply that narcotics based violent crime emerged from Mexico and came to attack the US, a country unprepared for such levels of mayhem. Latinos are nearly voiceless but for two scenes in the film that cannot even be counted as dialogue in any real way. This is in contrast to highly nuanced and fascinating White characters of all moral persuasions, lovingly explored throughout the ponderous film.

True Grit stands out among these works for simple invisibility and irrelevance of non-white characters. It can certainly be argued that the Coens perhaps intended to depict the racist ideas of the time, and the racist White characters such times would create–that any hero from such a period would be indelibly stained with racist views and acts. But its the film’s perspective, not the characters, which seem to harbor antagonism to non-white characters, as if in trying to convey the racist realism of the 19th century, the film itself grew to appreciate it. A black character is condescendingly dismissed by a fourteen year old girl in the beginning of the film. Minutes later a scene is carefully constructed to show the last words of three men about to be hanged. The dialogue of first two of the men, both White, is well-written and nuanced for such inconsequential characters in the film. The third man about to hang, however, is gruffly and angrily interrupted just as he begins his soliloquy, and dies in silence; he is Native American. While the dialogue of the two White men give us insights into the kinds of crimes they committed and why, we never know anything about the Native American, except that he manages to sing a few lines of an indigenous song before he dies.

Later, the Cogburn character is shown kicking and beating Native American children; in and of itself, this moment could have been portrayed as the disgusting act of a bigot that it seems; some viewers and critics may yet argue that it was. And yet, the children are seemingly unaffected by the violence, neither crying out or complaining. In fact, they are portrayed in exactly the same light as the racist’s idea of Native Americans–sub-humans that can be treated like dogs and be none the poorer for it. The young female protagonist exchanges gazes with their vacuous expressionless faces–these are not just depictions of racists interacting with non-whites, these are also racist depictions of non-whites.Despite the violence this armed man has shown them, they show no fear when he returns, to again beat them. And they stand idly by, while the man who just beat them and his companion discuss the information that he has just learned.

This is reminiscent of a scene from the deeply racist John Ford film The Searchers, in which a protagonist, in a fit of anger, violently kicks a Native American character down a hillside. In both films, there is no commentary about the morality of the act, and, more importantly, no reaction either verbal or physical by the Native American characters. These white protagonists go on to be charming heroes, while we never see our Native American targets of abuse again.

Most film reviews that I’ve read of True Grit miss such facts, concentrating instead on the concept that this is attention to detail. But what remains interesting to me is that after nearly a century and a half after Mark Twain’s work, we’re still settling for realistic portrayals of white racism from earlier times at the cost of substantive and interesting portrayals of the non-whites they abuse. And we still fail to see how our self-satisfaction with our race discourse has kept us frozen in space and time, in a race-discourse not much different than it was fifty years ago.

What will future generations say when it comes to viewing our deeply racist society, so comfortable now with the exclusion of non-white voices and characters in mainstream films that it is no longer commented on? Will they ask, why did they so consistently make these films about the racist White people of yesterday, excusing their bigotry as a time period eccentricity, while constructing roles for them that can only be seen as heroic? And why did filmmakers rarely, if ever, make these same films from the perspective of the dismissed African-American servant or the executed Native American or the Native Americans on whose land the entire action of True Grit occurs? Why are there still no action films about the thousands of African-Americans who fought with the abolitionist British against the enslaving American colonists? Why no thrillers about the Underground Railroad, or uplifting films about Chinese labor movements against the railroads? The list goes and on and on. In fact, there is no shortage of eras housing great stories of the lives of the people of color who have inhabited this nation alongside the White objects of hegemonic narratives. There is simply almost as little will to make narratives about them today, as there was in Mark Twain’s day.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Gator90 permalink
    January 11, 2011 8:52 pm

    Nice post. Interesting point that HF is indeed a racist book, for reasons having little to do with the word I dare not even type. I don’t recall how old I was when I read HF, but I remember feeling oddly embarrassed by what a laughable buffoon Jim was. Thinking about it now, I can imagine an African-American reader finding it extremely hard to take, whether “that word” is in there or not.

    I’m reminded of my attempt in my early 20s to read Oliver Twist, which I aborted due to the noxious anti-Semitism. This is a good book, I thought, but there are other good books that won’t turn my stomach this way, and life’s just too short for this. Of course OT and HF are very different books, and Jim certainly a more charitably conceived character than Fagan, but still.

  2. omooex permalink*
    January 11, 2011 11:50 pm

    I’m not sure how people miss it. Its one thing to use it as an example of teaching about that moment in time, of how limited even good-natured attitudes about African Americans were, and how unlikely it was to see a nuanced, interesting portrayal of an African American. But the way I’ve seen most people elevate it to a timeless comment on racism….I just don’t get it.

  3. Gator90 permalink
    January 12, 2011 2:59 am

    Chalk it up to America’s limitless capacity for self-congratulation, I guess. How could the Great American Novel be anything other than purest virtue?

  4. January 15, 2011 7:52 pm

    Despite all the flaws, I still love Huck Finn.

    I took the True Grit scenes of Cogburn kicking the kids off the porch simply that they were just really shitty kids that he’d had previous experiences with, and he didn’t want to take any of their shit. Cogburn is clearly not a sympathetic character in any way, so it’s not like this behavior was rewarded.

    The hanging scene was well done. There would have been no point to the scene if the Native American gave his speech, instead of being cut off and hung. I’m trying to remember more about the Native American character that took the dead body. I don’t recall him being used as any sort of ridiculous manner.

    I guess it just comes down to what you feel a filmmaker’s responsibility is. What’s better, decent people making movies that are racist, or racists like Mel Gibson making a film like Apocalypto with no white people in it at all?

    • omooex permalink*
      January 15, 2011 8:05 pm

      I get what you’re saying. But overall, my point is that we settle for these stories. There’s always a good explanation as to why a character is doing something, why characters of a certain race are portrayed in any given scene…but what we don’t have is enough films that star people of color in complex nuanced roles about race issues from another point of view. For example, I brought up the idea of making a film about an African American regiment of volunteers for the British army during the American Revolution. It made much more sense for African Americans to fight on the side of the British, because they had banned slavery by that time, while Americans were literally fighting for a slave-based economy. Tarantino should have done this long ago, a “Basterds” of sorts.

      Slowly, there are one or two films emerging in this way. I don’t know if you saw Frozen River (speaking of Tarantino, he was apparently a big backer of it). I really recommend it as a film trying to bust through the traditional white, person of color narratives…

      Now I’m babbling.

  5. January 18, 2011 4:01 pm

    As a white Minneapolis guy who loves Cohen brothers movies I’m hopelessly biased, but I’d like to push back against your take here.

    “Of the seventeen films they have been responsible for, none have had a non-white lead or significant protagonist. None have dealt with issues concerning non-white communities.” Is this a criticism, or a statement of fact without judgment?

    “More significantly, many of their films do include people of color in peripheral roles, but as objects of derision, exotic inscrutability, violence or comedy.” I had to look up the filmography and dredge the memory for this one. I haven’t seen a couple of the recent movies, but counter-examples include O Brother and Hudsucker Proxy.

    “But its the film’s perspective, not the characters, which seem to harbor antagonism to non-white characters, as if in trying to convey the racist realism of the 19th century, the film itself grew to appreciate it.” There is no “film’s perspective”. There is the Cohen’s perspective, which could include deliberate ambiguity, and the audience’s perspective. As for the girl, she condescended everyone, with maybe a hint of softening towards LaBoeuf. The hanging scene is much too obvious for a charge of subtle prejudice. You’re going way too far with the Native American children. Do you really expect every scene to provide “commentary about the morality of the act”?

    “we’re still settling for realistic portrayals of white racism from earlier times at the cost of substantive and interesting portrayals of the non-whites they abuse.” Is this really a zero-sum game?

    “And we still fail to see how our self-satisfaction with our race discourse has kept us frozen in space and time, in a race-discourse not much different than it was fifty years ago.” Some people do and some people don’t realize our race discourse is a stunted version of what it could be, but to say that discourse is not much different than it was in 1961 is ridiculous.

    PS You forgot about the Chinese grocer smoking opium on his cot.

  6. omooex permalink*
    January 18, 2011 4:49 pm

    I’d argue that O Brother Where art thou proves my point more than it does yours. Let’s take a step all the way back. In the first place, why is this film about White people? We have an all black chain gang, we have the KKK…certainly, if we accept the hegemonic convention that mainstream films are primarily by and for white people, it makes sense to this film starring white people. Otherwise, its a bit of a head-scratcher, particularly combined with the fact that the Cohen’s have never made a film with a non-white protagonist. There’s simply no good reason for this, except that they don’t make films about non-white people. I’d also argue that the black characters in the film are sympathetic, but not nuanced, interesting or meaningful.

    I think you can make the counter argument, combining this film with True Grit, that the Cohen’s are actually challenging people to notice this rather obvious convention and to make them uncomfortable with it. I don’t think they are, or at least they’re not doing that very well, but that’s an argument that one could make.

    And as I wrote, its not the violence against the Native American children, its the portrayal of their passive, emotionless acceptance of it, and the way the perspective of the film treats them…the protagonists have a conversation right in front of these children two seconds after Bridges abuses them, though they’re off screen. That can’t be ignored.

    Lastly, I do think that a film has a perspective. Its the film itself telling you the story–as something that is greater than the sum of its parts–not the Cohen brothers. A writer is responsible for everything he writes, but a movie is something more than that, because a gestalt is created between the actors, the landscape, the lighting, the film stock, the dialogue, the setting, the time period, the audience itself, etc…the movie does become the story teller, rather than the producers and the directors, though the producers, writers and directors are responsible for the characterization of protagonists through their choice of writing and direction and protagonists…

    And no, actually, the Chinese opium smoker is the only decent non white character in the movie! I know Chinese people smoked opium, that’s not the point! He gets a couple of one liners at least.

    …oh and one last thing, that may sound ridiculous, but I’ll put it out there. If you haven’t seen the film Booty Call, I suggest you see it. Its mildly funny, it could have been dumber, but its probably the only film where i’ve seen nuanced portrayals of non-white minor characters… Although the Asian and South Asian characters in the film are portrayed with a certain veneer of stereotype, they are funny—not laugh at funny, but they have great lines. And they get the last word. The trick is not to achieve some incredibly perfect rendition of non-white people that ruffles no feathers…rather its that they end up being fully formed characters that are fun to watch, not just devices…also Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, its logical descendant…

    Okay, you can laugh at me now for bringing up Booty Call as some transformational moment in the legacy of cinema. I believe history will prove me correct…

  7. January 18, 2011 7:37 pm

    “all black chain gang” Excuse me, but Clooney, Turturro and Nelson were all part of the chain gang. Turturro is on one a second time. I was thinking of the Robert Johnson character, but now I remember the Nestor character on the hand car was black too. But these are small points.

    “There’s simply no good reason for this, except that they don’t make films about non-white people.” Is that necessarily a bad reason? If a black writer/director doesn’t make movies about non-black people, is that also necessarily bad?

    “Lastly, I do think that a film has a perspective.” Does a film no-one sees have a perspective? My point is that a film’s perspective* doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it only exists in the mind of the audience. I think the Cohens are sophisticated enough to understand the nuances of the art / audience relationship.

    I don’t remember the shopkeeper’s one liners. Does that make me prejudiced? Although I also approve of smoking opium, so I didn’t take that as a negative.

    * meaning might be a better word to convey this. Would you agree that a film’s meaning is only given by the audience?

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