Saturday, December 19, 2009

Problematic Depictions of African-Americans in a Beloved Holiday Film

The other night, I watched a classic Christmas movie:
Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Though I've seen it a dozen times, this always catches me off-guard:

Yep, that's crooner Bing Crosby, in full-on blackface. He's singing an Irving Berlin song called "Abraham" about Abe Lincoln's birthday that contains lyrics such as "When black folks lived in slavery/ Who was it set the darkie free?/ Abraham, Abraham!"

PROBLEMATIC. And the only actual black people in the movie?

That's Louise Beavers, playing (isn't it obvious?) "Mamie" and her two kids. Mamie is the all-purpose housekeeper/cook at the Holiday Inn. Obviously.

Sigh. I love Holiday Inn -- it features the first ever performance of "White Christmas," one of my favorite Christmas songs. There are lots of great dance numbers, not one but TWO love triangles, and plenty of glamorous 1940s evening wear.

And yet....

It's just hard to get past this, you know? The blackface is a part of the plot -- Bing Crosby adds it to the number at the last minute so that Fred Astaire's character won't be able to recognize Marjorie Reynolds (pictured above), with whom he drunkenly danced on New Year's Eve and wants to steal away from Crosby's Holiday Inn gig.

But still....yeesh. Racism kind of kills my Christmas spirit.


J.A.G. said...

It's hard to get around in old musicals. Just checked Wikipedia--blackface was a habit of Bing's:
Dream House (1932), Mississippi (1935), Holiday Inn (1942), Dixie (1943), and Here Come the Waves (1944)!

Patrick H said...

It's a problem on stage, too. I'm working on a production of "You Can't Take It With You" at MICDS, and have to do some serious work to the "I'm glad we're colored..." scene.

mike pincus said...

Better than Jew face. Or is it?