Monday, January 17, 2011

Getting past our issues to get to the craft

Dooley Wilson and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. 
Sometimes I will tell a student that they should watch a particular film to help them understand a particular concept better or just to see a concept executed perfectly. I was once, but am no longer, surprised at the response that often comes back at me: “No, I won’t see that film because I don’t like fill-in the-blank-actor.” Or they will say have a particular political philosophy that stops them from seeing the film. I have a conservative friend who would not see the animated film The Iron Giant because he had heard from his family that it was “anti-gun.”

I once had a student who refused to get the point of why I was showing her a clip from the film Kramer vs. Kramer because she thought the film was sexist.

I’m not saying that you should not be offended at the things you feel are wrong, just that these personal things often get in the way of people being able to see craft clearly.

Casablanca is, in my opinion, one of the best films ever made. It is amazingly well constructed, acted, photographed and directed. I have seen it more times than I can count and still think it is a brilliant piece of cinema. It also has clear evidence of racism.

I understand that this is a sensitive subject for some and any charge of racism is a reason for them to turn off and stop listening, but please stick with me here. There are many who will see this post as “preachy.” I have found that for some even the acknowledgment of the history of racism in America is offensive.

My purpose here is neither to provoke nor to preach. It is just that for reasons of this post I have to talk about a subject that evokes strong emotions in me. Thanks in advance for understanding this.

When my mother was a little girl in St. Joseph, Missouri, she was once in a restaurant with her father where they ordered food, but were not allowed to sit. They had to take the food out to eat. My mother tells me that she kept asking her father why they couldn’t sit down. He was silent, and did not answer her question. Rather, he could not answer.

I have often wondered what that felt like for my grandfather. How do you explain to your child that the world does not treat you with dignity—does not treat you as a man.

In the world of my grandfather, and for most of American history, it was common to treat grown black men as children. Not just children, but dimwitted children at that. “Boy” was the word used to refer to my grandfather; no matter how old he got, he would be called “boy,” and treated as such.

Why bring this up?  Because in the film Casablanca, when Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman, sees Sam the black pianist played by Dooley Wilson, she recognizes him and inquires about the boy playing the piano. The “boy.” Dooley Wilson was in his mid-fifties at the time but she tosses this term off casually. Boy. It was normal. A word people used in polite conversation. A word my grandfather heard many days of his life, which was meant to emasculate him and remind him that he had no power in this world.

In the film Sam also sings a song called “Shine.” “Shine” was what was called a “coon song.” “Coon songs” were a popular form of music in the America until the 1920s. These songs relied heavily on black racial stereotypes, and in fact “Shine” was a derogatory term for black people.

Here are the lyrics to “Shine”:

Well, just because my hair is curly
 And just because my teeth are pearly
Just because I always wear a smile
 Likes to dress up in the latest style 
Just because I'm glad I'm livin’
Takes trouble smilin’, never whine 
Just because my color’s shady
 Slightly different maybe
 That’s why they call me shine.

I bring this up because although the presence of these things in the film Casablanca are offensive to me I can still acknowledge the flawless craftsmanship of the filmmaking and story-craft.

Unlike Birth of a Nation, D.W Griffith’s 1915 film, which is blatant piece of racist propaganda that turns the Ku Klux Klan into heroes, I don’t feel that the makers of Casablanca went out of their way to be racist. They were simply products of their time.

Birth of a Nation makes use of gross stereotypes of brutish black men that were so frightening to some that that some white audiences at the time fired their pistols at the screen. Reports say that many African Americans openly wept at how they saw themselves portrayed.

In fact, Birth of a Nation has been said to have been a factor in the huge resurgence of Klan membership in the 1920s.

I have even watched this film because it is credited with defining much of the film language that we still use today and take for granted—like the close-up, for instance.  But I have only watched it once—I am only human after all and the film is reprehensible. Still, I made a point to learn from the film how best to tell the stories I’d like to tell about the things that are important to me.

As for Casablanca, I consider this film a masterpiece of storytelling as well as an example of American racism at that time. Yes, it can be at once brilliant and racist. I do not let one thing affect my view of the other.

If I had not gotten past my personal issues while watching Casablanca, there are some great craft lessons that I would not have learned. Stuff that I use in my own work. Things I have written about in my books and on this blog. 

The reason I bring all of this up in a blog about story-craft is because I wanted to illustrate that if I am able to look past my personal concerns to see what is good about the film, you can do the same.

I promise the next post will be less touchy and personal. Thanks for sticking with me.


Gabeng dela Cruz said...


i love how this particular blog educated me to set aside my personal issues in order for me to grow.

thank you so much for your continued sharing of wisdom!

Brian McD said...

Thanks, Gabeng.

Anonymous said...


Thank you. It's easy to push a lot of things away because something inside me twitches, but I think that we can grow even more when we grit our teeth and look for the good in something imperfect so that we can learn what we need to know.

It applies to real life. Sometimes we're in a situation that's horrible but there is something we can learn from it if we look carefully, rather than writing off the entire incident as a disaster best forgotten.

Thanks for writing this. It encourages me to be careful when my impulse is to reject and dismiss something based solely on content that I find uncomfortable, especially if I've been told there's something good to be learned within.


imyjimmy said...


I can't imagine what it was like for you to watch Birth of a Nation.

I was contemplating watching some "yellow face" movies but I couldn't stand the blatant racism on the dvd cover.

Now I know that I have to get over it and just watch it, if only to get a better understanding of how my people have been portrayed.

If I learn some craft, then that's cool too. Watching it will be painful, but it would be ritual pain I guess.

Thanks for your insight.

Brian McD said...

Thanks, again. I'm happy to hear that it helped a little. I was on the fence about posting it.

Anonymous said...

Good post, Brian.

Not much you can do with a closed mind.

Jett said...

Hey Brian,

I was very touched by this last post. Thank you for opening yourself up and sharing your thughts on such matters.


James said...

Hello there, I am a big fan of Invisible Ink and The Golden Theme and a first time poster.

I absolutely agree with the purpose of this post but think your view of Casablanca is a little unbalanced. I don’t disagree with what you say -- it’s more what you don’t say. I would consider Rick and Sam’s friendship very progressive for 1942 with Sam being Rick’s closest confidant. Rick also seems to pay Sam generously and even freely offers him the chance to jump ship to The Blue Parrot, before negotiating Sam a cut of the profits at that café near the end.

Seeing as Rick is the hero of the film and he treats Sam with the utmost respect I would say the movie projects an overall positive message on the topic of race given the time in which it was made.

Brian McD said...

Hello James,

Thanks so much for reading the books and blog. And thanks for writing.

I don’t disagree strongly with you on your point yes, Sam and Rick were friends. And do have a relationship of some respect. It is nice to see a black man and a white one on the screen at a time when many films even ignore the very existence of people of color all together. Or only show them as train porters, bellboys or maids with no real humanity at all. They were often little more than gloried props.

And it is nice to see Sam played as an intelligent man with some dignity.

One’s perception of the relationship may depend on personal experience and knowledge of the history of race relations in America.

Even during slavery there were slaves who were considered part of the family. That isn’t how the slaves felt. If you read the diaries of slaveholders at the time they were often baffled when their slaves ran away. Slaveholders felt betrayed.

There was an ideal of the humble, loyal servant. A servant who would forgo his or her needs in favor of their master. This was a common fantasy figure. Sam fits this image perfectly as does as does Bea Pullman in the 1934 film Imitation of Life where a black woman becomes rich from a pancake recipe, but chooses to remain taking care of her white boss.

In some ways Sam was what was called affectionately “An Uncle”. An Uncle was an older slave past his sexual prime that was a kindly servant. Uncle Tom of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of these figures, as is Uncle Ben of Uncle Ben’s Rice. So is Uncle Remus of Brier Rabbit fame, who tells his animals stories to children.

There was also the Aunt. Aunt Jemima is part of that legacy -- a jovial black woman who was almost a segregate mother to the children in her care. During slavery black woman would often act as wet nurses and be made to breast feed their young charges.

On this end of history Sam and Rick may appear to be friends, but that end of history it was part of a long tradition of the image of the loyal old uncle looking out for his master.

But something I do like is how this tradition was turned on its head by Jack Benny and his servant Rochester on both Jack Benny’s radio and early television shows:

Thanks again for your thoughtful comment. I hope you remain a fan.

James said...

Thanks for an interesting response, Brian. I agree with much of what you say and see where you’re coming from. I guess it’s always very complicated to look back at the past like this where a film can be seen to be both objectionable by the standards of today and progressive when considered within the context of its time.

Certainly I didn’t have the same framework of understanding as you when it comes to Sam and Rick’s relationship. (I’m a 23-year-old English guy.) I can see the echoes of the “Uncle Tom” character you mention and yet I still wouldn’t change my view on the Rick/Sam relationship.

Your point about the loyal slave got me thinking because I’ve always liked that Sam turns down the bigger money on offer, saying “Oh, I like it fine here...I ain’t got time to spend the money I make here.” To me that made him seem a very wise man who values the important things in life. Many times in Europe soccer stars who are the absolute hero of the fans at a second rate club (and already earning millions a year) will leave to sit on the substitutes bench for a bigger club for an extra 25% in their pay packet. They usually get bored after a couple of years and return to another second rate club but often their careers never fully recover. Meanwhile they lose a couple of their prime playing years, and, forever, the adulation of their original fans, and perhaps by extension, their hometown. To me Sam’s choice is an antidote to that kind of thinking, and yet, I can now equally see how one might view him as a loyal slave who is incapable of breaking free of his master Rick. Again, I still prefer my initial take!

I would be interested to know what contemporary African Americans thought of Casablanca. I know that Walter White was pleased by the portrayal of African Americans in the latter scenes of Sullivan’s Travels, scenes which are utterly unremarkable to modern eyes. I would think on balance an African American seeing Casablanca in 1942 would be cheered by the relationship between Rick and Sam.

Viewing the film I didn’t pick up the echoes of the “Uncle Tom” dynamic, nor the offensiveness of ‘Shine’ –- only the offensive use of the term ‘boy’ by Isla. I can well imagine in fifty years time a younger person not even realising the offensiveness of ‘boy’ but merely considering it a not particularly amusing opposite joke on Sam’s age -- like ‘Little John’ in Robin Hood. Now, clearly it is good to remember the mistakes of the past and learn from them. That said, I rather like the idea that one day people might not even realise that ‘boy’ would ever have been offensive –- because the idea of denigrating someone for their skin colour would by then be so utterly alien.

All of these sorts of things are very complex and as you say depend on one’s personal experience and knowledge. There is a good example from here in the UK -- a 1960s/1970s sitcom called Till Death Do Us Part in which the lead character, Alf Garnett, was horribly bigoted. The writers portrayed him as an idiot whose prejudices cost him dear but he became something of a cult figure amongst bigots who didn’t get the point of the show. To this day some people consider the whole programme to be racist, even though that was absolutely not the intention of its makers.

Thanks for the Jack Benny clip. I hadn’t seen that before and it’s great stuff. In a somewhat similar vein it always tickles me that my favourite singer Jackie Wilson adored Al Jolson, even going so far as recording a whole tribute LP –- ‘You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet’ in 1961. In contrast to Jolson, the Jewish singer, and his many performances in blackface, this LP gives us the decidedly gentile Wilson singing ‘My Yiddishe Momme.’ Despite its inherent incongruity I consider it amongst the finest vocal performances of all time. Admittedly when it comes to music I am an unashamed lover of melodrama so it may not be to everyone’s taste…

P.S. I hope one is still allowed to say ‘gentile.’

Brian McD said...

Hey James,

Thanks for your interest on this topic, as you can imagine I have a ton to say about it. However since I limit this site to the subject of storytelling I'm going to bow out of any further comments on this subject because I feel it isn't the focus of this blog.

Truth is I could create a whole blog just on this topic. But I don't plan to do that at the moment.

Anyway, thanks for understanding.