|Dooley Wilson and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.|
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”:
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.
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.