Thursday, March 04, 2010

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

This 1927 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin shows how a director can skew the perspective of a source narrative to reflect his own interests and loyalties. According to the essay that accompanied the DVD, the director Harry A. Pollard considered Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel as Northern propaganda and did not want to show the South in a negative light. He therefore made most of the Southern slave owners in his film gentle and enlightened masters. The evil characters are of indeterminate geographical origin (Simon Legree) or are lower-class scoundrels.

Pollard’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin clearly portrays slavery as an evil institution: slave families are split up and sold, bad owners whip and abuse their slaves, the existence of light-skinned slave women implies sexual exploitation and abuse, and the slave master Simon Legree is abusive to slaves in every possible way. Although enlightened owners may treat their slaves in a kindly way, if they die or go bankrupt less benevolent owners can buy the slaves and change their lives dramatically.

In its portrayal of slavery’s victims, Uncle Tom’s Cabin invokes numerous racist stereotypes; it presents most slaves as simple, easily misguided, susceptible to temptation, and unintelligent. With one exception, the most sympathetically portrayed slaves are so light-skinned that they are hardly recognizable as of African descent. The exception is Uncle Tom, played by a black actor named James B. Lowe. His love of his family and his fidelity to his white masters, and his love especially of Eva, makes him a paragon of virtue—where virtue is construed as fidelity to the white owners.

At the center of the film are Eliza and her husband George. Both are light-skinned. Eliza is raised as a daughter by her owners. George is “rented” from his owner as some sort of engineer. They are virtuous and highly intelligent and possess all the civilized values and behaviors of their white masters. In fact, what the film praises about them is how much they are like whites. Moreover, they are played by white actors made up to faintly resemble light-skinned slaves. (Eliza, played by Margarita Fischer, the director’s wife, is described as “yellow skinned” by a man who has been hired to track down and bring her back after she has run away). The DVD essay explains that the use of white actors was intended to make the portrayal of slaves in love more palatable to the mostly white audiences.

Almost as soon as George and Eliza marry, his owner shows up and takes George away. When bankruptcy threatens Eliza’s owner, who has treated her as a daughter, he agrees to sell her young son along with loyal Uncle Tom. George spends the entire film searching for Eliza and their son. Eliza for much of the film is searching for their son too (he is lured away from her by a slave dealer and sold to another slave owner). She also must resist the lecherous advances of Simon Legree.

Contrasted against the virtuous and light-skinned George and Eliza are darker-skinned slaves who are shown as ignorant and unenlightened, though usually good natured.

The film frequently shows slave children in various comical and stereotypical situations, their wide white eyes prominently displayed. In one scene a group of slave children runs after a horse-drawn cart full of watermelons. They steal a melon and ravenously devour it in the middle of the road.

The film’s real racial attitudes are most clearly represented in the character of Topsy, an adolescent slave girl attached to Aunt Ophelia and friend to the saintly Eva. Topsy (portrayed in blackface by nineteen-year-old white actress Mona Ray) is mischievous and uncontrollable. She constantly dances around, plays tricks on Aunt Ophelia, bats her eyes, steals, and otherwise acts like a clown. The white actress’ portrayal of Topsy is remarkable in that it doesn’t even approximate the racist stereotype it is apparently trying to represent. It’s just weird. When Eva asks Topsy why she is so bad, Topsy responds that she is bad because she is black and no one can love a black person. Eva responds that she loves Topsy, and this brings about a major change in Topsy’s personality. When Eva dies, Topsy is grief-stricken because she says there is no one left to love her. Aunt Ophelia, affected by Eva’s death and Topsy’s grief, responds that she will love Topsy. This is a genuinely moving moment in the film. Yet it is also a perfect expression of the film’s racial iconography: the virtuous and civilized white girl whose purity redeems the benighted and unrestrained slave. In general, this film argues that whites must care for the incapable blacks who suffer the consequences of slavery.

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