Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Discrimination in Arkansas?

       Last night I watched a 1944 Hollywood movie I’m from Arkansas. It is what was called a “B movie,” meaning it was low-budget, made to satisfy the film appetite of the large movie going public of that era. If there was a double feature, it would have been the B rather than the A attraction. There were no well known actors or actresses in it. The leading character was played by Slim Summerville, hardly a star, though he appeared in about a hundred silent and sound movies. That's him in the lower right-hand corner of the poster above.
       Only after I watched I’m from Arkansas did it occur to me that there were no black characters in it, not even in menial roles as servants, not even the face of a black or two in a crowd scene. Arkansas is not in the deep South. like Alabama or Mississippi, where blacks are a large minority. But Arkansas is a border state and had about a 15 percent black population in the 1940s. Why then was there not one black in I’m from Arkansas? The director, Lew Landers, was from New York City. He had changed his last name, presumably because it sounded Jewish. It is unlikely he was prejudiced against blacks. Since blacks were confined to menial roles, maybe somebody decided it was better to have no blacks than menial ones, such as the appalling racist black stereotype Stepin Fetchit, billed as “The Laziest Man in the World.”
       Lacking the lazy black stereotype, what I’m from Arkansas does have is an incredibly lazy Appalachian father and son pair, the father played by Slim Summerville and the son by a cretin-looking young actor. When I arrived in Portsmouth back in 1989, I recall a Portsmouth resident observing that Appalachians, or "rednecks," were the last American minority that you could still make fun of without fear of criticism. I’m from Arkansas ridicules Appalachians as if they were all palookas. What's a palooka? You can see for yourself in the 1934 movie Palooka. Both of these movies are available on YouTube.