Appropriating a Missing Past

The rewhitening of film (Back to the Future”, Addendum B)

Yet another reason for revisiting Back to the Future was an almost throwaway comment from John Oliver:¹

[…] Marty McFly was white, because black people don’t generally hang around John C. Calhoun lookalikes who’re obsessed with going back to the 1950s.

This was an excellent reminder of the cultural and political scene that spawned the film and its messages about race and history. Oliver’s aside came within a piece about these same topics, so despite its brevity, it was quite well aimed.

I’ve discussed previously how white flight set the stage for new cheap-to-produce film genres for urban audiences including Spaghetti Westerns, Kung Fu, and blaxploitation, but by the 1980s, these trends had reversed. Karina Longworth details this occurrence’s particular effect on African Americans in film:²

The decade of the 1980s saw a decline in Hollywood films featuring mostly black casts and black heroes. In 1974, the peak of blaxploitation, at least in terms of volume, 7% of the films released by the major studios told stories primarily about black people. That number had dropped to 2.5% by 1981. […] Perhaps wary of […] controversies, on the big screen Hollywood steered clear of tackling the black experience, historically or in the present. In the interest of trying to target as many demographics as possible in each film, black movie stars like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy were frequently paired with white co-stars in movies that were set in largely white worlds.

I’d differ slightly with Longworth as to the two actors she mentions: both Pryor and Murphy had enough star power—not to mention talent—that they frequently wore multiple hats for their films, including various combinations of writing, directing, and producing, ultimately meaning that they shaped the worlds in which they appeared. This resulted in films like Pryor’s autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986), Murphy’s African fairy tale, Coming to America (1988), and Harlem Nights (1989), a historical crime drama for which the two teamed up. Still, they are only notable exceptions to the trend Longworth otherwise describes correctly.

The first episode of Glow, set in 1985, captures the situation in a brief conversation between a director and a black actress at a casting call:³

Sam Sylvia: Resume gets kinda thin after 1979.
Cherry Bang: Movies gettin’ a little white after 1979.

And alongside this trend, beginning in the mid-’70s and intensifying in the ’80s, there was a glut of films featuring nostalgia for the ’50s. A short list of the better known ones is:

  • American Graffiti (1973)
  • Grease (1978)
  • Diner (1982)
  • Back to the Future (1985)
  • Stand by Me (1986)
  • Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
  • Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

And on the small screen Happy Days—closely related to American Graffiti, as the film sold the concept, as well as borrowing Ron Howard from the TV show’s pilot, among other elements—aired for 10 years (1974-1984), spawning multiple spinoffs.

The surge in ’50s nostalgia and the simultaneous drop in films starring people of color is far from coincidental. The blacklash in all these works is pretty evident, with no major roles and sometimes not even minor ones for people of color in any of them with the exception of Driving Miss Daisy. Even in that film, Morgan Freeman plays the titular white woman’s servant, so he’s far from an equal.

So what was behind these changes in the film business? Longworth suggests that it was due to a corresponding shift in the overall political climate. In particular the “conservative revolution” ushered in by the Reagan administration, which she characterizes as:⁵

[A] presidential administration which married a nostalgia for a white-supremacist past with Hollywood production values. […] [“Post racial”] terminology […] was used by conservatives as part of the argument against affirmative action and other social programs aimed at balancing racial disparity. In the republican argument—an argument that was inherently racist in that it demonized people of color for needing things like welfare, or asking for any acknowledgement of continued imbalance—the work of balancing the playing field was supposedly finished, and urban violence of the 1970s was a sign that white people needed to start looking out for themselves again. Reaganism reframed the activism and fights for equality of the 1960s and -70s as “chaos” and posited Reagan and the republican party as the solution to restore the order of the 1950s.

This last feature of conservatism is what Oliver was referring to on his show; one that continues to define the movement to this day. Not only were governmental policies based on these misguided ideas, they also precipitated a spike in violence by groups like the KKK throughout the decade. Anthropologist Wade Davis filled in further details on the topic in a recent article for Rolling Stone:⁴

For many years, those on the conservative right in the United States have invoked a nostalgia for the 1950s, and an America that never was, but has to be presumed to have existed to rationalize their sense of loss and abandonment, their fear of change, their bitter resentments and lingering contempt for the social movements of the 1960s, a time of new aspirations for women, gays, and people of color.

But the political scene, as well as that in Hollywood were ultimately symptoms of a cultural shift: Having fled to the suburbs, boomers were settling down, having kids, getting jobs, and the appearance of new suburban megaplex theaters coincided with these trends. Some would even say that the drug of choice for this generation went from the laid-back slacker cannabis to the vigorously capitalist cocaine, which, in addition to amping up energy, also required a straight” job because of its expense. In any case, one result was that the supposed family values” of the ’50s were revalorized, but this version of the past was an imagined one.

Additionally, art itself suffered a reversal, moving from the irony of postmodernism to the so-called earnestness of post-postmodernism. This translated to a certain lack of depth, which literary critic Fredric Jameson described in 1983 as pastiche:⁶

Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a particular or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared with which what is being imitated is rather comic. Pastiche is a blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor[…].

Even at this, Jameson sees the wave of nostalgia films as embodying a particular form of pastiche, and further connects it strongly to the political and cultural realms:⁷

Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture, as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire […].

But the ’50s nostalgia film was just one part of this new cinematic landscape. There are a few other films released in the decade worth discussing as part of this cultural trend. 

There is much to love about one of the biggest hits of 1980, The Blues Brothers. In addition to some amazing comedy and an absurd number of car crashes, it also features many excellent performances from black musicians including James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and John Lee Hooker. It’s still problematic that the titular duo is white. The backstory is that Curtis (played by Cab Calloway) essentially raised Jake and Elwood Blues and schooled them in the musical form from which they take their name so they are effectively black on the inside, an act of twisted alchemy similar to the rationalization of Scarlett Johansson playing Kusanagi Motoko (草薙 素子), in 2017’s Ghost in the Shell. In both the film and eponymous band, John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd have stolen the headliner glory from the musicians who should take center stage.

With much more on-the-nose minstrelsy, the 1986 film Soul Man is the tale of a white guy who pretends to be black in order to win a Harvard law scholarship set aside for African Americans. NAACP Chapter President Willis Edwards summed up the issue even more at the core than a main character appearing in blackface for much of the film’s running time:⁸

We certainly believe it is possible to use humor to reveal the ridiculousness of racism. However the unhumorous and quite seriously made plot point of Soul Man is that no black student could be found in all of Los Angeles who was academically qualified for a scholarship geared to blacks.

Such criticisms did not deter the first couple from screening it at Camp David, though they did at least have the excuse that their son Ron Reagan appeared in it. A White House spokesman let The LA Times know, The Reagans enjoyed the film and especially enjoyed seeing their son Ron.”⁹

The final film that should be noted here is not a new one, but a rerelease: 1946’s Song of the South returned to theaters in 1980 and 1986 to wild success. Rather than confronting the work’s appropriated folktales and depictions of happy slaves, Disney and their apologists tried to dismiss the film as a lighthearted fantasy. But as Longworth notes:¹⁰

[T]o reposition [Disney’s] movies as fully escapist was in keeping with a level of denial and wishful fantasizing that was integral to Reagan America[…].

And indeed, there was widespread controversy and protest of the film this time around, with Ron Finney of the LA Times declaring:¹¹

We’ve seen 1980 close with the re-release of a film that has debased blacks for 34 years.

Criticism extended to protests that shut down some screenings of the film to such a degree that following its 1986 showing it went back in the “vault” forever, with only carefully curated clips shown on television. Eventually, these too disappeared until only Oscar-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” as the theme song of the Disney parks attraction, Splash Mountain, remained. This song was based in part on the racially-charged song Zip Coon”, which also gave rise to a minstrel show character of the same name. This year Disney quietly decided to cease playing the song as well.

And here we come again to the theme of cancel culture. If you’ll remember, in the previous Addendum I wasn’t so sure if I was on board with it. Since then, I’ve changed my mind. It turns out that it’s of a piece with the right wing’s weaponization of liberal values against the holders of those same values. My first clue should have been Bill Maher’s wholehearted embrace of it, and my second should have been how unevenly the term is applied. As Billy Bragg noted on a recent episode of Intelligence Squared:¹²

Any cursory review of recent high-profile cases of “cancel culture” will reveal a troubling pattern: the victims of this trend are always defenders of the status quo.

Billy Bragg, who I have enjoyed since his self-roadied first tour of the US, isn’t just a musician, he’s a pretty astute guy, especially when it comes to politics, a realm into which his music regularly ventures. He goes on to sum up the case up quite well:¹³

Like the term “political correctness” before it, cancel culture is a trope used by reactionaries to police the limits of social change. It allows the proponents of white male supremacy to portray themselves as the victims of discrimination, undermining the rights of the real victims of structural inequality.

And so we’ve returned to the beginning of this tale. We see that the rhetoric of the right hasn’t changed, only their level of desperation has, with the Trump administration recently issuing an executive order outlawing any teaching about our nation’s white supremacist past. But all this posturing hasn’t stopped society from becoming increasingly enlightened—although quite gradually, I’ll admit. And let’s be clear, although it was protested, Song of the South was never

cancelled ; Disney seems to have decided that it simply no longer embodied values they wanted to project and removed it quietly and without prompting.


Read Previous Articles in This Series

Roll Over McFly

Addendum A: The Immaculate Miscegenation


Notes

  1. “U.S. History”, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, 2020.
  2. Karina Longworth, “Splash Mountain”, You Must Remember This, 2019.
  3.  “Pilot”, Glow, 2017.
  4. Longworth.
  5. Wade Davis, “The Unraveling of America”, Rolling Stone, 2020.
  6. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”, 1983. I’ll note that he describes this trend as postmodernist but Umberto Eco and others make it clear that Jameson is actually describing the shift to post-postmodernism.
  7. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, New Left Review, 1984.
  8. Bob Thomas, “Los Angeles NAACP Protest”. The Lewiston Daily, 1986.
  9. “Reagans on ‘Soul Man’: Thumbs Up”. The Los Angeles Times, 1986.
  10. Longworth.
  11. Ron Finney, “‘Song of the South’ Again Sings its Debasement of Blacks”, Los Angeles Times, 1981.
  12. “Debate: Cancel Culture is Threatening Our Freedoms”, Intelligence Squared, 2020.
  13. Ibid.

The Woods “Over the Wall”

Monomyth tropes well done (DeDisneyfication, Part 9A Addendum)

Autumnal tidings, readers. As I’ve noted before, I’m a good one for missing the boat, so I’ve only just learned about an excellent animated series, Over the Garden Wall (OtGW hereafter) from six years ago. The work is set on Halloween, which makes it a good one to discuss around now, and also plays with folkloric elements, which makes it fit well with this Series.

Myth & Moor: Into the Woods, 7: The Dark Forest

I became aware of the cartoon through another quite good series of video essays, What’s So Great About That?, in which Grace Lee thoughtfully discusses various aspects of film, animation, and culture. Her piece,“Over the Garden Wall: Why Is The Unknown So Familiar?”¹ sold me on the seriesnot a hard sell since, as I mentioned, it already fits with a field of interest of mine. In fact, I wondered why my hipper friends hadn’t already brought it to my attention.

The setting the series spends much of its time in is called The Unknown, which is described in the first episode thus:²

Somewhere lost in the clouded annals of history, lies a place that few have seen—a mysterious place, called The Unknown, where long-forgotten stories are revealed to those who travel through the wood.

The title of Lee’s essay plays on the fact that despite the place’s name the material is familiar:³

There’s this uncanny feeling that we’ve been here before. Snow White. Babes in the Wood, Hansel and Gretel—the idea of children lost in the woods is one of the most familiar fairy tale conventions. And Over the Garden Wall even makes explicit reference to several of these stories.

And again, as she notes, The Unknown consists largely of a forest. And here is where my interest grew beyond Lee’s essay: she spent a lot of time discussing the elements that recalled classic film and animation but the folklore was my interest—in fact, I’d say that OtGW’s creators used the references Lee talks about because they are the modern audience’s main connection to folkloric materials, and so made sense as a way to reach that audience and get this tale across to them. 

As to the mythical role of the woods, let me point to the same quote I did in the article to which this is an addendum:⁴

Being deep in the forest at the house of the dwarfs, Snow White has symbolically returned to the mythic beginnings of time, the liminal period of chaos when the mysterious gods and ancestral creatures of creation were active.

Even without the house of the dwarves, which serves only to deepen the mythic themes, the woods are a liminal and primal space. As Lee states, this is a common theme, particularly in folklore and myth, as Joseph Conrad tells us:⁵

A very common [motif] that appears in Celtic myths, of someone who had followed the lure of a deer or animal that he has been following, and then carries him into a range of forest and landscape that he’s never been in before.

While OtGW’s protagonists end up in the woods as a result of running away from the police, rather than chasing something, the trope remains nearly identical. And it doesn’t appear only in myths and folktales; Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) opens:⁶

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

In the middle of the journey of our life,
I discovered I was in a dark forest,
having wandered from the straightforward path.

OtgW’s girl transformed into a bird, who guides the other protagonists, Wirt and Greg around The Unknown, is named Beatrice, a clear reference to Dante’s guide of the same name. The figurative wood also appears in the title and body of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. The woods are just one common version of what OtGW refers to as The Unknown, which again has mythic resonances, many of which the show goes on to explore.

Putting a name to this mythic realm is difficult, which is why OtGW uses the term it does. Campbell quotes the Upanishads about what he sometimes terms the yonder shore:⁷

There the eye goes not,
speech goes not, nor the mind.
We know not, we understand not,
how one would teach it?

So what is it? Death or the nether- or underworld is one version, as suggested by both Dante and Frost. It is also in OtGW repeatedly: they dig what they think are their own graves in Pottsfield⁸ and in the “real” world, we find out that the garden over whose wall Wirt and Greg have gone was a cemetery.⁹ The cemetery’s name is Eternal Garden, but “garden of the dead” was a standard metaphor for a graveyard in times past. Additionally, the ferry they take to get to Adelaide’s house costs two cents,¹⁰ corresponding to the ὀβολοί (oboloí) needed to pay the ferryman Χάρων (Kharon) to get to the Graeco-Roman underworld.

This well-known fare first appears in Aristophanes’ (Ἀριστοφανης) comedy, The Frogs (Βάτραχοι Bátrachoi, 405 BC), in which Dionysos (Διόνῡσος) is bound for Haides (ᾍδης):¹¹

Herakles [Ἡρακλῆς]: Which will you try?
Dionysos: The way you went yourself.
Herakles: A parlous voyage that, for first you’ll come to an enormous lake of fathomless depth.
Dionysos: And how am I to cross?
Herakles: An ancient mariner will row you over in a wee boat, so big. The fare’s two obols.

I’ll note that the correspondence between an obolos and a cent is inexact as this silver coin is worth eight copper khalkoi (χαλκοί), but again, it’s a pretty standard rendering in modern works. And as for Aristophanes, although the cloud city Greg visits makes obvious reference to The Wizard of Oz (1939) with Munchkinland-style welcoming committees—just as Adelaide’s death by exposure to night air recalls the Wicked Witch of the West’s undoing by water—the kingdom of the titular animals, Νεφελοκοκκυγία (Nephelokokkugía, Cloud Cuckoo Land) in The Birds (Ὄρνιθες Ornithes, 414 BC) is a pretty clear reference as well.

Greg visits cloud city in a dream within this dream, as he turns further to his unconscious to help him and his brother out of their troubles:¹²

Greg: I better take a nap too. I need to dream up a good way of leading us home.

And speaking of birds, the way Adelaide plans to change Beatrice and her family back into humans is by cutting off their feathers with a pair of scissors, recalling the crude methods of Hans Christian Anderson’s sea witch.

Water too is a liminal space, as referred to repeatedly in OtGW. I’ve already mentioned their ferry trip, but they also sail across a lake, and it turns out that in their normal world, they fell into a body of water after nearly being run down by a train, and so the show can be seen as taking place as they hover between life and death by drowning.

Greg’s frog, whom he spends much of the series trying to find a name for, is a common mythic harbinger as well; a liminal creature, at home as much in the human world as in the underwater realm.  We see them repeatedly in folktales as frog princes calling heroes to adventure. In The Frogs, the amphibians’ only appearance is during Dionysos’ trip across the Ἀχέρων (Akheron), so literally at the border between worlds. Birds too, for similar reasons, but pertaining to realms above rather than below, make repeated mythic appearances.

The point of the journey into The Unknown in OtGW is, as it is in many folktales, initiation. Wirt is a teenager, poised on the brink of adulthood, and needs to figure out how he needs to change in order to take on this new role. All of the creatures in this realm are, again quoting the same Girardot passage as I did earlier:¹³

[D]ivine ancestors, teachers, refiners, guardians, or helpers necessary for a successful initiation.

And it’s certainly not that the peril of these encounters is not real. In fact Wirt’s normal world problems are so daunting to him that he’d rather die than face them, and in fact, in the reading I mentioned earlier, he nearly does. The progression through the episodes toward winter, a common metaphor for death, reflects this. These problems—being responsible for a younger sibling, liking a girl, risking being hurt, losing her to a rival suitor—seem trivial, but they’re also entirely relatable to just about anyone.

And indeed, Wirt returns triumphant from this night sea journey having learned these lessons: Sara, who he didn’t dare to approach before his journey, he now talks to easily and invites on a date. He saves his brother (and himself) from drowning. Just as in The Wizard of Oz, the passage through The Unknown can be seen as having been “just a dream”, with elements such as the light of the onrushing train having been transformed in the logic of the unconscious into the eyes of the Beast who dogs the brothers’ steps in the otherworld, the magic bell previously owned by Adelaide’s sister, Auntie Whispers, returns with them to their normal world, glowing in the belly of Greg’s frog.

I know I’ve been critical of how folktales are realized on screen, but I’m happy to have been proved wrong. OtGW’s creators have done well here: as I noted earlier, they used nostalgic film and animation references to relate to modern audiences, but didn’t shy away from the classical ones either. They didn’t attempt to usurp the place of classic folktales with a retelling. And they didn’t dumb down the messages or supplant them with corporate myths.


Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 9B: The Sum of Its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than


Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making Over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting Pocahontas to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: The Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred


Notes

  1. Grace Lee, “Over the Garden Wall: Why Is The Unknown So Familiar?”, What’s So Great About That, 2017.
  2. Episode 1, “The Old Grist Mill”, OtGW, 2014.
  3. Lee.
  4. N. J. Girardot, “Initiation and Meaning in the Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, The Journal of American Folklore, 1977.
  5. Episode 1, “The Hero’s Adventure”, The Power of Myth, 1988.
  6. Dante Alighieri, Inferno, The Divine Comedy, 1320, my translation.
  7. A. S. Woodburne, “The Idea of God in Hinduism”, The Journal of Religion, 1925.
  8. Episode 2, “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee”, OtGW, 2014.
  9. Episode 9, “Into the Unknown”, OtGW, 2014.
  10. Episode 5, “Mad Love”, OtGW, 2014.
  11. O’Neill translation, 1938.
  12. Episode 8, “Babes in the Wood”, OtGW, 2014.
  13. Girardot, 1977.