October 8, 2010

Racism and the Movies

I watched the movie THIRD FINGER LEFT HAND this week. It stars Melvyn Douglas and Myrna Loy. It was made in 1940, and it is a film I would recommend heartily. Heartily for the stars and the enjoyment of the movie, but more for another reason. More indeed. Following is a review of the film by another viewer:

While this comedy is about the romantic complications facing a woman executive and the artist who loves her, "Third Finger, Left Hand" provides a rarely seen dignified Black role. When first we see Sam (portrayed by veteran African American actor, Ernest Whitman) he is a train porter speaking in an 'uneducated' manner - employing the type of language structure used by script writers of the time to reinforce negative racial stereotypes. Later, however, Sam is revealed to have taken college correspondence courses for years and to be someone quite knowledgeable in matters of Law: able to quote court rulings and present effective legal arguments on behalf of his client, the artist. Ultimately, Sam is the hero of "Third Finger, Left Hand", making it possible for the protagonists' love to triumph.

I've thought about the movie now for a couple days, and my minds eye keeps coming back to Ernest Whitman's role in the movie. He was a black man with a college background in law who had a job as a porter on the railroad. That certainly could have been true, but what thrilled me was the the verbal joking back and forth between Whitman and Melvyn Douglas and the formulation of a plot to save Douglas's marriage. It's a great scene and one more at the very end when Whitman springs the surprise on another white actor Lee Bowman and joining in the laughter as an equal plotter in the movie. Corny? Maybe but this was 1940 folks. Segregation was alive and festering in the good old USA as the coming war would would illustrate, but perhaps in a small way this particular movie might have had a small nudge in the right direction.

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