Racism: A Love Story
Edna Ferber, historical epics obsessed, race driven Pulitzer Prize winning spinster, more famously known as the mind behind ‘Giant’, the big, sprawling film adaptation starring three of the most iconic movie stars of all time, published twenty three years before a historical fiction novel based on one man’s settlement and eventual ambitions unknown to most, in the historical context of the Oklahoma Land Rushes that occurred near the end of the nineteenth century.
The lead character, Yancey Cravat, who might as well also be known as Jesus Christ for the way he’s depicted: an impossibly noble man, with unlimited charisma and leadership skills but modest ambitions, impulsively nomadic and lover of everything that’s wild, an inexplicable social defender to whom the hopelessness of his causes in the larger scheme are no obstacle to his willingness to fight for what he believes is right and just. This description might really sound fascinating in perspective, but watching this character unfold, if we can call it that, is quite bizarre. It might have something to do with actor Richard Dix’s flamboyantly cartoonish acting, tilting his head back and forth as he utters every word, flapping one of his arms around as he delivers speeches to congregations and defense statements to juries, not being able to point a gun in one direction for more than two seconds, all with the same shit-eating grin of someone who knows is RIGHT, all the damn time.
That said, this level of incompetence is almost endearing, and present in every aspect of the film. Interesting are the many things it attempts to be, sometimes all at once: a moralistic Western about an honest man’s fight against society’s injustices, a family saga of a growing American dynasty, the melodrama of two spouses’ differing beliefs on how to deal with life’s struggles, and finally, a racial stereotypes’ kaleidoscope of sorts, one more embarrassing than the other. In keeping up with this ambitious goal, the film maintains a frankly schizophrenic tone throughout: I believe there isn’t a single dramatic scene to be swallowed with a touch of respect or decency, since they all seem to end up photobombed at any given moment with impossibly faithful assistants who, according to the film, STUTTER really funnily, snotty old ladies who happen to be quite UGLY, or HILARIOUSLY dumb negro help boys.
The passage of time is about as fluid and unforced as the film is racially sensitive, jumping from one decade to the other with minute long references on what’s happened to each character in a certain time, making little mention to how they develop as human beings, but rather as to what occurs to them amidst a world’s changing attitudes towards other people, as briefly as possible: subplots such as the son’s growing affection towards a native girl, the daughter’s bafflingly blunt gold digger antics, that would make Scarlett O’Hara and Alice Adams dismiss her a desperate whore, and the mother’s stubborn fight to keep her family’s hometown a morally immaculate place, all of these subjects that would make interesting pictures all on their own, are given insignificant amounts of screen time, and seem to exist solely as material to fill one scene after the other.
In the same say, the film makes the typically grating Hollywood mistake of being blatantly proud of its own progressiveness while somehow managing to avoid the racial issues at hand, never wasting opportunities of whites invigorating themselves with speeches about social injustice, but practically forbidding itself of even hearing these excluded groups speak: a sudden cut to a group of Indians present at an improvised multi-religious gathering spearheaded by Jesus himself ends up being quite unintentionally funny, as everything that’s said in the speech before or after this acknowledgement makes no reference to them even existing in the same room as the rest of them.
And every issue seems to be handled this way, as seen in one of the film’s many weird facets, that of a bizarre slut shaming courtroom drama, in which the town’s very own Whorehouse owner, Dixie Lee, is the target of a moral crusade sponsored by none other than the wife of Jesus Christ himself, played by a young, meek voiced Irene Dunne, who, by turning Miss Lee into his own personal Mary Magdalene, much to the mortification of his wife, after being contradicted on her shun the whore goals by her own husband, that not only volunteers to defend her arch nemesis on the grounds of the misfortunes she went through before she got where she was, manages to convince a jury and eventually, his sociologically skeptic wife, by showing how low we can all go due to unjust circumstances. Whores have feelings, too! Or what about Cravat, I mean, Jesus Christ’s hypocrisy in bemoaning the unjust taking of the Indians’ lands while still gleefully joining in the mass appropriation of them? Oops!
I must also pinpoint two positive things: a surprising, perhaps unintentional shot of two small children holding hands as they flee a bandits rampage against their town, and the portrayal of a Jewish clothes merchant rescued by Jesus right before he’s about to be gay bashed by a gang. And unexpectedly, I found myself finding surprisingly positive parallels to the other really maligned, decade spanning early Best Picture winner, ‘Cavalcade’, which should be easy to see coming once it’s clear that this is, amongst all those other things I mentioned, another tale of the privileged suffering through the ages. The ultimate reliance in the figure of the strong headed matriarch as a symbol of the will to go on despite all the hardships is slightly less undignified in this case in its failure to depict her as an individual. Major scenes fall flat, the clunky message remains the same, but its historical gratuitousness is less obvious, as is its willingness to be down to earth, and ‘of the people’, which actually makes it way less patronizing. As learnt by this year’s ‘The Help’, we can all agree Hollywood will never get how to explain all of our social baggage towards the differences of one another in a responsible way, but misguided, condescending portrayals of the unkindness of the human intolerance are still better than none at all.