Thursday, February 12, 2009

Goin' to Heaven on a Mule

I'm really fascinated by racial representation in film.  This is probably due to the fact that I'm an American Indian who has constantly been somewhat irked by the representation of my race in the industry that I love so much.

I'm currently taking a course called Multi-Cultural Perspectives in Cinema: The Musical. Recently we watched a film in class called Wonder Bar (1934).  Wonder Bar was directed by Lloyd Bacon, choreographed by Busby Berkeley, and starred Al Jolson.

The film details the events that take place one night at the titular Wonder Bar.  The bar is filled with people from a dozen different backgrounds, ethnicity, and races (though, importantly, there are no black people at the bar).  Two drunk American businessmen are trying to cheat on their uptight wives, while the wives are trying to cheat on their drunk husbands.  A Frenchmen who has lost all of his money is blowing the remainder of his money away as he plans on committing suicide that night.  The Spanish dancer Inez is in love with her gigolo dance partner, who is planning on running away with another married woman that night...if he can sell her stolen merchandise.  All the while, the proprietor of Wonder Bar...Al Wonder (Al Jolson)...runs the show, poking and teasing at the French, Chinese, Russian and homosexual employees and patrons.

Oh yeah!  Keep in mind that it's a musical.  A comedic musical.'s  sample of a musical number from the film...

Now, it's a bit manipulative for me to show this to you without you having seen the film and understanding the context.  As I've explained, just about every race and ethnicity in the film gets poked at.  As indefensible as it may seem, it IS possible to view this as a satire of common cliches and representations of African Americans.  I'd even make the argument that...if that is indeed what is going on's no different from The Chapelle Show or South Park.  

However, it's seriously the most extreme version of the "ribbing" races, ethnicity and sexualities receive in this film.  Viewing the film this way is also problematic because of how large a success the film was.  You can certainly feel the influence of Wonder Bar in the following video.

I suspect that Warner Bros. was simply trying to capitalize on the success of Wonder Bar with this cartoon.  The problem is that an entire generation of children watched this cartoon on a movie screen.  It's very troubling when you consider what attitudes this cartoon reinforces. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of racism is the utter thoughtlessness, which is perfectly captured in this cartoon.

See how problematic it is to view Wonder Bar as satire?  If you've seen the entirety of the Al Jolson black face scene in Wonder Bar you can tell how much it influenced this cartoon. However, there's nothing satirical in this cartoon.  This cartoon is replete with the attitude of simply not caring what the black community thought of it.  Even if you believe this to be satire and not blatantly racist (which I will disagree with you on), satire of racial relations coming from the race in the majority with all of the power seems completely insincere.  

The fact that it's based on the popularity of Wonder Bar brings that film to a questionable standing as well.  I still haven't decided whether or not I believe this film to be satire.  It is, however, a fascinating case for a study of racial relations in cinema.

They're fascinating to watch, and I'd love to hear what anyone else thought of them.  Though, remember that the scene by itself is taken out of context when not watched with the entire film (which is impossible to find).  I defy you, however, to not realize just how influential the cinema can be.

No comments:

Post a Comment