By Tom Robotham
As the holidays approach, I find myself thinking about my all-time favorite movie for the season—Holiday Inn (1942), starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, which I’ve loved for nearly 50 years. The movie’s biggest claim to fame is that it introduced to the world Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas,” but it features a number of other fine Berlin songs, showcases Astaire’s brilliance, not only as a dancer but as a comedic actor, and is fueled by the chemistry between Astaire and Crosby.
Today, however, many people find it problematic, if not downright offensive, for one reason: In one scene, Crosby and his love interest (played by the lovely Marjorie Reynolds) perform a musical number in blackface. The particulars add a touch of irony, as the song celebrates Abraham Lincoln for freeing “the darkies.”
What are we to make of such movies now, whether they feature white actors in blackface or reflect racist attitudes in other ways? Should streaming services remove them from their offerings, as HBO Max recently did with Gone With the Wind? (HBO announced that the movie would return eventually, but with some sort of add-on that puts the racism of the film’s Southern revisionist history in context.) Should Holiday Inn remain among the slate of offerings, but with the blackface scene edited out? (That’s how I first encountered it on WPIX in New York, in the early 1970s.) Or should it simply remain, as is, leaving each viewer to make of it what he or she will?
Such questions are now at the forefront of our national discourse. A case in point: On October 15, New York Times columnist John McWhorter, who is black, published an excellent essay titled, “What I See in the Latest Blackface ‘Scandal.’” The catalyst for McWhorter’s essay was a recent dustup at the University of Michigan after a music professor showed his students a 1965 film version of Othello, with Laurence Olivier playing the title roll—in blackface. The teacher’s objective was to help the students understand the ways in which Verdi transformed Shakespeare’s play into the opera Otello.
Some students took offense because he hadn’t “warned” them about the blackface— others because he had dared to show the film at all. The professor subsequently apologized, but the students doubled down—calling the apology itself “inflammatory”—and the student newspaper demanded that the professor be removed as course instructor. (The incident is strongly reminiscent of a storyline in The Chair, a limited-run series on Netflix about a college English department. )
One student argued that the professor’s actions were as serious as sexual abuse. That comparison didn’t quite prevail. The professor is still employed. But he was barred from teaching this particular class.
McWhorter, in his essay, is deeply critical of this outcome. The professor, he argues, should indeed have prefaced the screening by saying that he was about to show them something that would require them to put on their “history glasses.” Nevertheless, he asserts, “College students shouldn’t need protection from an old film used to help them think about and debate the conversion of a classic over time. [The professor] was using the film to stir and inform artistic consciousness. To read that situation otherwise is deeply anti-intellectual.” (Emphasis added.)
I wholeheartedly agree. The University of Michigan incident is yet another example of how a segment of today’s political left is as fundamentally anti-intellectual as the far right—albeit with much better intentions. At least one student was outraged when the department chair suggested that it might be worth discussing the matter with the professor—as if there was nothing to discuss. But there are other examples that are even more absurd. While doing research for this essay, I came across a story from 2019 about a man who complained in a letter to an Arizona newspaper that he had been offended by a photo of men in ‘blackface’ on the wall of a local pub. Turned out that it was a photo of coalminers who had just gotten off work. Worse still, the letter writer wanted the photo removed even after its context was explained to him because, he said, simply seeing the coal miners with soot-blackened faces brought to mind the egregiously racist use of blackface in Birth of a Nation. In other words, he didn’t want to have to look at anything that reminded him of the blackface tradition, even if it had nothing whatever to do with that.
Thus, we’re left with two extremes dominating the public discourse about race.
The far right is more dangerous because they want to outlaw the teaching of “critical race theory”—by which they mean banning any acknowledgment in the classroom of the unassailable fact that racism remains widespread in 21st century America. This was exemplified in another recent Times article that detailed the efforts of a Republican state lawmaker in Texas who’s compiled a list of 850 books that he wants banned from classrooms and school libraries because they “might make students feel discomfort…” Among them were books that confront racism head-on. It’s rather rich that the right, which has long denigrated people on the left for being “snowflakes,” is now arguing that we must protect students from uncomfortable facts and ideas.
What troubles me is that many folks on the left are doing the same thing. As the incident at the University of Michigan illustrates, they seem more bent on punishment than enlightenment. The result is a kind of flattening out of the discussion of racism in America. The implication is that you’re either racist or you’re not. The thing is, racism is not black and white—no pun intended. It runs across a broad spectrum, from overt bigotry and racial hatred, to unconscious racial prejudice and lack of awareness. The irony is that both extremes seem to embrace the simplistic approach. The conservative Everyman thinks racism ended with the Civil Rights movement and defensively proclaims, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” The “woke” crowd, meanwhile, says, “If you make one misstep or misstatement that strikes us as racist, we will end your career.” What they’re really saying is that they have no interest in having a conversation in hopes of encouraging people think. The underlying belief seems to be that anyone who is not “woke,” as they define it, is hopelessly racist and needs to simply disappear.
My thoughts on this are not just based on news stories about hyper-reactive students or the guy who was “triggered” by seeing soot-covered coal miners. They’re based on countless conversations I’ve had about race over the decades, with white people and Black people alike, including many students. I think I’ve grown a lot because of those conversations, but I would never claim to be fully “woke.” I know that as a white man I can never fully understand what it’s like to be black in America in the 21st century. Therefore, I will never understand the full extent of racism. All I can do is keep trying.
Which brings me back to Holiday Inn. Every time I watch it, I’m struck by how ridiculous Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds look in that song and dance number. But it doesn’t horrify me in the same way that Birth of a Nation does. In that film, blackface is used from beginning to end. Moreover, it depicts Black men as vicious predators. The scene in Holiday Inn does not do this even remotely. It’s still racist, to be sure: There is no such thing as benign use of blackface. Under any circumstances it’s demeaning and helps to sustain damaging stereotypes. But if we’re going to talk about the blackface tradition as an example of racism in America, it’s important to consider all of its variations and nuances, not simply pull the blackface alarm bell and demand that it be eradicated from our cultural archives.
It’s entirely possible that I’m missing something. But for me, that scene in Holiday Inn is also a reminder of how far we’ve come as a society. Whereas this sort of casual and clueless racism was once widely accepted in mainstream popular culture, it no longer is. That fact, it seems to me, is an indication of progress.
This doesn’t mean we’ve come nearly far enough. Any white person with open eyes and a willingness to think about these matters should be able to see that racism remains virulent in our society. And the Black Lives Matter movement of last summer did a world of good in helping to raise consciousness. The thing is, that movement was sparked by the very real horror of the murder of George Floyd. And it led to discussions about the realities that Black people live with every day. Those discussions need to continue. But if we allow the conversation to degenerate into outrage over the screening of a 1965 film in a classroom, we will run the risk of undermining the whole enterprise.