Racism and Hollywood go together like racism and Washington DC – and to prove it, here’s a list of 10 classic movies with racist overtones.
1. “The Birth of a Nation” This charming relic from a bygone era is perhaps the grandaddy of movies with racist overtones. In fact, they’re not so much “overtones” as “tones.” The plot is as racist as they come – a depiction of the “heroic” Ku Klux Klan rescuing the Union from evil negroes who dared to demand equal rights from whites. Movie (and historical) lore holds that it’s this movie that was responsible for the KKK’s surge in popularity back in the early 1900s. Even then-President Woodrow Wilson got caught up in Birth-fever, allegedly claiming that it was “like writing history with lightning.” Really racist lightning.
2. “Broken Blossoms” This, as far as movies with racist overtones go, is a relatively benign love story from DW Griffith, the same man who made “Birth of a Nation.” It concerns a “yellow” (we told you it was racist) man’s love for a white girl. There must be a Tiger Woods joke in there somewhere…
3. “King Kong” There have probably been books written about this’ status as a movie with racist overtones. The allegorical reading tends to be to the effect of white characters going to a strange island and bringing back one of its giant inhabitants back in chains. Once they return to America, Mr. Kong (or the slaves) is none too happy at the situation, so he goes on a rampage. Kind of racist, right? And yet it’s not unsympathetic to the oppressed parties in the situation by a longshot.
4. The “Charlie Chan” Series Charlie Chan is a beloved character, and with good reason. In some ways he broke ground for Asian characters in the movies, since instead of being a dull-witted fool (like the cook in “King Kong”), Chan is always the smartest guy in the room. Now if only they could have hired an actual Asian to play the part.
5. The “Mr. Moto” Series This other Asian-detective-solves-crimes series from 20th Century Fox has the same basic problem as the “Chan” series – you have a white actor (in this case, the incomparable Peter Lorre) playing a nonwhite character – always a tricky area. The hurtful stereotyping is thankfully kept to a minimum, but the fact that these are movies with racist overtones can’t be totally ignored.
6. “Gone With The Wind” Ah yes, remember the good old days of the pre-Civil War South? Men were men, women were women, and black people were property who worked for free. “Gone With The Wind” is a great movie, but it can’t be denied that it is a movie with racist overtones as well.
7. “Gentleman’s Agreement” Anti-Semitism was a big problem in the 1940s, and the filmmakers behind “Gentleman’s Agreement” should be commended for tackling the subject matter head-on. And yet it remains a movie with racist overtones in that the moral of the story is essentially “don’t discriminate against Jews, because the Jew next door might be an undercover Gentile.”
8. “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” Mickey Rooney’s yellowfaced character in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” is infamous even among those who haven’t seen the movie. Not only is it nakedly racist – its greatest crime is that it’s NOT FUNNY. Racism is bad enough, but unfunny racism is intolerable!
9. “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” Guess who? It’s racism! You won’t likely find this movie on many lists of movies with racist overtones, but if you actually watch it you’ll find it pretty disturbing. In fact, the black-man-and-white-girl couple that forms the centerpiece of the plot seem oddly chaste. They only kiss once, and even this is shown in a reflection of a rearview mirror, like it’s a murder scene in a Hitchcock movie.
10. “Star Wars” Okay, so there are NO black people except for Lando, who turns out to (SPOILER ALERT) be a traitor. And how come Vader has to wear BLACK all the time?