Can we laugh about this? Race on film

Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) -- the angry heart of Imitation of Life

I spent an hour with the Film Club charity in Battersea Park School in South London today,(I’m a trustee) discussing the treatment of race and racism on film. It was Anti-Racism Day, apparently. I chose clips from a sample of my favourite films  and TV shows growing up, with some trepidation. I may be a Wandsworth girl by birth, but what would today’s school children, many relatively recently arrived from Eastern European and African backgrounds, make of Peter Sellers blacked up as a bumbling Indian actor, or Mind Your Language’s stereotypes? Would what a British Asian family thought OK in the 1970s and 80s prove timeless or merely shockingly dated?

Imitation of Life (1959)

Douglas Sirk was himself a refugee from Nazi Germany. He was stunned by the segregation of the Land of the Free. And like Meera Syal, who once chose this as a favourite film at a BFI screening, I was deeply disturbed as a young child when I first stumbled across this deeply subversive film about American racism, masquerading as a glossy Hollywood melodrama about a glamorous actress. It felt like a film that was secretly speaking in a hidden voice to people who wanted to hear. The clip I showed has Sarah Jane, the daughter who passes for white, serving up food at a family party, with an exaggerated “black” accent, embarrassing her mother’s friend and hostess, Lana Turner. The students were intrigued by the shock of the embarrassment, and indeed the notion of “passing”.

The Party (1968)

Peter Sellers’ bumbling Indian actor trashes a Hollywood executive’s home in, what I explained to the students was an exercise in 1920s Chaplin/Keaton slapstick by Blake “Pink Panther” Edwards. I also admitted my extended Indian/Pakistani family loved this film. The students really enjoyed the clip, and felt that the key was his character, rather than the blacking up. This led to an interesting discussion around Richard Pryor’s comedy routine about different categories of black people, and the resonance with different audiences. When I suggested such Peter Sellers’ style blacking up would be impossible now, they reminded me of the later series of Little Britain and especially Come Fly With Me. Hmmm. A strange little cul-de-sac in early 21st century TV.

Hairspray (1988)

Considerably edgier than the saccharine musical film version, (I showed the clip of Mrs Pingleton trying to rescue her daughter from the “black” side of Baltimore) this delights in using the jargon of the time “Retards”, “Negro”, “mulatto”. Set around the  same time as Imitation of Life, it subverts in different ways.  Casting transvestite performance artist Divine as a Baltimore housewife and pop goddess Debbie Harry as a nasty racist it infiltrated Hollywood mainstream with John Waters’ gay outsider humour. Perhaps its success in doing so has diminished appreciation of its achievement. I went through a phase of watching this film once a week I love it so.

Mind Your Language (LWT – British television series 1977-86)

Ah, the 70s sitcom. After recounting my racist encounter that led to a star letter to Newsround as a 10 year old, the class looked a little bemused by my claim that this show remains hugely popular in the Indian subcontinent, where the DVD box set release was heralded in full page ads in the national press a few years ago. It was also apparently remade there in Hindi, with regional Indian stereotypes to replace the sexy French lady, the lecherous Italian and the bickering Indians (one of whom was Albert Moses in blackface and turban). So we explored the difference between the humour of warmth, which this show seemed to contain, in its own dated way, and the humour of hate. A clip of Love They Neighbour didn’t make it in time for me to illustrate this second kind of 70s “humour”, which is perhaps just as well. My mother used to storm into the living room and demand I turn off the telly when it came on. It provided an indelible memory of feeling callously excluded from mainstream culture.

My concern has been that modern 70s nostalgia airbrushes out the racism, as in Life On Mars. (The producers admitted they knew “loveable” DCI Gene Hunt would not be loveable if he spoke like a real 70s copper. Some sexist banter was another matter of course). This led on to my thoughts on Downton Abbey, about which the less said the better,  but we ended with a positive discussion about Four Lions — a film the class, many of them from Muslim backgrounds — clearly enjoyed. It brought us full circle to discussing the power of film versus TV and humour versus melodrama to deal with dark themes. Four Lions had started out as a sitcom. Immaculately researched by Chris Morris, who spent many days in the Old Bailey watching trials, like that of the Operation Crevice fertiliser bomb plotters, it ended up not on TV (too dangerous) but as a comedy film as wickedly black and subversive as the greatest Ealing comedies. Knowing that films like this are being made and enjoyed by younger generations left me grinning, too.


About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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