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Archive for the ‘1959’ Category

Imitation_of_Life_1959_poster“Imitation of Life” (1933) is a book written by Fannie Hurst, a once-famous American writer. The book was made into a Hollywood film in 1934 and 1959. It was the only Hollywood film of the 1930s to view race as a serious issue. The film was so famous among blacks that Peola, the name of one of the main characters, was still a byword for self-hating blacks as late as the 1970s.

My understanding of the story before I saw the two films was that it was about a black girl named Peola who looked white and tried to pass for white by disowning her very black-looking mother. In the end she sees the error of her ways and comes home to make up with her mother – only to find that her mother has just died! She cries on her mother’s grave and the story ends, the story of the tragic mulatto.

That would have been a great film, especially if they showed how her heart was torn between the white world and the black world and her fight to become a whole person at peace with herself.

Well, that in fact is pretty much the story of “Passing” (1929) by Nella Larsen, herself a black woman who could pass, not “Imitation of Life” by Fannie Hurst, who was white even if she was part of the Harlem Renaissance scene.

Unlike “Passing”, “Imitation” has white main characters and was made into a Hollywood film. It seems that American film-goers, who are mostly white, do not care enough about a black girl passing to make a whole film about it. So, like in the 1959 poster pictured above, the black characters have the less important part of the story. (On the 1934 poster only the white characters appear!)

Both films are mainly about a white woman who becomes rich and famous and gives her daughter everything – but her love. Peola gets the subplot. She thinks by being white she will have everything – but she will not have her mother’s love.

The 1934 film sticks closer to the book, but it is slower and stiffer, like a stage play. Peola’s mother is pure Mammy, even to the point of wanting to give up millions to remain the servant of a white woman! Peola is not believable either: she wants to be white no matter what, her mother be damned! She is also a stereotype: the tragic mulatto – the idea that mixed-race people can never be happy.

In the 1959 film Peola, named Sarah Jane, gets more of a storyline so we find out more about her, but she and her mother are still the same two stereotypes, although less extreme and more believable. It also has a more powerful ending. Mahalia Jackson sings too!

The 1959 film is worth seeing, but do not get your hopes up. And, as always, the book is probably better than either film, though I do not know that for a fact: F. Scott Fitzgerald did say people would forget the book in ten years.

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Here are the top songs on the R&B charts now, 10 years ago today , 20 years ago, etc. Through the wonder that still is YouTube, you can hear them all (Can you believe it has already been ten years since “No Scrubs”?):

2009: Jamie Foxx and T-Pain: Blame It

1999: TLC: No Scrubs

1989:  Jody Watley: Real Love

1979: Peaches & Herb: Reunited

1969: The Isley Brothers: It’s Your Thing

1959: Brook Benton: It’s Just a Matter of Time

1949: Big Jay McNeeley’s Blue Jays: The Deacon’s Hop

Curiously, the hardest year was not 1949 but 1989! The top song on May 3rd 1989 was Karyn White’s “Love Saw It”. I could not even find a bad audio of a live performance for that one, so I went for Jody Watley’s “Real Love” which did not become number one till May 6th. But even with that one there was no embeddable music video for the radio version of the song.

Update: 2019: Lil Nas X: Old Town Road

2029:

2039:

2049:

2059:

2069:

2079:

2089:

2099:

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blackorpheus“Black Orpheus” (1959), also known as “Orfeu Negro”, is a French-made, Portuguese-language film that tells the old Greek love story of Orpheus and Eurydice but set in black Rio at the time of the Carnival. While it does present blacks as childlike, you do get to see Carnival and hear music by bossa nova great Tom Jobim.

The film won a Golden Palm at Cannes, an Oscar and a Golden Globe.

Like “Carmen Jones” (1954) it uses an all-black cast and music to tell an old story.

The story (spoiler alert) appears in Ovid, Plato, Rubens, Titian, Monteverdi, Cocteau and even Neil Gaiman. In both the Greek story and the film, Orpheus plays amazing songs on his stringed instrument (lyre, guitar). He falls in love with Eurydice but then she is killed (by a snake, the electric current of a tram line). Orpheus goes to get her back from the dead (Hades, voodoo woman) but he is told that if he looks back at her before he leaves he will lose her forever. He looks back. Orpheus carries her body and is killed by some women who have gone mad.

Eurydice was played by Marpessa Dawn, who is not from Brazil at all but Pittsburgh! Although she is a light-skinned black American woman, in some of the posters she is pictured as a white woman. Not sure how they got away with that. She died in 2008 just 42 days after Breno Mello, who played Orpheus (and is from Brazil).

The film comes up in Barack Obama’s book “Dreams from My Father”. When he was going to Columbia University his mother and sister came to visit. One night “Black Orpheus” was showing. It was an old film that his mother loved, so they went.

His sister thought it was “kind of corny. Just Mom’s style”. Barack could not stand the way it pictured blacks and wanted to leave. He was about to get up and go but then he saw his mother:

But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.

“Black Orpheus” had come out just before she met his father at the University of Hawaii.

Obama concludes:

The emotion between the races could never be pure, even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart.

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imageDB“Betsey Brown” (1985) is a coming-of-age story by Ntozake Shange, who is best known for writing “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” (1975). This book is based loosely on Shange’s own experiences as a 13-year-old black girl growing up in the middle of America in St Louis in 1959. That is just when the city started to send black children to white schools. Shange was one of them.

Betsey is like how I was at that age: reading books, her head in the clouds, full of wonder, feeling different from everyone else, being told how she should or should not be and, of course, wondering about the opposite sex. She feels inside more like me than the people I know. I felt that way when I was 13 and, to tell you the truth, I still feel that way. All of it.

So I had to read it.

The whites at school call her a nigger and keep away from her like there is something wrong with her, her mother asks why she has to like the most niggerish people, why she has to let everyone know what a niggah she is – when she is just being herself.

If she listened to all these people she would begin to believe there is something wrong with her. They want to shame her out of who she is deep down – which is far more beautiful than anything in their narrow, little minds. But when you are young it is hard to see that. The world is run by such people.

Betsey stays true to herself. She does not let the names get to her.

Shange makes this point by the English she wrote the book in.

She writes not in that particular kind of English you see in books that we all learned in school, what Shange has called White English, but in the English that blacks in St Louis in those days spoke and thought in. And there is not just one sort of Black English, but maybe four or five.

Her mother was careful to speak in White English but thought in an English that was blacker – but still much whiter than Betsey’s own English.

You are used to seeing Black English presented as bad and unlettered, close to broken. Shange presents it as something beautiful, almost like music, something more wonderful than White English, which by comparison seems stiff and ugly, like an old block of wood.

There is this particularly terrible form of White English that is the enemy of all thought and beauty, but if you do not write in it some important white people will think you lack intelligence and education. I have to hold my nose and write in it sometimes to be taken seriously. In fact, I am avoiding just such an unpleasant task right now.

Sorry, I just had to say that, but it is something this book made me see more clearly.

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