Tag Archives: racism

Ill-met by sunlight: Meursault Investigation

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Pros: first chapter and implicit critique of post-independence Algeria

Cons: rambling and disingenuous

In the Meursault Investigation, Algerian Muslim Kamel Daoud provides something of a counter-narrative the Albert Camus’s 1942 novel L’étranger (The Stranger in the US, The Outsider in the UK and Commonwealth), elaborating on a peripheral character, the Arab never given a name in the account of a pied noir (Algerian-born man of French descent) clerk Meursault, as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea did on the madwoman locked upstairs in Jane Eyre. At least the first chapter (excerpted and easily standing alone as a story published in the New Yorker) somewhat fills in the character of the heretofore-nameless Arab who was shot on the beach. The first chapter of The Meursault Investigation is a memoir by Harun (the Arabic form of Aaron), who was seven in 1942 when Meursault shot his brother Musa (the Arabic form of Moses) on an Algiers beach.

The murder of Musa haunts the rest of the aged Harun’s rambling memoir (which is more like Camus’s La Chute/The Fall than it is like L’étranger). Harun exacted a delayed and displaced revenge on the Algerian French by shooting one, Joseph Larquais, just after the independence of Algeria in 1962. Although the Algerian police were annoyed that this murder occurred after independence, Harun was not tried (whereas Meursault was tried and executed). Harun is affectless, like Meursault.

Harun treats L’étranger as testimony not as fiction (while Daoud has faulted his Islamist critics for failing to distinguish his fiction from factual narration). Harun/Daoud occlude a rather important fact from Camus’s (Meursault’s) book: Harun’s knife. Earlier in his last day of life, Harun (according to Meursault) was one of three Arabs who attacked and knifed Meursault’s friend, Raymond. According to Meursault’s account, later, on the beach, Meursault saw the Arab alone on the beach. After the man took out his knife, Meursault shot him. That is, it was not just the disorientation of near-sunstroke, but a semblance of “self-defense” that resulted in the death of the unnamed Arab now named Musa. It may have been unjustified, but it was not entirely gratuitous, as Harun/Daoud claim.

Leaving aside the implausibility of Camus’s plot in the colonial court system in which a pied noir is sentenced to death for killing an armed Arab who had already knifed another pied noir (Raymond), there is a significant asymmetry between Meursalt’s murder and Harun’s. In my reading of the two novels, neither killing was premeditated, nor philosophical, though Harun’s was more cold-blooded—and illuminated by the moon in Oran rather than the mid-day sun on an Algiers beach.

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Both killers are haunted by their mothers for whom they cannot muster proper filial piety: Meursalt’s died shortly before he killed the Arab; Musa’s not only egged him on but (very implausibly) is still alive seventy years after her elder son’s death. Musa himself recognizes that he “was practically the murderer’s [Meursault’s] double.” (with a name resonating both with the author (Camus) and the murderer (Meursalt, who is denied a first name).

An imam of the Islamist Awakening Front proclaimed a fatwa against Daoud for his fictional character (Harun’s) apostasy. Harun does not question that there is one god, or even that Muhammad was his prophet (the two essential beliefs in determining whether someone is a Muslim), although Harun finds it implausible that God would speak to only one person (though he also suggests, “Friday? It’s not a day when God rested, it’s a day when he decided to run away and never come back.” Daoud was not even born in 1962, and no more committed murder in 1962 than Camus did in 1942. (I suspect the characters’ disdain for religion reflects that of both authors, however).

That Daoud is in danger from a fatwa does not make his novel a good novel, nor does the awards the novel won in France (the Prix François Mauriac,  the Prix des cinq continents de la Franophonie, and the Prix Goncourt for first novel). I think that the opening chapter about Musa is a bracing protest against the denial of a name to the man killed in Camus’s novel, but that the rest is ill-structured and sometimes tedious, as Harun increasingly becomes like a garrulous Camus character (and Musa remains a shadowy figure even if he now has a name).

©2017, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Dorothy West’s The Living Is Easy

Dorothy West (1907-98) is often called the youngest writer of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly close to Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Her novels were few and far between (The Living Is Easy in 1948, The Wedding in 1995), though she published some short fiction, some of it collected in The Richer, the Poorer (also in 1995) and regular columns in the Martha Vineyard Gazette (some collected in a 2001 collection. Her work, in marked contrast to most Harlem Renaissance writings, deals with the very hue-conscious African American bourgeoisie (which included sleeping car porters as well as attorneys, physicians, and entrepreneurs—affluent only relative to the mass of blacks pouring north).

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As a child, West lived on Brookline Avenue in Boston. She was educated at the Girls’ Latin school in Boston, where she was born and where she died, though she lived in Martha’s Vineyard from 1943 on. I find her first novel, The Living Is Easy, offputtting. Its protagonist, Cleo, is a sneaky, power-hungry, greedy older sister, who dominated her three younger sisters growing up in the South. She latches onto “the black banana king,” Bart Judson, whose skin is much darker than hers.

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(cover of reprint edition with drawing of author by Richmond Barthé)

After producing dark-skinned daughter, Judy, she finagles a large house where she can sleep separately from him and gather her sisters, each of whom is married and has one child (including one boy, Tim, who is blond and whom Cleo wants not to see). What Cleo told Bart would be short visits turn into permanent residencies, so that none of the house can generate rental income, and so Cleo can boss around a large family without the unpleasantness of having sex with her dark-skinned husband.

Skin hue is very, very important to the characters in the novel, and to the “black bourgeoisie” throughout the US, not only in Boston). Cleo despises most of the immigrants from the South, loving and hating her own sisters and their shared rural, poor background. Bart provides for Cleo’s family, provides affection to Judy that Cleo does not, but eventually looses his business in the face of competition from supermarkets. Cleo robs him, lying about most everything, starting with the amount of rent she pays the white owner of the house, who is proud of the Boston abolitionist tradition, but appalled by the mass migration of Irish people to the neighborhood.

Bart is based on West’s father, Isaac Christopher West, though I have difficulty believing anyone could be so successful in business and so easily ripped off by a wife who provides him neither affection (often calling him “Mr. Nigger,” alternating with “Mr. Judson”; I don’t recall her ever first-naming him). The other male characters are also hard for me to believe. Adelaide Cromwell’s useful afterword to the 1982 Feminist Press edition establishes the basis of other male characters on real people, the best-known (if not very widely) being journalist Monroe Trotter, the model for Simenon, a self-righteous “race man” whom Cleo manipulates into marrying a former bordello-keeper with a Catholic vocation. There is a shooting by one of Cleo’s brothers-in-law, and the physician is caught doing abortions in addition to his cancer research.

I think I am making the novel sound livelier than I felt it was while reading it. A lot of the action is in the last fifth of the volume. Cleo’s contempt for males runs through the book, both in dialog and in indirect discourse, frequently labeling others “niggers” and “darkies.” Cleo is a racist, classist, lookist, man-hating liar and cheat, destroying her sisters’ marriages and arranging a loveless one between Simenon and “the Duchess” (who finances his paper that has neither a black nor a white audience.

 

BTW, the tittle is either ironic or misleading. The living was not easy for any of the characters, except Bart before Cleo got her hooks into him. West was an understudy in “Porgy and Bess,” and must have taken the title from “Summertime (and the living is easy…”)

 

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 portrayal of racism

Although it is film written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz between “A Letter to Three Women” and “All About Eve,” (for which Mankiewicz won Oscars for his direction and for his screenplays in both 1950 and 1951), “No Way Out” is best known as the site of Sidney Poitier’s screen debut. Poitier plays the part of a young doctor in a public hospital accused by Ray Biddle, a psychotic “white trash” racist (played with all the stops out by Richard Widmark) of killing his brother after the two of them had been shot during a failed robbery. Playing Dr. Brooks’s brother John, a mail carrier who jokes that his brother may be able to deliver babies but is not qualified to deliver mail (because he does not know what the capital of South Dakota is), Ossie Davis also made his screen debut in “No Way Out,” as did his real-life and often-time screen wife, Ruby Dee.

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Poitier was billed fourth, Davis and Dee not at all, but the film was obviously important in showing an African American professional and a range of sympathetic African Americans onscreen. “No Way Out” is also a gripping melodrama with a race riot (actually a pre-emptive strike from “N_____rtown” against the white slum from which the Biddles came). Mankiewicz has a reputation for being a great writer of dialogue with little interest in the visual aspects of cinema: “all talk, and no action.” To me, “The Quiet American” is decisive disproof of this indictment, though I wonder how anyone who has watched Bette Davis descend the stairs at the party in “All About Eve” could have thought such a thing (even with all the great lines Davis and George Sanders have in that delirious backstage epic).

Although he had just played a heroic doctor (with Jack Palance playing the villain) in Elia Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets,” Richard Widmark turned in a frightening performance as the fomentor of a race riot and rabid racist. His own 1947 debut in “Kiss of Death” established him as the primo psycho of the post-World War II decade. Widmark had a frightening smirk and a truly blood-curdling giggle.

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Instead of getting to chew up the scenery and act out every impulse, Poitier’s character is trying to prove himself and to be “a credit to his race.” He tries to dissuade a black orderly (played by Dots Johnson, who played the drunken M.P. in Rossellini’s “Paisà”) from taking off to join the rumble, telling him that, if he does, he’s “no better than they are.” The orderly replies that it is too much to expect black folks to be better than white folks, since trying to prove they are as good as white folks gets them attacked, maimed, and killed.

Dr. Brooks’s boss, Dr. Dan Wharton (Stephen McNally) also counsels pragmatism, but Dr. Brooks is determined to prove himself. He undertakes a dangerous course to get the autopsy that Ray Biddle refuses, even after his former sister-in-law Edie (played by Linda Darnell, who had been Lora Mae, another woman who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and bettered herself in Mankiewicz’s previous film) tries to convince him to authorize it and thereby test the claim that the “n____r” doctor killed his brother.

There is little preaching in Mankiewicz’s screenplay (which was nominated for an Academy Award, losing to Mankiewicz’s script for “All About Eve”). It also has a refreshingly direct confrontation of tokenism and double standards. The film’s ending is predictable, and Edie’s oscillations are as unconvincing as is her couture (for a divorced drive-in car hop), but the film is more than a historical curiosity. It is a gripping, noirish melodrama without outstanding performances. . . and striking black-and-white cinematography by Milton Krasner (Bus Stop, A Double Life, Boy on a Dolphin, and Oscared for Three Coins in a Fountain).

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who, like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, really was the author of the films he directed (and in many instances produced) deserves greater recognition in the pantheon of film-makers. During the 1950s Mankiewicz stretched Marlon Brando into Mark Antony and Sky Masterson (in, respectively, “Julius Caesar” and “Guys and Dolls”), and I particularly like his adaptations of “The Late George Apley” and “Sleuth,” Some of his own witty screenplays include “People Will Talk” (the film he chose when the San Francisco Film Festival honored him with its lifetime achievement award), “The Honey Pot,” “The Quiet American,” and “Five Fingers.” The latter two are the most visually striking of his films and among the best espionage films ever made.

 

copyright 2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Samuel Fuller’s Long-Suppressed Masterpiece,”White Dog”

The gruff, cigar-chomping Sam Fuller (1912-1997) has long been a favorite of auteur theorists, particularly French ones, as a maverick writing and directing movies in his own, distinctive way. I think that he was sometimes a bad writer of dialogue and usually a very good director of actors and actresses. He recurrently examined the pathologies of American racism, and not just the black-and-white binary, but also including Asians, most notably in “The Steel Helmet” (1951) and “The Crimson Kimono” (1959), and Native Americans in “Run of the Arrow” (1957). The most searing of all was Trent, a black man (Hari Rhodes) in an insane asylum who had internalized the hatred spewed by the Ku Klu Klan and conceived of himself as a klansman in “Shock Corridor” (1963)

At least Trent was the most searing portrayal of racist pathology before the title character in Fuller’s last American movie, “White Dog,” which was made in 1982, but did not have a US release until 1991 and a 2009 Criterion Edition DVD with very interesting recollections by Fuller’s widow Christa Lang (who has a small but memorable part in the movie as a veterinarian’s nurse), Curtis Hanson (who adapted Romain Gary’s novella and then worked with Fuller in revising the script… before going on to direct movies such as “LA Confidential” and “Wonder Boys”), and producer Jon Davison (who had more commercial success with “Robocop”). In addition to intercutting interviews with those three, the DVD disc also includes a text interview with dog trainer Karl Lewis Miller (who took the part of a would-be rapist in the movie and went on to the animal-training work in the “Babe” movies). The booklet includes essays on Fuller and “The White Dog” by J. Hoberman and Armond White and an interview of the dog imagined by Fuller himself.

The movie

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Criterion has also managed to release a very good-looking (albeit very 1970s-looking) print, shot by Bruce Surtees (Lenny, High Plains Drifter), with a very fine score by Ennio Morricone heightening suspense and pathology.

Setting up the main story takes a while and is somewhat klunky (as I already said, Fuller sometimes was an inept writer, though some of the blame for this probably should be assigned to Hanson).

An actress whose house in the San Fernando Valley seems rather opulent for her less-than-stellar career, Julie Sawyer (Kristy MacNichol, who is skimpily dressed through most of the movie), hits an all-white German shepherd on a dark road. Ascertaining that the dog is alive (and blocking both lanes of a blind curve…), she takes it to a veterinarian. The nurse (Lang) tells Julie that only puppies are adopted, but that if she advertises the lost dog its owner might come forward.

With her vacuous screenwriter boyfriend (Jameson Parker) she posts signs on utility poles (that would certainly blow off, since they are only stapled at the top and bottom…).

The dog attacks a rapist, endearing itself to Julie. Her boyfriend recognizes that she has an attack dog that is dangerous and urges that it be put down. Then it wanders off and attacks a black man driving a street-sweeping vehicle and returns to Julie, who washes off the blood without any apparent curiosity on how her dog came to have all that blood on him.

After having visited the dog pound and watched one dog being put down, Julie takes the dog to an animal-training facility run by Carruthers (the ever crusty and herein charming Burl Ives). The dog attacks a black employee. Carruthers’s main trainer, Keys (Paul Winfield), the son of two anthropologists, has a mission in life to find a way to recondition dogs trained to attack black people.

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In two earlier instances, he managed to decondition “white dogs” attacking blacks, but they instead attacked white people (this is what the trainer in Gary’s story that originally appeared in LIFE magazine aimed to do). Keys believes that if he can succeed in salvaging one of these “white dogs,” that will discourage training others (a liberal hope, though running into conservative results).

The dog (actually, there were five white dogs playing the part) is ferocious. He certainly scared me — and often! Fuller included juxtapositions of the dog’s point of view (low) with that of Keys and Julie, as well as showing more objective shots of the deprogramming (and a very good one of Julie, Keys, and Carruthers having dinner when a policeman appears). Apparently, Paramount executives hated the dog POV shots and shelved the finished product, judging the focus on racism (the whole point of Gary’s story and novella and Fuller’s movie!) too incendiary. They wanted a horror movie, a sort of “Jaws on Paws.”

As I said, the attacking dog is plenty scary, and Ennio Morricone exacerbated this as well as John Williams did the shark in “Jaws” IMO.

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It is astounding that anyone could have thought the movie was racist rather than anti-racist, but, despite Fuller’s track record, the movie was denounced before anyone had seen it by the NAACP., which also threated telecast.  It was released (and made money) in Europe, but did not play at all in the US until 1991 (when it was acclaimed by critics, but still not given any general release). Criterion has done right by the movie and made many earlier Fuller movies available.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Sam Fuller’s “Steel Helmet”

The 1959 movie, starring Gregory Peck, directed by Lewis Milestone, about taking and holding a tactically meaningless position, “Pork Chop Hill,” is probably the best American movie set within the Korean War (for discussion of others and of the great Korean movie set in the war see here), Sam Fuller’s (1951) “The Steel Helmet,” however, is my favorite, one from which Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg drew in “Raging Bull” and “Saving Private Ryan, respectively. (Spielberg also cast Fuller in “1941,” as did Wim Wenders in “The American Friend.”)

“The Steel Helmet” is available on DVD in the barebones (no extras) Criterion Eclipse series, along with Fuller’s baroque tale of forging land records, “The Baron of Arizona” and “I Shot Jesse James” with John Ireland (Red River) playing Robert Ford.

Racism was a recurrent subject for Fuller (most memorably the black “nlgger”-hater in Fuller’s surrealistic 1963 “Shock Corridor). Many Hollywood films set within the Korean War showed black men in the newly integrated US Army proving themselves, none more often than Sidney Poitier. The platoon in “The Steel Helmet” has considerable racial diversity even without the Korean orphan boy who adheres to the very gruff WWII survivor, Sgt. Zach (Gene Evans).

The helmet that is the backdrop for the opening credits turns out to be on the head of the sergeant, who has been tied up. The Korean boy, whom he will dub “Short Round”* (William Chun) approaches with a knife and cuts the bonds. Sgt. Zach doesn’t call him a “gook,” but provides the dubious compliment of saying that the boy “looks more like a dog face than a gook.” Throughout the movie, he resists the attempts of the boy to befriend him or turn him into a surrogate father. The viewer suspects that Sgt. Zach cares more than he admits, and eventually proves it… in a way that was so shocking to American audiences of the time that it led to an FBI investigation of Fuller (a very blunt-speaking WWII veteran, like Sgt. Zach). Back in those days, it was unthinkable that Americans might contravene the Geneva Conventions (let alone contend that there was no need to be bound by them, as the current president’s legal hacks like John Woo did).

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A North Korean major (Harold Fong) who has become a prisoner of the platoon goads Zach, along with attempting to establish a solidarity with Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo — who is called “Buddhahead” by Sgt. Zach) on the basis of race and the racism both know to be prevalent in the US, not least in the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

Not that American racism is ancient history within the movie or confined to the US homeland! Like the black medic, Corporal Thompson (James Edwards), Sgt. Tanaka is far more competent than the white soldiers — and the officer too stupid to listen to the voice of experience, when it comes from anyone nonwhite. Despite their ongoing frustrations, neither Tanaka or Thompson takes the bait and pull together against the assaults from without (a low-budget attack) and the Red Devil (communist) trying to mess with their loyalty to their country inside the Buddhist temple that shelters them — and is rather filled by a large Buddha that looms over the proceedings).

The camera, often shooting from low angles, moved fluidly, and Fuller overcame a tiny budget ($100K) that allowed only ten days of shooting (in the studio and in Griffith Park, a not obviously Korean-looking locale!) by showcasing hard-headed individuals (race not being the only basis of differentiation; for instance, there is Pvt. Baldy, who would return along with Evans in Fuller’s bigger-budget but more generic “Fixed Bayonets”).

Rational analysis would question the survival of the small band of Americans through a massive assault and the devotion of “Short Round” to Sgt. Zach can easily be interpreted as racial masochism in ways in which the story participates in rather than clearly critiquing (as would be the case for that in Fuller’s later “Shock Corridor.” I was able to suspend disbelief with ease (much greater ease than for Fuller’s would-be Summa, “The Big Red One”), fascinated by the dynamics both among the Americans and between them and their high-ranking captive.

A remarkable thing about “The Steel Helmet” is that it was made in 1951, while the war was raging, but that is far from being its prime or only interest.

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* None of the Americans is interested enough to ask the boy’s name. “Short Round” is insulting in that it refers to a bullet that does not make it to its (lethal) destination. It has some irony in that the boy was not short by American (let alone Korean) standards.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Also see my review of Fuller’s other 1951 Korean War movie, Fixed Bayonets.