SIFF Gunga Din and Blackface Today
posted by May 26 at 18:26 PMon
I attended the first show in the Swashbuckler Saturdays program at SIFF, and—as a side note—the projection problems that plagued the Egyptian last year are back. No fire this time, but the film went out of focus at the first punch and the projectionist didn’t notice until the brawlers had straightened their uniforms and shuffled off to the next scene. Way to dampen the swashbuckling, dude.
The show was Gunga Din, a 1939 George Stevens action-adventure film, and one of those archival presentations that really could’ve used a scholarly introduction. The movie is still relatively entertaining, but it can be hard to get into the fight scenes when you’re having second thoughts about all that Jewish-to-Indian blackface…
… not to mention the cheery British imperialism, homosocial misogyny, California mountain ranges, and Yank accents peppered with probably ahistorical British slang. That post-lashing Cary Grant lounging about with his shirt calculatedly unbuttoned was also distracting.
But the rampant blackface in Gunga Din—which pretty much anybody would recognize as objectionable today—also reminded me of the new Michael Winterbottom film A Mighty Heart, which I saw earlier this week. Here’s Angelina Jolie as the French-Cuban wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl:
Her skin is clearly pigmented, she wears dark contacts, and the wig is Africanized too. Now, the character she plays in the film is more a caricature of Jolie herself than any stereotype one might have about persons of Cuban ancestry raised in Paris. She spends most of the movie being very pregnant, playing with adorable children of other nationalities, and worrying about her man. In that sense, her blackface get-up is in no way comparable to the abject character of Gunga Din, a childlike would-be soldier more loyal to the Queen of England than any of his darker-skinned countrymen.
But Jolie was undoubtedly cast in the role of Mariane Pearl because the producers needed a star, and there are no French-Cuban actresses of equal stature wandering around Hollywood. Why else was Sam Jaffe cast as Gunga Din?