Saturday, March 13, 2010

Movies: Racism

Hands up all those who love watching the Marx Brothers movies.  Now keep your hand up if you’re a racist.  Hmm, all the hands went down.

I make this comment because of the fluid nature of cultural attitudes towards matters of race.

The 1915 silent flick Birth of a Nation by D W Griffiths is regarded as one of the most influential American movies. It was the first US “blockbuster”, established the concept of feature films (any film over 60 minutes) and used innovative technical techniques.

It is also one of the most controversial, depicting African-Americans as sex crazed villains intent on raping white women and showing the South as having been saved from evil African-Americans by the creation of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. In any of the roles where black actors had to come into contact with white women, the actors were white in blackface. To their credit, some cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago banned the film for racism. Despite high ticket prices, the film was a monumental hit and earned $10m, a phenomenal amount for the time.

Twenty two years later, Groucho, Harpo and Chico joined Alan Jones, Maureen O’Sullivan and Margaret Dumont for A Day At the Races, horse races, not races of people. Marx Brothers aficionados will recall fondly Chico as Tony selling Groucho as Dr Hugo Z Hackenbush the horse track tip in the Tutsi Fruitsy Ice Cream scene. They will also recall the intended frame up by seduction by Esther Muir (Groucho: “If I hold you any closer, I’ll be in back of you.”)

There is a standard format in Marx Brothers movies. At some stage Chico will play the piano and Harpo will play the harp, looking wistful, gentle and pensive.

A Day At The Races departs from that formula. At one stage the brothers find themselves in the black quarter of town where Harpo instead plays the flute, Pied Piper style, and attracts to himself all the black kids in the area. As he plays they ask “Who dat man?” and answer that he is Gabriel. This is followed by a parade through the black shanty town. Inside the various dwellings we see different sights: a mournful family singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen”, a jazz band with dancing, all asking “Who dat man?” when they hear Harpo’s flute. It turns into a large scale singing and dancing number, with Ivie Anderson singing “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm”. The Marx Brothers seek to make their escape using axle grease for blackface.  The scene is jolly, warm and friendly.

For copyright reasons the scene with Harpo has been taken off YouTube but you can still see the Ivie Anderson song and the black performers dancing the lindy hop at:

My question is: Is it racist?

The Macquarie Dictionary defines racism as “"the belief that human races have distinctive characteristics which determine their respective cultures usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule or dominate others." The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a belief or ideology that all members of each racial group possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially to distinguish it as being either superior or inferior to another racial group or racial groups. These definitions are reflected in the NSW Anti Discrimination Act 1977 which says that discrimination is less favourable treatment by reason of the person’s race, a characteristic that appertains generally to persons of that race or a characteristic that is generally imputed to persons of that race

The 1937 film A Day At The Races does depict African-Americans in a negative stereotyped way, as plantation darkies with innate abilities to sing and dance, and to be willing to do so at the drop of a watermelon. Does showing them so in a positive and friendly manner mean that the stereotyped depiction is not racist?

Ironically, given the attitude towards African-Americans at that time, the movie was bold in having such a scene, and a lengthy one at that, and in its sympathetic portrayal of African-Americans, The scene was therefore actually sympathetic to and supportive of African-Americans.

Some things to consider:
Does it make a difference that it was anti-racist originally?
Is there such a thing as friendly racism?
Does watching and enjoying the scene make you a racist?
Should there be exemptions for some forms of racism?

As a final note, Hattie McDaniels was the first African American to win an Oscar, in 1939 for best supporting actress as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Is the Day at the Races depiction better or worse than that in Gone With The Wind? Is the latter simply a depiction of African-Americans at the time of the Civil War or was it also a continuation of negative stereotyping?

Don’t look to me for answers, I’m only putting the questions.


  1. I find it odd that no one has commented on this subject in almost three years. I myself arrived here after having a guilty reaction to watching the cited musical number &, subsequently googled "A Day At The Races" racist subject matter out of curiosity.
    Yes, this musical interlude is definitely racist by current standards. But I do believe it makes a difference that it was initially intended as anti-racist. As racist as the mugging, shucking & jiving seems to us today, we must consider original intent. In the law, intent outweighs all other considerations during the deliberations of a jury.
    And if you know anything about the Marx Brothers, you understand that their prime motivation was to entertain & make people forget about their troubles for an hour & a half. There was no malice or ill will in any of their films. They were joyous romps of outlandish behavior with only the settings changing, an ocean liner, a college campus, the opera or a sanitorium. Never a mention of Aryan Nation or pitting races against one another. Harpi, Groucho, and Chico are enjoying themselves in this sequence & seem to consider the shantytown occupants their equals as far as I can tell. So, to answer my own original question after considering it awhile, I conclude that as uncomfortable as this scene in the movie might make me feel, it is not racist based in original intent.

    1. just watching marx brothers at the circus and found this Comment- harpo scene in this movie has him bashing a black kids trumpet with some kind of plunger while the kid is trying to play. =You can literally see the pain in the childs face as harpo bashes the trumpet into his lips. This is rascist, no doubt about it. Now having said that, Hollywood was indeed rascist at this time, seeing this just makes me sick

    2. There was no "bashing" at all, and no pain in the kid's face. What Harpo was doing, granted in an unorthodox way but this is a comedy, is form a makeshift MUTE for the bell of the trumpet, as jazz musicians often did, giving the trumpet that authentic 1930s & 40s sound. There are a few types of mutes, and a strip of cork is used which makes it stay in place.

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  3. Excellent question to bring up. I myself, being black, love the Marx Brothers and while some parts of that scene make me roll my eyes, I do understand that it was simply the context of the times and could've been much worse. Plus I also see this movie as giving a lot of black people jobs to display their talents.


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