Fearful Symmetries

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30 September, 2006

"Banned" Looney Toons 5: "Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time"

"Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time" is a Merrie Melodie that was released on 8 August 1936 and is another of the "Banned 11", a group of 11 Merrie Melodies/Looney Toons shorts that were removed from circulation in 1968 for offensive racial stereotypes.

The short begins with a scene of a small town. Chickens are running in the streets but there are no people. A church bell begins ringing and the shot zooms into the steeple in the background. We then cut to the door of the church and out walks a portly preacher onto the stoop. With his big white lips, he is most definitely a stereotype. He starts singing in a rich baritone voice, calling his flock to church and greeting folks as they walk inside. When I first watched this scene, I found that the preacher reminded me of Paul Robeson, the great black actor and activist who basically told the House Committee on Un-American Activities to shove it.

The bells continue ringing and we are shown scenes of the townfolk as they prepare for and make there way to the church. The montage is full of caricatures of black people.

There's even a sequence involving a woman putting black polish on the heads of her children and having their father polish them so that their scalps are shiny.

You can see that the woman is a complete mammy stereotype - e.g. - Aunt Jemima. Many blacks shined shoes for a living during this time which, I assume, explains the polishing here. I also presume that this explains the racial epithet, "shine".

We now cut to another mammy figure calling out for her husband, Nicodemus. She finds him behind a fence shooting craps.

Notice the "Mamy's Barbeque Pit" poster on the fence.

She drags Nicodemus to church despite his protests that are voiced in a totally stereotyped, "Yes, mastah" kind of voice.

Nicodemus then sneaks out of church. Walking down the street, he comes to a chicken coop. He grabs a board and sneaks in.

His plot to steal a chicken doesn't go quite the way he had planned and he ends up getting knocked out cold. While unconscious, he has a dream. He falls down to hell where he is judged by Satan himself.

Reviewing Nicodemus' life, Satan uncovers a list of his crimes which are a litany of stereotypes: shooting craps, stealing chickens, missing church, raisin' dickens, stealing watermelons. Satan reads the list to him but, curiously enough, leaves out the last charge. Nicodemus is then tormented with such things as falling from a tall cliff and being thrown into a life-sized pinball machine before being brought before Satan once again.

The torture resumes with Satan's mini-minions poking Nicodemus with their tridents.

Poor Nicodemus wakes up to find that the poking is coming from the hens in the coop.

Now fully realizing the error of his ways, he heads back to church for some serious repentance.

After I finished watching "Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time", I found that I thought about stereotypes a lot. They are present here aplenty. But how do they emerge? What got me thinking along these lines was the chicken stealing. Chicken stealing is mentioned in various blues songs that I've heard. The singer remarks on stealing them from the white master as revenge or just taking one from the nearest coop because he is hungry. When you compare this film with various country blues songs, you find a lot of shared imagery – chicken stealing, church, the Devil, women trying to run men's lives, and gambling.

Think of a stereotype, any stereotype. I'll be you a dollar to a doughnut that there are some people on this planet that conform to that stereotype perfectly. So, in terms of the media (such as cartoons), where does reflecting reality end and stereotyping begin? How do we "enlightened" viewers in the 21st century "know" to be offended at this cartoon? Unfortunately, I can't find this short posted at YouTube or Google Video but I'm sure many people would have reactions similar to mine. Watching it again, I wonder why is it that Nicodemus serves as the most potent stereotype or why is it that the traits of his character are the ones that I feel the filmmakers wanted viewers to associate with all blacks? Nicodemus is the only townsperson that the audience sees stealing a chicken; he's the only one we see that gambles; he is the only one we see that declares he doesn't want to go to church. The implication here is that the rest of townspeople shown are good, happy, church-going folks. As a viewer, I shoved aside these positive elements of the majority of the townspeople and instead concentrated on the negative of one townsperson. I felt like I was supposed to view all blacks as gamblers as opposed to all blacks as happy church-goers. So why did I feel like the film was using Nicodemus to comment on all black people rather than the other folks in the town?

A lot of this has to do with me as a viewer in 2006. We are more "sophisticated" and "media-savvy", right? (Does this not also stereotype audiences and media creators from, say, prior to 1970 as not being savvy, as being simpletons?) For example, we "get it" and aren't offended when a television show today uses a stereotype but undermines it. Take Apu from The Simpsons. As an Indian who owns a convenience store, he is a stereotype. But the writers of The Simpsons play with and undermine the stereotype. The problem is that not every episode can fully do this for all the stereotypes on the show. So, you have episodes which focus on Apu. The viewer gets to see different sides of him. He has a home life, obligations to his parents, etc. Over the course of the show's 16 years, Apu's character has really been delved into and it is much more than a simple two dimensional cardboard cut-out. But I think one can cherry pick and find an episode that focuses on another character but has some of the plot driven by a visit to Apu's convenience store. Here, taken out of the larger context of the show, Apu is very much a shallow stereotype.

This occurred to me after reading this page about the mammy stereotype up at the Ferris State University website. Read this paragraph:

This was the mammy caricature, and, like all caricatures, it contained a little truth surrounded by a larger lie. The caricature portrayed an obese, coarse, maternal figure. She had great love for her white "family," but often treated her own family with disdain. Although she had children, sometimes many, she was completely desexualized. She "belonged" to the white family, though it was rarely stated. Unlike Sambo, she was a faithful worker. She had no black friends; the white family was her entire world. Obviously, the mammy caricature was more myth than accurate portrayal.

I noticed that a major element of the stereotype – the relation to the white family that a mammy would serve – is missing here because there are no white people in "Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time". Is it possible the Merrie Melodies folks were toying with or trying to undermine a stereotype here? It seems unlikely to me. But I still wonder about the audiences back then. I can definitively tell you how I feel watching these cartoons and, I think, give a sense of what audiences in 2006 fell about them, but I'm on much shakier ground when it comes to audiences from 70 years ago. Did people back then sitting in theaters see their own conceptions of race mirrored in these cartoons? Or perhaps they were conscious of the stereotypes but reveled in them because it was permissible?

We still use stereotypes in our media today. There are new stereotypes and they are often times used differently than 70 years ago, but they persist. And we barely bat an eye at some stereotypes in some older films. I would guess that millions of otherwise racially sensitive white folks watch Gone With the Wind each year and never stop to think that Mammy is a horrible stereotype. For some reason, Gone With the Wind and lots of other fare that you can watch daily on TV get a pass when it comes to racial stereotyping. It makes we wonder what people's reactions would be if these Merrie Melodies/Looney Toons were drawn so that the black characters did not have a black face look and instead appeared more realistically. (Or at least as realistically as Looney Toons could be drawn.) Watching these "banned" cartoons, it seems like, if you were to take away the Al Jolson look, you'd be left with material that's perfectly acceptable today at outlets such as Turner Classic Movies.

"Herr Meets Hare"
"What's Cookin' Doc?"
"Goldilocks and the Jivin' Bears"
"All This and Rabbit Stew"
|| Palmer, 11:41 AM


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