Tim over at Antagony & Ecstasy just posted a review of Song of the South that was calmly reasoned, yet empathetic, dealing with the complexities and problems of race in film in Hollywood's Golden Age. I think he's right about the hypocrisies and blind spots in how and why people decide to whitewash history, and I don't doubt he's right.
However, I had an interesting experience when I sat down to watch The Mask of Fu Manchu, the 1932 version starring Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy. It was just so hateful I just couldn't finish it.
Now, I've watched some films that are notoriously hard to watch (such as Cannibal Holocaust) and I've watched films with bad racial politics (Gone With the Wind). But despite beautiful production design and a wonderfully campy performance by Boris Karloff, I just couldn't watch more than 30 minutes.
Because, in contrast to Song of the South, this is a film bound up in racist ideology, without any sense that anyone involved was trying to do something other than insulting. It is a film that sees miscegenation as more horrifying than any type of torture, that dismisses a variety of cultures and nations as one monolithic evil entity, and indulges in some of the worst "yellowface" casting ever. As far as I watched, there was not one single Asian person in the cast.
And meanwhile, the white "heroes" are such awful assholes and idiots, with no sense that anyone involved thought they are anything but justified. They talk about their servants in the most insulting terms and treat them brutally, and are surprised that they are betrayed! They are aghast at the idea that the Chinese might want Genghis Khan's artifacts for their own use instead of stuck thousands of miles away in the British Museum! They wonder at the glory of an "unplundered tomb" right before they set to destroying and plundering it! There is no irony, no nuance, nothing to betray even a hint that these behaviors are not the white man's right as a superior being.
I certainly don't want it banned, but I'm shocked that this can show on TCM (a channel I admire and watch religiously) without a hint of controversy, while Song of the South remains in limbo. And the next time someone goes on about how we need more movies like in the old days, when men were men and women were women, etc., I'll remember that the era they speak so fondly of also produced filth like this.