November 27, 2005

"Put on this wig and believe."

A photographer spends six years finding 1,431 persons to put on a big, curly, black wig and pose:
"The wig was perfect because it was a blank slate," Kenneth Solomon said. "The variable was their face, their expression, their interpretation of 'Put on this wig and believe.' "
Too bad the mosaic of tiny photos at the NYT link isn't clickable for enlargements. The impact of the mosaic is nice, what with the thematic unity provided by the wig, but we can't see enough of the varied expressions that the wig set off. Is it supposed to say something about race? You really can't tell from the article.

For something much more substantive on the subject of race, here's a NYT review (by Slate's Dana Stevens) of biographies of two black actors, who found success in Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s.

About "Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood" by Jill Watts:
Her trademark screen attitude of comic insolence reached its peak in "Alice Adams" (1935), when, playing Katharine Hepburn's family maid, Malena, she all but slammed down the plates in front of her white employers while resentfully chomping on a piece of gum.

Watts's sympathetic biography makes much of these moments of Trojan-horse resistance, linking McDaniel's finely calibrated defiance with modern notions in race theory: by infusing her body language with hostility or a parodic compliance, Watts argues, McDaniel was "signifying," deliberately turning racist tropes against themselves.
About Mel Watkins's "Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry":
He was reviled in the African-American press (and soon after, in the culture at large) as a racist caricature, the "subservient, dim-witted, craven, eye-rolling" Negro. By the 1960's, his name had become an epithet, like "Uncle Tom."

In a 1968 CBS special entitled "Of Black America," a young comic named Bill Cosby proclaimed that "the tradition of the lazy, stupid, crap-shooter, chicken-stealing idiot was popularized by an actor named Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry." The outraged Fetchit, then 66, movingly responded during a press conference: "They're making me a villain," but "if it wasn't for me there wouldn't be no Sidney Poitier or Bill Cosby or any of them."

2 comments:

tefta said...

Mr. Perry is right on target. Latter-day moralists who judge their elders and their betters, by standards impossible during earlier times make me furious. Whoopi Goldberg has an intro into the new Looney Tunes DVD explaining that the cartoons might be offensive. From Looney Tunes - Golden Collection, Volume Three "Whoopi Goldberg introduces the set, explaining that some of the ethnic gags would no longer be considered appropriate. But she correctly adds that to remove them would falsify both the history of animation and American popular culture."

We've come a long way when Ms Goldberg famous for her vulgar gestures in relation to the president can speak on morals and a major players on the entertainment stage don't see anything amiss in having a person of her low moral character introduce their wares.

Gerry said...

Ann,

This has a closer look at two of the wig faces (I thought there were more, but I was wrong).

G