- Early silent- and classic-era Westerns reflected the culture’s typical racist attitudes. A common stock character was the comic Negro, a term reflecting the inherent racism of these films. Invariably these characters were servants, “menial” help, or simply the easy butt of a few jokes by the dominant white class. They could be trusted to be kind and gentle but were never considered equal to any white person on the set. Often they were treated more like family pets than like people, even by the major, normative characters. Standard scenes portrayed these characters as lazy, shuffling about when they should be hurrying, easily frightened by ghosts, and showing popeyed expressions, the huge whites of their eyes standing out against their dark faces. Commonly, a scene called for these characters to hide in the dark, giving themselves away when they either opened their huge white eyes or smiled with large white teeth. Several comic Negro character actors such as Stepin Fetchit, Ernest Whitman, and Willie Best (“Sleep ’n’Eat”) made long careers in these roles. Even as late as John Ford’sThe Searchers(1956), in Mose Harper (Hank Worden) we see a kindly black man who is naturally religious to the point of superstition. As the whites get ready for an Indian attack, Mose looks up and says, “That which we are about to receive, we thank thee, O Lord.” Female roles were similarly offensive, with large African American women playing the kindly “mammy” or housemaid and nurse for white children.Fortunately, these characters disappeared from films after the civil rights movement of the 1960s empowered African Americans to express their deep offense at such degrading racial images. Many re-release versions of early films cut scenes with these characters, out of respect for African American sensibilities.See also CLICHES.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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