A Tale of Two Racisms: ‘Jud Süß’ and Stepin Fetchit

racism Stepin Fetchit

Stepin Fetchit

If YouTube had never existed, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the chance to see Jud Süß (1940) and the Stepin Fetchit short film Slow Poke (1932).

Thankfully, I did, and I’m very grateful. I think everyone should see these movies – with good reason. They’re some of the most offensive pictures ever created, and they’re a record of the evils that the medium can bring about.

But, as I’ve suggested about a number of racist films previously, these flicks should be put on view in a museum or as part of an educational initiative so that viewers are provided with the proper context. The comments supplied on social media sites, unfortunately, don’t always indicate that all audiences understand the offensiveness of these depictions, and more than a few opinions tend to sympathise with the films’ intentions rather than be repulsed by them.

Yes, I’m suggesting these movies be displayed in an environment where people can learn from them.

I learned from them myself. Initially, I sought them out because I felt the need to watch them from a historical perspective. They were important to my cinema education, I believed, and I couldn’t go through my life without seeing them.

I didn’t realise how deeply they’d affect me.

The movies themselves are incredibly different in how they treat their subjects. Jud Süß – the story of a Jewish businessman in 18th-century Germany who becomes an advisor to a duke and sows public discontent through taxes, rape and general unpleasantness – is wartime Nazi propaganda and ultimately advocates the death of the eponymous antihero, as well as the expulsion of Jews from Germany. As a Jew who once interviewed two Holocaust survivors, I was extremely conscious of the insidious stereotypes broadcast in the film: the villainous main character (chillingly played by Ferdinand Marian) is homeless, an invading entity with the desire to grab others’ money and assault their women while destroying civilisations from the inside. Even when he disguises himself in the garb of non-Jews, his ethnicity is apparent, and Marian conveys how disreputable he is through effete hand gestures, snivelling comments and honeyed words. This is an alien who doesn’t belong, who should be ousted from society before he ruins it. In the film, when Süß coerces the duke to let other Jews into town, they arrive like filthy beggars, carting their dirty belongings with them into the clean, polished city. They are corrupting influences and only bring trouble. They are the worst kind of “other.”

racism  Jud SüßMeanwhile, Slow Poke takes a perspective that aims to be humorous while highlighting vicious stereotypes about black individuals. Fetchit (aka Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry) plays a character who is so thoroughly lazy that he won’t even get up to help his wife in the shack where they live. He speaks slowly and almost incomprehensibly, as if drunk, while relaxing in his rocking chair. When a young black child approaches him with a whole watermelon, he refuses it because it’s not cut up. Imagine that: a black man refusing watermelon! The idea was sure to cue peals of laughter from the racist contingent.

Ultimately, energetic dancing ensues, and Fetchit even runs on a treadmill-like contraption himself at the end. Like Jud Süß, this film brings up many of the most idiotic stereotypes, but here, viewers are supposed to chuckle at the protagonist instead of rise in anger at him. Compare that to The Birth of a Nation (1915), which shows black people as evil forces out to destroy America and has the Ku Klux Klan come to the rescue. In some way, TBoaN is the scary cousin of Jud Süß in its attitudes and the way it advocates violence, but the racism in Slow Poke is no less despicable; it’s like an addiction, and just a little bit can lead folks to cultivate enormous, hurtful misconceptions about a people. Slow Poke is no less at fault by portraying its protagonist as a harmless idiot.

I have heard the argument noting that Fetchit was actually poking fun at white people while superficially portraying lazy no-goodniks, but unfortunately, I didn’t see that in the film. I found it racist all the way, and it made for very difficult viewing. Jud Süß was just as troubling, yet the conviction of the performances and impressive production values gave it impetus. That was the goal, too; it had to be convincing to be effective propaganda. It needed to look splashy. And that it did.

One thing I’m not advocating when it comes to these two films – unlike, say, my opinions on nudity on TV – is that these pictures be hidden behind the screen of censorship. I believe just the opposite. They ought to be shown to everyone, to be part of an educational curriculum or featured in museums so people can understand how hurtful they are … and that some movies have been created for purposes other than entertainment. Ideally, I would’ve seen them in such a context as well, but I didn’t, and perhaps I missed a lot as a result. Nevertheless, I’m happy I got a chance to watch these pictures and hope others will, too. They’re part of our history, for worse, not for better, and they shouldn’t be forgotten. I know I won’t forget them. Their legacy precludes that.

I also want to stress that my suggestion that these movies be provided the right environment for their display is an attempt to make them more accessible to people. I went 40 years without seeing them, and I only wish I had watched them as part of my childhood schooling. Nowadays, they can be seen on YouTube, but you have to search for them, and how will people know to do that if they haven’t heard of them? These films should be distributed alongside a dose of recognition. They should be seen more widely. I saw them online, but how many others will? Can we afford to ask that?

I believe we can’t. So I say, put them on public view – like the title character who’s executed in front of everyone at the end of Jud Süß. It’s the best way of preventing them from being seen as sympathetic. It’s the best way of ensuring movies like these don’t get made again.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

8 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Racisms: ‘Jud Süß’ and Stepin Fetchit

  1. I have seen ‘Jud Suss’, once as part of a school project, and again as an adult later. I see it purely as an historical document of Nazi propaganda. Trouble is, will other people see it the same way, or will it fuel latent racism and antisemitism?
    I have not see the short ‘Slow Poke’, and have little desire to do so. As always, you raise an interesting point, and let’s hope that they are seen as somewhat ancient oddities, and for what they were.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete. It’s definitely a troubling point you raise: Would these films, if made more accessible, just get more people agreeing with them instead of reacting strongly against them? The sad thing is that racism is still alive and well in this world, and it has long roots. Also, just because something’s in a museum doesn’t mean people will agree with the reasons to put it on display. It’s certainly a question to wrestle with.

  2. I’ve never seen Jud Suss. Like you, I’ve at times felt that I should as an educational exercise, but I have never pulled the trigger on that. I am somewhat more familiar with Lincoln Perry, who reputedly was a talented comic actor who never had the chance on film to de mo strategy those gifts. There’s a new play which I hope to see soon called Fetch Clay, Make Man about the real life friendship between Perry and Muhammad Ali. Sounds fascinating. As for the censorship issue, you know it’s a dangerous area. I agree unpleasant works should not be hidden — simply removing the outward expression of hatred does nothing to remove the hatred itself. But I don’t know who should be trusted to select which titles require explanation, and who should trusted to provide it.

    • It’s a difficult issue, Jon, I agree. My hope is that with the advent of multimedia and interactive exhibits in museums, movies such as these will become more accessible. It’s just a hope, though, and I’m not sure how possible it is. There are definitely ways to show these films in the proper context; have we found them yet? I’m not sure.

      The play Fetch Clay, Make Man does sound interesting; I think it may be running “here” in NYC.

  3. I think it’s a very good question. I was shown The Birth of a Nation in high school, I believe, and we understood it to be the vicious diatribe that it is. My feeling is that these films would definitely be appropriate for older children when given the proper context.

  4. I wonder if showing films like these to children is wise. I at least had no difficulties with e.g. the 1930s comic ‘Tintin in Africa’ when I was a child – I just enjoyed them. Only later the offensive aspects became apparent.

    • That’s a very good question. I was shown The Birth of a Nation in high school, I believe, and we definitely understood it to be the vicious diatribe that it is. I think these films would be appropriate for older children to watch–in the right context. An educational framework would be ideal, I think, either via the classroom or museum.

Leave a Reply