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.”
Meanwhile, 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.