Today is the Fourth of July. I’ll spend a couple of hours this morning watching the local parade, which passes my condo complex, sitting in a camp chair and greeting neighbors. I’ll shut the windows to keep out the sound of those @#$%^&* illegal fireworks.
I’ll also watch a movie. That may seem like quite a segue, but I grew up at the movies. In years past, my mother’s family owned movie theaters, from the silent era on.
The movies also play a role in my novels. In my Jeri Howard book Bit Player, Jeri’s case takes readers back to Hollywood in the 1940s. My most recent Jill McLeod book, Death Above the Line, finds Zephyrette Jill taking a break from riding the rails, She winds up in the cast of a film noir. She also meets a former actress who was blacklisted.
The movies of choice for the Fourth of July are Yankee Doodle Dandy and 1776. In the first, Jimmy Cagney dances across the screen as that quintessential song and dance man George M. Cohan. And 1776 gets me every time, with William Daniels as John Adams. Benjamin Franklin is played by Howard Da Silva, who was blacklisted, for real.
So, watching these movies is a holiday tradition. It’s all good, right?
Yet lately, I’m bothered. There’s a blackface number in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
I know blackface is a theatrical tradition dating back to minstrelsy in the mid-19th century in the United States. In the 20th century, there are Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer and Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn. That’s why I can’t watch Holiday Inn, for all that many folks consider it such a classic. That blackface number in Holiday Inn is excruciating. And the one in Yankee Doodle Dandy makes me wince.
So, 1776. I’ve seen the musical on stage several times, and I have the DVD of the movie. The most difficult part, for me, is the battle and compromise over slavery. Just a movie, right? With terrific performances and wonderful songs? Well, it’s a movie with lots of undercurrents and lots to think about. Those founding fathers “twiddle, piddle and resolve,” according to the lyrics of one song, as they argue about whether to declare independence and then about the writing of the declaration. We’re still arguing about the constitution that followed, facing—or not—the consequences of those actions in Philadelphia all those years ago.
Flawed people, living in different times. Those founding fathers were white men of property who viewed the world through that lens, despite Abigail Adams’s admonition to her husband to “remember the ladies.” Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. And the slaves? Well, three-fifths of a person, a compromise at the constitutional convention that increased the power of slave-holding states.
For decades, from the 19th to the 20th century, many white performers and audiences didn’t see anything wrong with performing in blackface, though this 21st-century person finds it difficult to look at those stereotypes.
What does this have to do with writing? A lot, in my opinion. Flawed people. That’s what we’re dealing with when we write fiction. The characters I create wouldn’t be very interesting if they were perfect. In Witness to Evil, Jeri Howard’s case leads her into a confrontation with white supremacists. I wrote that book in the mid-1990s. I wish it wasn’t so relevant now.
In the Jill McLeod books Death Rides the Zephyr and Death Deals a Hand, readers glimpse how passengers aboard the trains in the early 1950s often treated African American porters with disdain and disrespect. And in the first book, a baseless accusation of theft. That’s the way things were back then and including that in the novels informs the picture I create of the times.
I make decisions when I write, determining how much, or how little, information about those flawed people goes into the book, and what it’s meant to convey.
We hold these flaws—a necessary part of the creative process.