That’s All Folks: A 21st-Century View Through Classical Movies

As some of you know, I covered National Retro Day last year for my article Retro Day: The Romanticism of the Past. 


Now, this year I don’t have any new complaints. Time isn’t real, fashion is whatever you want it to be, so wear your old-timey clothes and enjoy yourself. 


Now, one thing I do want to cover is a new hobby of mine. Over quarantine, I’ve discovered Turner Classic Movies. And it turns out, I really like them.


But again, the same issue I have with the romanticism of the olden times comes up. Some of these old movies are racist as hell.


I watched The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, and the racism honestly ruined the entire movie for me. Now, this movie wasn’t a masterpiece in any sense, but it felt way cheaper than it should have been. There was a generational curse, but everything about it was lackluster (and that’s even before we get to the really racist part).


However, instead of removing the racist parts or editing the movie, TCM gave us the entire thing, as well as a little disclaimer about the messages depicted in the story.


Ben Mankiewicz (the TCM channel host) gives a little speech about who the actors are or how the movie impacted how Hollywood works today. But the first time I saw him do his little bit, he just tore into the racist undertones (which are basically just the entire plot) of the above-mentioned movie. I had been analyzing the entire movie from my own modern woman’s point of view, so I was vindicated by Ben’s critique of the “white man’s head on a brown man’s body” plot device (That’s all I’ll say, but I told you it was bad).


See, what I think is the most important part of consuming problematic media is the critical thinking involved. For the movie I mentioned, it just wasn’t worth it. But for the legendary movie Vertigo, you really need to keep in mind how sexist certain scenes are. Mental illness is depicted, but in an extremely complex way––so complex that it’s tricky to figure out if it’s problematic or not. 


Now, I tend to avoid problematic media so the people perpetuating stereotypes or using their platform to oppress groups of people that they dislike (I’m looking at you, Joanne) don’t benefit from it. However, to be honest to the point of bluntness, most of these people are very dead. They really aren’t benefiting financially from this. Even if they are alive, a lot of them have grown with society, so they should know that racism is bad. They aren’t out and about doing what J.K. Rowling or Sia are doing. 


While most of these old movies have themes that contradict the modern beliefs that racism, sexism and homophobia are bad, many really don’t have any connection to these themes. For one, people of color don’t show up in these movies very often. I haven’t seen any depiction of a gay person. The way they treat women is a little distracting, but once you really get into the movie, you don’t notice it. 


Even if these things do show up, the movie can be a tool in helping you pick up on microaggressions in modern media.


I was watching The Mystery of the Thirteenth Guest, and I saw a Black person in the movie for the first time in any black and white movie. He wasn’t on screen very long, but his role in the story was as a butler. He was the only person of color I saw in the entire movie. Nothing overtly offensive really happened, there wasn’t any slur used and there weren’t overtly racist choices in clothing or accent. But he was the only person of color there.


By looking at the contrast (having one service-person in the film, and that one person also being the only Black person in the movie), you can see how the equivalency of people of color to service roles shows up so often in modern media. There’s always the wise Black friend to guide the protagonist on their journey (it kills me to call out Ghost Whisperer on this, but I really have to). 


Even in modern times, we have problems with Black folks in leading roles, not just as the quirky best friend or the sidekick. Even the MCU uses this trope (James Rhodes and Tony Stark, Sam Wilson, and Steve/Bucky, Heimdall and Thor). That’s how pervasive this theme is.


Now as a white girl, this never really occurred to me. I had to see the extreme form of this to make the connection to the less severe modern form. And I still enjoy the MCU! I’m looking forward to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier! I still watch Ghost Whisperer (mostly for the background noise, as the show is probably older than me). 


You can be critical of something and still enjoy it.


So I hope I haven’t scared you off from old movies with my criticism, because you really can find some interesting films (and not have to worry about seeing as much as you do when watching Bridgerton).


And if you’re looking for an old murder mystery (as you should), I’m still thinking of Evil Under the Sun, based on the Hercule Poirot novels by Agatha Christie. I can honestly say that it has been my favorite movie I've seen since As Above, So Below.