by John Aquino on 02/27/19
Discussions of race have filled the start of 2019, from the situation of the governor of Virginia, who in February was discovered to have had a photo on his medical school yearbook page of one student in blackface and another dressed as a KKK member; to the Academy award ceremony on February 24, which saw three non-caucasians win major acting awards; to an exhibit that celebrates the story of President George Washington's "celebrity chef."
The latter reminds us, as if we needed reminding, of the deep-to-the-bone stain slavery has left on the soul of the United States. A February 2019 exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library highlights early celebrity chefs, including Hanna Wooley, who wrote what may be the first cookbook in English in 1661. Another celebrity chef heralded in the exhibit is Hercules, a slave of the family of Washington's wife Martha. When Washington became president, he brought Hercules to Philadelphia, where he became the chef of the presidential household and developed a sterling reputation among dignitaries who dined with the president. For all of the attempts of the skilled Folger curators to tout Hercules as a celebrity chef, his status as a slave and its effect cannot be hidden. The exhibit notes that the Washingtons moved Hercules each presidential year from Philadelphia to the Washingtons' home in Mount Vernon, Virginia and back again, solely because if Hercules remained in Philadelphia for six months he would, under law, be freed. When Washington returned to Mount Vernon at the end of his second term, Hercules wasn't rewarded with his freedom for his cooking successes. Instead, he was assigned as a laborer, presumably because the Washingtons wouldn't be entertaining as much at Mount Vernon. At this point, Hercules escaped--the only slave in the Washington household to do so--and vanished from the pages of history. Washington was reportedly angered at Hercules' ingratitude and attempted to buy another slave who could cook. Even if Hercules had remained at Mount Vernon, he wouldn't have been freed at Washington's death, as his other slaves were in his will, because Hercules belonged to Martha's family (see https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/hercules/ ). The Folger exhibit curators are to be commended for calling attentions to Hercules' culinary achievements. But dubbing Hercules a "celebrity chef," however well intended, seems inappropriate because even his owners didn't regard him as a celebrity, just a slave who could cook.
Slavery's stain is also apparent the yearbook of Governor Northam. As a publisher and journalist, I know that photos can sometimes end up on the wrong page or left out completely. I remember, when I was a magazine editor, reading The Washington Post on the bus, and laughing out loud when I saw a box on the page and inside it was the text, "Place photo here." The man sitting next to me looked over at my newspaper to see what had made me laugh. I pointed to the box on the page, he read it, turned to me and shrugged. It's only funny if it's happened to you, and it even happens to pros. But Governor Northam, who denied appearing in the blackface/KKK photo, acknowledged in his press conference that he had appeared in blackface on another occasion. I have written in a blog on the alleged racism behind the Washington football teams use of the name "redskin" that that claim makes no sense to me because people don't name their teams with an appellation they find disparaging. And yet some caucasians schooled in Virginia appear to have donned blackface in what appears to have been a mocking display of superiority. For a century, the name of the University of Virginia's yearbook has been "Corks & Curls," openly referring to the cork used to blacken a white face and the curls in wigs employed in minstrel shows that featured white actors in blackface. Until the 1960s, curricula in the Washington, D.C. and Virginia private and public schools included minstrel shows as potential musical programs for students.
The relative absence of non-caucasian actors and actresses among Academy Award winners over the past 90 years has long been a matter of concern. The first African American winner was Hattie McDaniels, who played the supporting role of a slave in Gone with the Wind in 1939. I've written before how she and her African American date sat at the only table for two at the Academy Award's banquet. And she wasn't a trend setter. It was 24 years before Sidney Poitier won for best actor in 1963, and another 27 years before Denzel Washington won for best supporting actor in 1990. It was another 11 years before Washington won the best actor award and Halle Berry garnered the award for best actress in 2001. Until February 2019, only five African American actors and six actresses had won supporting awards in awards' 90 year history. There has been one Academy Award winning Asian best actor (Ben Kingsley, who is half Indian and half Asian, for Gandhi in 1982), one Asian best supporting actor (Haing S. Ngor for The Killing Fields in 1992), and one winning Asian supporting actress (Miyoshi Umeki for Sayonara in 1957).
But in February 2019, three of the four acting awards were won by non-caucasians--Remi Malek, a Los Angeles-born actor of Egyptian descent, for best actor; Regina King, who is African American, for best supporting actress; and Mahershala Ali, an American born Muslim, for best supporting actor. The legendary African American director and writer Spike Lee finally won an Academy Award for co-writing for Black KkKlansman, which is based on a true story about an African American police officer's infiltration of the KKK. In addition, the best picture award went to the Green Book. Inspired by a true story, the film stars Ali as Don Shirley, an Jamaica-born pianist who toured the south in 1962, and Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga, known as Tony Lip, a bigoted, New York Italian American bouncer who served as Shirley's driver and bodyguard on the trip south; both ultimately became friends.
My wife and I saw Green Book on the recommendation of my aunt, who loved it. We grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. I had no real interest in seeing Green Book, feeling it was about things I had lived through and didn't want to remember, but we went, and we loved it too. I thought the lead characters are realistically portrayed and very well acted. It is sometimes shocking, often warm, and sometimes very funny. The characters learn and grow, the film had a happy ending, but the sick world of racism was there.
The film received good reviews, as of February 24, 2019 had earned $70 million in the U.S. alone against a $23 million production budget , and won the Golden Globe award for best comedy or a musical. But some commentators complained that it wasn't gritty enough for a film about racism. When the Academy Award for best picture was announced, the complaints continued. Complainers called it retrograde. Lee, who directed, co-wrote, and co-produced Black KkKlansman, compared Green Book to Driving Miss Daisy, the 1989 award winner, a feel-good film that had a fictional plot that is the reverse of Green Book; a wealthy southern lady is driven around by an African American chauffeur and they gain respect for each other.
A writer in the February 26, 2019 Washington Post scoffed that Green Book gave the impression that racism ended on Christmas Day in 1962 when Shirley came to Tony's house for Christmas.
Question to the Post writer: how do you combat racism, by federal edict or by individuals showing respect for each other, as they do in Green Book? We have legislation, but the problem still exists. It's step by step, person by person that it will be solved. Green Book was inspired by a true story. Tony Lip's son Nick was one of the screenwriters and remembers Shirley as a family friend. (Shirley's family says Tony Lip was just a chauffeur and objects that the film is mostly from Tony Lip's, not Shirley's perspective, not surprising because Tony's son co-wrote the script.) Giving Nick Vallelonga the benefit of the doubt, a true story about race relations that ends in friendship is something we should strive for and not diminish.
Overall, the film industry did well. As the Northam and "Cork and Curls" yearbooks show, we have far to go. But things are better than they were in 1962 when they were better than in 1954 when the Supreme Court was compelled to overturn its 1896 "separate but equal" ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson--a horrible decision chronicled in a 2019 book titled Separate by Steve Luxenberg--and the civil rights movement accelerated.
Racism still exists, but it will only end if we believe that the ending of Green Book can be achieved by all.
Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino