Tag Archives: Racism

Four things you didn’t know about H.P. Lovecraft

LovecraftSmiling

Last week, Bedford + Bowery ran a piece I wrote about H.P. Lovecraft.  In particular, the article–which you can read here–contains four observations that I feel are too frequently ignored in conversations about the writer’s troublingly nativist worldviews.

My article was a reaction to a string of recent pieces by Laura Miller, Phenderson Djeli Clark, and others that I thought unfairly characterized Lovecraft fans as unwilling to acknowledge the writer’s early prejudices.  In my article, I tried to make the case that– to the contrary– Lovecraft fans are very aware of (and, frankly, troubled by) the Old Gent’s views.  I also pointed out–as, somehow, nobody else had bothered to– that Lovecraft’s views demonstrably changed as he aged.  By the end of his life, Lovecraft was a Roosevelt-supporting socialist who regretted his former opinions and gave no evidence of being a prejudiced person.

You can read the article and decide if you agree with me or not.

Anyhow, there was one item to which length did not allow me to respond.  And that was the excellent “‘Don’t mention the war.’ Some Thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft and Race” by David Nickle.  In this piece– which is worth your time to read– Nickle shares his experiences with the reluctance (or even recalcitrance) of Lovecraft fans to discuss the author’s prejudices at horror conventions.

I would like to, here (what else are blogs for?), say what I could not fit into my B+B piece.  And that is this: I believe Mr. Nickle when he says that Lovecraft fans have, repeatedly, declined to spend panels at horror cons talking about HPL’s bigotries.  But I disagree with his apparent conclusion that this is because the fans are somehow “in denial.”  I posit instead that fans don’t want to talk about that topic because it’s boring.

I’m not surprised that most of HPL’s fans would rather spend a panel talking about any number of the author’s majestic and monstrous creations than the xenophobia in his early personal correspondence. But being bored by something is not the same as disagreeing with it, or refusing to accept that it is true.

I conjecture that if Lovecraft fans were given the choice of either a panel about HPL’s prejudices or a panel about, say, stamp collecting, they’d choose the Lovecraft’s prejudices panel every time.  It’s hard to conclude things from how people act in situations like horror cons where there is lots and lots of fun to be had.

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Resident Evil 5

Kotaku.com reports that zombie actors and real U.S. soldiers will be on hand at a Pennsylvania Best Buy next month for the launch of Resident Evil 5.  If it’s an authentic report, it sounds like the event has the potential to be pretty cool.  Most folks I know who serve in the U.S. armed services love zombies and video games, and would be delighted to appear at something like this.

Resident Evil 5 was in the news a while back amidst accusation of racism.  Apparently, it’s set in Africa, and involves white protagonists fighting African zombies who have dark skin.  After a preview of the game was shown–and complaints of racism lodged–Capcom went back and inserted white zombies amidst the black ones.  That’s what I heard anyway.  (I haven’t seen the final cut of the game.) 

Here’s one of the screenshots available online:

residentevil5

I like to think of zombies as post-race.  David Cross has an awesome comedy bit on his album It’s Not Funny about that.  He talks about how you can still find segregated graveyards in the American South, and he wonders, when they rise from the dead, if the zombies would still be racist.  Like, even though they’re all just rags and bones, would they still be like: “Okay, let’s go eat people’s brains…  But wait a minute…. Were you white?  No?  Then you can’t come.”  (Trust me, it’s funny when David Cross does it.)

I think Resident Evil 5 brings to the fore the question: Are we’re ready, as a society, to accept popular entertainment in which the hero is white and the villain is black, but it has nothing to do with race?  I can’t think of too many Hollywood movies that have a white hero and a black villain.  There’s Demolition Man.  There’s Candyman.  Maybe Lakeview Terrace counts.  (I didn’t see it.)  But I have to think hard to come up with these. 

I strongly suspect that Resident Evil 5 is not racist, but for some people it may be dangerously cutting-edge in its sensibility that “sometimes the good guys are white and the bad guys happen to be black, and it has nothing to do with their races.”

Mantan Moreland: An early zombie comic-genius

“There’s just two things I hate… and zombies is both of ’em!” – Mantan Moreland

This coming Sunday will mark 35 years since the passing of Mantan Moreland, a American journeyman actor who attained modest fame in the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s for playing comic foils, frequently in B-grade horror films.  (Probably, his two best known zombie films are King of the Zombies and Revenge of the Zombies.)  Horror-wood.com describes Moreland as “an American original whose work in film was usually better than the films themselves.”  I can’t put it any better than that.

Mantan Moreland, 1902-1973
Mantan Moreland, 1902-1973

But too few zombie fans (and horror fans) are familiar with Moreland’s delightful work.  I suspect that this is because he is incorrectly lumped-in with actors of his day who perpetuated negative sterotypes.  In Moreland’s era, there were actors (with racist names that make me cringe just to type) like Stepin Fetchit and Sleep ‘n Eat who definitely perpetuated stereotypes of African Americans as lazy, dull-witted, and servile.  However, Moreland’s performances should not be lumped-in with theirs.

The characters portrayed by Moreland are, generally, resourceful and perceptive.  (When he’s in a horror-film, Moreland’s character is usually the first to suspect that monsters might be lurking nearby.  [They ARE!])

Moreland’s humorous, easily-flustered characters reacted to zombies (and other monsters) in ways that were funny to watch.  (That was usually the point of the film–or at least what the filmmakers were counting on to be funny and entertaining.)  This comedian-encountering-monster setup was an accepted formula for many comic-horror films of the time, regardless of the race of the actors involved.

So I feel like there’s a double-standard when people call Moreland’s films racist.  It’s like, Bob Hope can stammer and bug-out his eyes when he sees a zombie (as he, in fact, does in films like the 1940 horror-comedy The Ghost Breakers), and that’s perfectly fine.  But when Mantan Moreland does the exact same thing, it’s racist?  What?

I guess the characters Moreland plays can be said to be “servile” in that they’re usually butlers or chauffeurs or what-have-you, but you’ve got to remember that it was 1939.  If Moreland’s character had been the Vice President of the United States, the film wouldn’t even have been called King of the Zombies, it would have been called Holy Crap!!!  Black Vice-President!!! or something.  The zombies would have been incidental.

But I think the greatest vindication of Mantan Moreland (and his work) comes from his peers in Hollywood.  When Shemp Howard died in 1955, Mantan was seriously considered as an addition to the Three Stooges.  And Bill Cosby (an actor who definitely has zero-tolerance for negative portrayals of African Americans) cast Moreland to play his uncle in the original 1969-1971 Bill Cosby Show.

Anyhow, I think Moreland was a great comedic actor, and that many of his zombie films are worth watching, especially if you like “classic” zombies (that is, Haitian Voodoo zombies who are under a shaman’s command–as opposed to reanimated corpses who want to eat your brain).  To learn more about him, I heartily recommend this article: “B-Horror’s Humorous Hero.”

George Romero, the opposite of a racist

Most people I associate with are (to my knowledge) not racists.  But it seems to me that,
The opposite of a racist.
Pictured: The opposite of a racist.
within the category of “not racist,” there are two subsets I think of as “active nonracists” and “passive nonracists.”
    
Active nonracists note the presence of race (and sex, and class, and ethnicity) when they’re dealing with people, but make a point to be respectful of cultural differences.  These people marinate in diversity-seminars, sensitivity trainings, and ethnic history months.  These people, it sometimes seems to me, are nonracists by drawing attention to race.
    
Passive nonracists, on the other hand, don’t even notice race.  When they learn that someone is white, or black, or Asian, or Hispanic, they assume nothing about the person.  They don’t even see race as an issue.  (After all, why should it be?)
    
George Romero, the most famous director of zombie films (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead) falls into this second category.  However, because he is praised so frequently for his exemplary creative work, people forget to laud him for his breathtaking lack-of-racistness, in an industry (movies) that plays on race-stereotypes to this day. 
    
Romero cast Night of the Living Dead, his first film, in 1968.  You’d think, with all the race-riots, bus boycotts, and political assassinations going on during this time, that he would at least be thinking about the race of his lead actor. 
    
You’d be wrong. 
    
As is well documented, Romero cast an African-American actor, Duane Jones, for the lead role of “Ben” in Night of the Living Dead simply because he came in and gave the best audition.  That was all there was to it.  He was the best man for the job, so he got it.  Romero was so not-racist that he didn’t even see that having a black actor would change the way his film was perceived.
    
The rest of the country was not as enlightened as he. 
    
Many viewers assumed that Ben’s race was part of the film’s message, and interpreted the film’s conclusion (in which Ben is mistaken for a zombie and shot) as an allegory for lynching.  Even the purportedly-progressive New York Times, in its review of the film, described Duane Jones’ character as a “resourceful Negro.” 
    
I can almost see Romero flinching as he read that.  Ben wasn’t supposed to be a resourceful Negro, he was supposed to be a resourceful man.  The character’s race had nothing to do with the plot of the movie.
    
Perhaps because of this attention, Romero did tackle the issue of race in many of his subsequent zombie films.  However, it gives me faith in humanity that, in 1968, someone had such confidence in the ability of humans to transcend petty issues of racial difference, that he could make Night of the Living Dead. 
    
Final thought:
It strikes me, as I write this, that there is no word for the opposite of a racist.  “Un-racist?”  “Not-racist?”  “Unprejudiced?”  These all negate racism, but with a negative.  Where is the word for someone who does not see race as an issue at all?  Maybe the word for that should be “Romero.”
    
People could use it like:
    
“Dude, did Bill assume you were good at math just because you’re Asian?”
    
“No way, man.  He’s totally Romero.”