Signifyin’: Part Two: Was Tonto a Tom?

Written by admin   // February 24, 2012   // 0 Comments

by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt

Westerns used as a tool to propogate cultural and racist myths, historical distortions

Part two: Early to mid-twentieth century, western movies were perfect tools to propagate cultural myths, historical distortions and justifications for racial discrimination. While many were scripted to harbor a small thread of historical truth, for the most part they were overtly sensationalized historical abstracts that were used as vehicles to justify what became a system of cultural and socioeconomic apartheid in America.

Through the mid-1970s, western movies were a celebrated and defining genre that linked us to a period of history that was oddly cruel yet glamorous, harrowing and dangerous yet inspiring and alluring.

Because major movie westerns were so appealing to the American audience, they also provided a perfect setting for the propaganda machine to entrench racism, prejudice and White superiority in the American ethos.

Not by coincidence, westerns in the first half of the 20th century was more blatant in their historical inaccuracies and overtly racist themes, not just about African Americans, but Hispanic and Native Americans. From the era of silent films at the dawn of the 20th century through the 1970s, Americans (and the world) were bombarded with blatantly distorted caricatures of people of color.

Many historians point to the 1915 film ‘Birth of a Nation’ as the most deliberate example of racist propaganda via a western. Although it was a silent film, “Birth” spoke deafeningly and provided a blueprint of racist propaganda that would reverberate for a generation.

Based on the novel and play, ‘The Clansman,’ both by Thomas Dixon, Jr., ‘Birth of a Nation’ was a D. W. Griffith (south) western movie that not only cast African Americans as savage, uncivilized and uncontrollably sexual beasts (as in wanting White women), but also as pawns of the Northern strategy to supplant the racist culture, heritage and economy of the south after the civil war.

The movie provided a romanticized and blatantly erroneous origin of the Klu Klux Klan, justifying their terrorist acts and the eventual murder of thousands of freed Black slaves. The fact that the then-president of the United States endorsed and recommended “Birth of A Nation” to his “fellow Americans” spoke volumes about both the political temperament of the period and entrenchment of apartheid. And with an endorsement by the president of the United State of America, despite its obvious inaccuracies, “Birth” became a template for a wave of propaganda films to follow.

Said President Woodrow Wilson of the film: “The White men (in the movie) were roused by a mere instinct of self preservation…until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”

In many respects, the Academy Award winning film “Gone with the Wind” (1939) was as racist as Birth of a Nation, although it was somewhat more covert in its misrepresentations of slavery and the “grand ole south.”

In “Gone with the Wind” Black “Americans” were cast as senile, happy-go-lucky sub- humans. The racist southerners were “misunderstood,” their culture brought order and civility to America and benefited the American economy.

A similar movie that not only misrepresented history but also helped sow the seeds of racism and apartheid was “Belle Starr,” which hit the theaters in 1941. Based on a real person in western history—who in real life was a ‘ho’ and a backstabbing, vicious criminal—the movie version brought to the silver screen an idolized and totally inaccurate version that portrayed the southern slut as a victim of what southerners believed to be the Union Army’s overzealousness during reconstruction.

Some called “Belle Starr” a poor man’s version of “Gone with the Wind,” that included scenes in which the newly freed slaves were provided with radical “rights,” like the ability to enter the front door of public facilities and to look White people in the eye.

The movie employed every racist stereotype in the book, and thus earned the title of being one of the most racist and deliberate propaganda affronts in cinematic history.

Sadly, many reviewers called it a classic and accepted its distortions with either a grain of salt or as slight exaggerations of history. Their unwillingness to point out the historical inaccuracies or the affronts against Black Americans served to legitimize the movie.

The infamous contemporary Klansman David Duke could have written the script for “Belle Starr.” It was complete with images of Northern Carpetbaggers telling recently freed slaves they would not only get their “former massa’s lands and fair treatment” under Reconstruction, but would be allowed (this is a quote) to “walk down the sidewalks” like real people!

The movie shows White women gasping and clutching their bosoms in fear upon hearing those blasphemous declarations as the “illiterate and uncivilized darkies” were shown dancing and singing in the streets.

The movie justified the outrage of proper Southerners to the turn of events, including Belle Starr, who took comfort from her “mammy,” a symbolic Aunt Jemimah right down to the rag on her head, who insisted her “place was by her misses’ side.”

“Aunt Jemimah,” portrayed by Louise Beavers (guess she really needed the money), was so brainwashed she helped defeated confederate murderers escape the wrath of the Union soldiers who were trying to introduce an unknown concept to the southern territory called “equality.”

It may sound like a silly movie by today’s standards, but America was bombarded with this type of propaganda throughout the first half of the last century. These movies were a key component of the socialization process and helped shape American culture, not just in the south, but the north as well.

As an iconic form of indoctrination, mid-century western television shows and movies, often starred America’s theatrical superstars, including the unapologetically racist John Wayne. Indeed many actors were considered American heroes, which made their movies all the more acceptable.

There were hundreds of movies during the heyday of the western that promoted racist stereotypes of African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics. While the images of African Americans were often grotesque, it is not far fetched to suggest Native Americans were cast in an even worst light. America sought to justify the mass extermination of a great people by casting them as murderous, uncivilized savages.

The chief protagonist in that effort was the American “icon” John Wayne.

And for Wayne, his cowboy portrayals were rooted not just in his acting ability, but his personal politics.

It was no coincidence that Wayne never allowed a Black actor in any of his 100 or so movies until the 1970s when Roscoe Lee Brown appeared in “The Cowboys.”

And most Native American actors who appeared in his films (most “lead” Indians were actually White) received limited time in the movie to question American policy because Wayne killed them off so fast shortly after they opened their mouths.


Wayne was not only the lead actor in dozens of racist films, but was a producer of many, including his so-called classic, “The Alamo,” in which he played Davey Crockett, himself a real life racist.

As I previously mentioned, the fight for Texas “independence” was not fought to provide freedom and justice to the Texicans (American citizens of Mexico), but instead to open the territory up to slavery, which was outlawed by the Mexicans.

You wouldn’t know that from watching the “Alamo,” as the Mexicans in the movie were portrayed as a backward, uncivilized lot who stood in the way of political and economic progress.

And of course the Native Americans who occupied the territory were cast as villains to justify their extermination.

Few movies of the golden age actually dealt with racism as a subject. One expectation to that unwritten rule was the 1960 movie “Sergeant Rutledge,” a breakthrough attempt to address an issue America tried to hide under the rug.

Sergeant Rutledge is still viewed as a pioneering western with a mostly Black cast that touched on the sensitive subject of racism and rape.

Or as the lead character, former football player turned actor Woody Strode said in one scene, “(I) walked into the worst kind of trouble, white women trouble,” when he entered an officer’s quarters seconds after the rape of a White girl.

Strode’s character was blamed for both the rape and the murder of an officer who erroneously thought Rutledge had committed the dastardly deed. Ironically, Rutledge escaped but even then hid his innocence in part to maintain the integrity of his all Black unit, which was described as one of the famous “Buffalo Soldier troops.”

The Buffalo soldiers were a historically real unit of Black soldiers, so named because from a distance, Native American tribesmen said when they were adorned in heavy fur coats they looked like buffalos on horseback. The title is said to have been originally bestowed upon members of the U.S. 10th Calvary which was commissioned on September 21, 1866. Many of the Black troops were civil war veterans who were assigned to protect settlers and clear the southwest of indigenous people, i.e. Indians.

You could say the unit (the term was eventually used for all Black units) was a forerunner of the Tuskegee Airmen, save for the fact that they were, ironically, assigned to fight Native Americans.

That may very well have been one of the most dichotomous scenarios of the old west, if for no other reason than history shows Native Americans consistently showed themselves to be the only friends, or allies that Black Americans had during that period.

That irony was played out in another breakthrough movie of the 1970s, “Buck and Preacher,” which starred Sidney Poitier and actor, singer and civil rights champion Harry Belafonte.

“Buck and the Preacher” was ground setting in that it told the story of a guide (Poitier) who led Black migrants from the racist south to free land in the northwest following the civil war. Bounty hunters were in hot pursuit, intent on forcing the ‘freed slaves’ back to the south where their labor was necessary.

A key part of the movie dealt with how the two Black leads sought the assistance of the Native American tribe in the area to assist them. Buck told the chief that they had mutual enemies (Whites), whereupon the chief brought up the dichotomy of Buck being a former Buffalo soldier. In that capacity, he noted, Buck helped exterminate Indians on behalf of the same people he now fought.

Eventually, the Indians did assist the wagon party, and I remember Black moviegoers cheering during the climatic battle when both Indian and Black men fought off the racist bounty hunters.

Dozens of “Black westerns” provided a weakening of the propaganda machine during the 1970s, some of which, unfortunately, climbed on the Blackploitation bandwagon, including the movies “The Legend of Nigger Charlie,” and “Boss Nigger,” both of which starred pro football player turned actor Fred Williamson.

While the title underscored the dichotomy of Black social evolution, one reviewer (20 years later), described the marketing of “Boss Nigger” and other Blackploitation films to Black audiences as an example of “empowerment through an overturned representation of long-established agency limitations for Black men.”

The reviewer specifically cited the trailer for “Boss Nigger” for the “manner in which it elicits feelings of Black superiority and White hysteria and encourages the audience to identify with the outsider hero who finds himself at odds with the rules of White America.”

With a few exceptions like “Man and Boy” and “Posse” many, if not most, of the Black westerns of the 1970s and 80s used the same script as that era’s Blackploitation movies from the “Mack” to “Foxy Brown.”

Some folks would go so far as to say Black westerns, most of which starred former football players like Williamson, promoted a central theme of kill “whitey and get the white women.”

(They also gave White Americans an excuse to use the racist term ‘nigger.’ Nobody would tell the theater clerk they wanted tickets to see, the “‘N-word Boss,” could they?)

Many of the Black westerns were rated ‘R’ for sex, but rarely did the movies include a Black female co-star.

Instead the lead character angered White America by stealing away his cultural pride and joy.

As he did in many “modern” movies, football great Jim Brown always seemed to end up with a White woman in his westerns.

Two movies that really pissed off White America were “El Condor” and “100 Rifles.” In fact, in “100 Rifles,” Brown almost rapes White Americans reigning sex goddess during that period, actress Raquel Welch before she ultimately succumbs to his “brutish masculinity.” That scene was so controversial that the movie was banned in some southern cities.

And some Black leaders made an issue of that, as if rape and portraying Black men as oversexed beasts were a civil rights issue.

Westerns are no longer as popular as they were back during my childhood, and the propaganda machine that once used that medium to ingrain racist stereotypes and maintain the walls of apartheid have all but been demolished.

Today, we’ve almost come full circle from the early days of cinema when a host of westerns were used to justify apartheid, to where today, the few that make it to the silver screen and “boob tube” are used to rewrite America’s history.

A shining example is the cable television western series “Hell on Wheels.” The series deals with racism, prejudice and early American culture in an informative and even educational way.

“Hell on Wheels” is well worth your time as it provides a portrait of the real west and signals the final death nell for the propaganda machine that rewrote American history.


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