From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures

By Daniel J. Leab | Go to book overview
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INTRUDUCTION: THE LACK OF HUMANITY

UNTIL RECENTLY the movie image of the black has been a "Sambo" image. Sambo, to quote the historian Stanley Elkins, "was docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing." Just about everything traditionally held to be of some value in the United States was absent from this stereotype. The movies presented blacks as subhuman simpleminded, superstitious, and submissive. They exhibited qualities of foolish exaggeration and an apparently hereditary clumsiness and watermelon. Their relationship with whites was depicted as one of complete, and frequently childlike, dependence. 1

Take, for example, the central character in the 1910 Lubin comedy Rastus in Zululand. Rastus is described as "an odd-jobs man, that is he did odd jobs when he has to, but when there are a few small coins in his pocket he prefers to sleep." The film begins with Rastus searching for a place to sleep. He finds one in the sunlight. This rather odd choice is explained by the plot synopsis: "a darky needs warmth." The sleeping Rastus dreams that he has gone to sea and has been shipwrecked in Zululand. Captured by cannibals, he has been placed in the community cooking pot. The entreaties of the chief's daughter save Rastus from being part of the stew, but she is so obese and ugly that he chooses to return to the pot. He awakens just as the water has begun to boil and "is much relieved to find himself within walking distance of a place where nerve tonic is sold." 2

-1-

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