Academic journal article MELUS

Troubling White Benevolence: Four Takes on a Scene from Giant

Academic journal article MELUS

Troubling White Benevolence: Four Takes on a Scene from Giant

Article excerpt

The penultimate scene of George Stevens's 1956 film Giant is one of the most iconic images in American cinema. Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) walks into a West Texas roadside diner with his family. Seeming to stand up for the rights of the oppressed and for justice in a new social order, he confronts Sarge, the diner owner, about the refusal to serve an unnamed Mexican American family. (1) The two titanic men fight an epic battle; punches are thrown and tables are turned as "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and its military beat score the scene. Ultimately, Bick falls at the hands of Sarge, but he undergoes a transformation of racial consciousness--no longer an out-and-out racist who exploits his Mexican American workers, Bick Benedict embodies white benevolence.

Despite its iconic standing, this celluloid moment of 1956 is not the only incarnation of this scene. In Edna Ferber's 1952 novel Giant, Bick and the Mexican American family are entirely absent from the scene. Rather, the owner of the diner orders members of the wealthy Benedict family to leave because of their phenotypically Mexican features. Nearly forty years after the film's release, Tino Villanueva's collection of poetry Scene from the Movie GIANT (1993) revisits Villanueva's experience watching the film in a segregated Texas theater and traces the film's haunting power years later. In a more subtle iteration, Luis Alberto Urrea reimagines the scene from Giant in his novel In Search of Snow (1994). The racially ambiguous but assumedly white protagonist tells of a time when he fought the owner of a Texas diner who threw out a group of Mexican Americans. Placed in dialogue, these four iterations forge a discursive constellation wherein this one scene is reimagined and recontextualized, fashioning new meaning in each manifestation. Two immediate questions emerge: What has propelled the revising and reimagining of this scene? And how have its meanings been made and unmade with each iteration?

Scholars almost exclusively focus on Ferber's novel and the film iteration of Giant with critical energy on racial politics, noting the novel's strong condemnation of anti-Mexican American racism in Texas (Graham 60; Hendler 125-32; Watts 43). Some critics contend that Ferber's experience growing up as a Jewish woman facing anti-Semitism in the Midwest forged her ability to create strong female characters who could blur the distinction of cultural insider and outsider to fashion a forceful social critique (Baxter 161; Shapiro 52; Watts 43). While many agree that the novel was ahead of its time, the film's racial politics receive a varied response. Monique James Baxter recently argued that the film introduced America to the potential of anti-racist struggle, contending that "Giant's most important accomplishment was that it awakened a generation of Americans to the realization that they need not accept discrimination as a fact of life" (171). In contrast, Don Graham notes the dramatic shift from the novel to the film, wherein Ferber's forceful critique was watered down and undermined (60). Within Chicana/o Studies, scholars also debate the potential and limitations of the film's race politics. In his analysis of the mestizo body in American cultural production, Rafael Perez-Torres contends that while the film presents "previously absent affirmative images of Mexicans" (53), it denies Mexicans agency and continues their subordination in the racial hierarchy. In sharp distinction, Jose E. Limon argues that the film must be historicized, and that it was a radical intervention for its time (123).

While Giant's racial meaning is clearly a site of contention, two gaps in this scholarly context appear. Heretofore, critics have not placed the four versions of this scene in dialogue, examining the novel and film version of Giant against the work of Villanueva and Urrea. Indeed, only Perez-Torres and Ann Marie Stock offer in-depth readings of the film and Villanueva's poetry. …

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