We had so much fun reviewing the new movie “Get Out”, from writer-direct Jordan Peele. We loved the move (big shock there), but we also discuss what this movie suggests about racism in America.
In honor of Black History Month, I’m taking a break from covering erotic horror to review Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country: A Novel, which I’ve been reading for the past month. I love the cover art, which melds the images of a Lovecraftian tentacled monster with the hoods of KKK members, and bears the tagline, “America’s Monsters Exposed.” As the title and cover art suggest, the novel depicts not only the distinctively American fictional horrors of H.P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries, but also the very real horrors of racism in the Jim Crow South and 1940s America as a whole. It’s a fitting combination, because for all of Lovecraft’s creative genius, his major character defects were his racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia. Although his personal correspondence and stories indicate a softening of these attitudes later in his life, perhaps in part due to marrying a Jewish immigrant from Russia, some of his early writings were atrocious. Ruff references this when protagonist Atticus expresses his enjoyment of Lovecraft’s fiction, only to have his father ruin his enjoyment by pointing out, with no small degree of gleeful sadism, an early Lovecraft poem entitled “On the Creation of Niggers.” Repeatedly, the novel illustrates the complicated relationship between African American readers and the fiction created by racist white authors, as illustrated in the following dialogue:
“But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though. “
“But you don’t get mad. Not like Pop does.”
“No, that’s true, I don’t get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes.” He looked at the shelves. “Sometimes, they stab me in the heart.”
Not only is Atticus shamed by his father for enjoying the fiction of a racist such as Lovecraft, he is questioned by white people who can’t comprehend that a black man could be appreciate science fiction, let alone be a reading enthusiast at all. One of the most harrowing scenes occurs when Atticus is pulled over by a southern police officer–not because of a traffic violation, but because a black man couldn’t possibly own a decent car. When the officer searches his car trunk and finds a collection of science fiction and horror novels, along with evidence of his military service, this proof of Atticus’ intellect and past heroism arouses further suspicion that the car and the belongings must have been stolen from a white man. Indeed, while the novel does feature Lovecraftian monsters and occult rites, these things are not nearly as terrifying as the mundane horrors of the Jim Crow South.
Sadly, despite the progress we’ve made in this country, we aren’t necessarily much better. Consider this occurrence from my graduate school days. My program brought in an African American FBI Special Agent to teach a class on cybercrime, and while hurrying from one end of campus to the other with his laptop tucked under one arm, he was stopped by a police officer who suspected that he had stolen the laptop. Even after showing her his FBI badge and explaining he was on campus as a guest instructor, she offered no apology whatsoever. He later recounted his experience to my class with the explanation, “The black man can’t have nice things.”
As awful as the examples of racism are in the book, the book isn’t entirely dire and oppressive because the the interconnected narratives tend to offer happy endings for the characters, who are able to outwit the villains. This is especially refreshing considering how the horror genre often treats black characters as expendable.
While visiting the post office this week, I had an interesting conversation with the clerk, who also spent her weekend watching 1930s horror films. We both noted that pre-Code films have a lot in common with post-9/11 “torture porn” films. This nice lady who assisted me with shipping my numerous packages went so far as to say that 1930s horror films are almost like “snuff films, but more elegant.” Of course, 1930s films are nowhere near as graphically violent as torture films, let alone snuff films, but there are many thematic similarities to post-9/11 horror films, including sexual sadism, human captivity narratives, torture, and rampant xenophobia. It’s as though American horror cinema has come full circle.
Since I’m on already covering Boris Karloff’s villainous characters, and with covering genre entries that seem to relate to the rhetoric of this election, today I’m covering The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), a film under fire for decades for its racist portrayal of Asians. Today, the anti-Asian and specifically anti-Chinese stereotypes won’t resonate with most viewers…even though one of our candidates proclaimed that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese.
In the opening scene, two English men discuss the need to locate the sword of Genghis Khan. The older gentleman advises our hero that in his hands, the sword will merely be a harmless artifact in the British museum, but if the sword falls into the hands of the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, the entire Asian race will believe Fu Manchu to be Genghis Khan reborn, and will attempt to exterminate the entire white race. In summary, the treasures of other cultures must be plundered in order to protect an “inferior” races from their own ignorance and superstition.
The opening dialogue alone gives us a taste of the racist and colonialist twaddle to come, but the rest of the film becomes so much worse than that. Soon after, we are introduced to our villains, Dr. Fu Manchu and his daughter, respectively portrayed by Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy in dragon-like “yellow face,” complete with “exotic” robes and talon-like fingernails. Dr. Fu Manchu, possibly a coded homosexual, who relentlessly mocks the values of white Christian society, advises his Asian acolytes to “conquer and breed. Kill the white man and take his women!” He even attempts to pimp out his own daughter in exchange for the sword’s location. We subsequently discover that she can’t be pimped out against her will, because she is a “sadistic nymphomaniac” (Myrna Loy’s term, per the DVD commentary) who tortures, sleeps with, and eventually murders numerous white men with her father’s approval. The scene in which she has the white hero flogged by half-naked African slaves no doubt exploited racists fears of the era. Fu Manchu and his daughter embody the “Yellow Peril,” a perception that an influx of Asian immigrants would rob Western whites of their jobs and moral values. Sound familiar?
Despite the censorship and numerous cuts imposed upon The Mask of Fu Manchu, it was only one entry in an extremely successful decades-long franchise based on a series of books by Sax Rohmer (which somehow manage to be more racist and sexist than the film adaptations), followed by numerous film entries, comic books, and radio dramas.
Yet, for all of the awfulness, of the film, I admit I enjoy The Mask of Fu Manchu and other entries in the series, mainly for the absurd campiness and the fun performances by Karloff and Loy, and because I have a soft spot for fictional villains. Karloff’s Fu Manchu is even a bit lovable for all his awfulness. The film is also noteworthy in Karloff’s career as his first true speaking role. I’m quite glad that an uncensored version still exists, if only to serve as a time capsule of the era’s values.
I wonder if the average 1930’s viewer took the film’s racism seriously. Boris Karloff did not, according to Greg Mank’s commentary track, but rather dismissed the film as harmless escapism. According the biography I’m currently reading, Karloff (whose birth name was William Henry Pratt) kept his East Indian heritage a secret during those bigoted times, declaring his heritage as partially Russian instead, and stating that his stage name “Karloff” was taken from a maternal relative. The author also states that Karloff was a liberal who advocated for civil rights. It’s an interesting factor to contemplate when looking at the racist content of the film itself.
The only uncut version I’ve found is part of Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Collection (Doctor X / The Return of Doctor X / Mad Love / The Devil Doll / Mark of the Vampire / The Mask of Fu Manchu), which includes other films essential for horror enthusiasts, along with excellent commentary tracks by film historians.