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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Closer Look At Jezebel (1938) Part II

Director: William Wyler
Starring: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda

Picking up where I left off yesterday, I’m continuing with my look at William Wyler’s Jezebel. With its focus on the fall and redemption of its protagonist Julie (Bette Davis), the element that stands out is its treatment of gender. However, its treatment of race and slavery is equally interesting and directly linked to its representation of women.

Golden Age Hollywood isn’t exactly known for its sensitive and positive representations of people of color, but there are things here that particularly stand out. There are four slave characters who get to play prominent roles: Uncle Cato (Lew Payton), Zette (Theresa Harris), Gros Bat (Eddie Anderson), and Ti Bat (Matthew Beard). Each of these depictions is problematic on one level or another, especially for the way that they work to underscore the innate “badness” of Julie. The treatment and use of Zette, Julie’s maid, is particularly troubling because it links so directly to the establishment of Julie as corrupt. Julie’s red dress is the visual manifestation of her wickedness and the characters around her, including her Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter) and Preston (Henry Fonda), recognize it as such. Zette, however, does not and gushes to Julie about its beauty and then agrees to help Julie in an attempt to manipulate Preston in exchange for Julie’s promise to give her the dress after the Olympus Ball. Zette’s enthusiasm for the dress is a sign of how inappropriate it is and how negative Julie’s subversion really is. In choosing the dress, Julie isn’t simply setting herself apart from other women, she’s also setting herself apart from her class and race. Julie’s dealings with Gros Bat have similar consequences. It’s Gros Bat who shows her how to sneak across the fever lines so that she can return to New Orleans, thus undermining the white, male authorities. In a world ordered according to black and white, where black is equated with bad and white is equal to good, Julie’s behaviour, which ties her so closely to the black characters, is a mark of her immorality.

Generally speaking, the film is guilty of infantalizing the slave characters. Cato, for example, is given a title of ironic deference in being called “Uncle,” but he’s also shown to be child-like in his fear of ghosts, which amuses Julie and her circle, who are themselves beyond such superstitions. Prior to this, there’s a scene in which Cato and Ti Bat are on the lookout for arrivals at the plantation in the country. The film can’t really be accused of infantalizing Ti Bat, as he is in fact a young boy, but the behaviour of Cato is indistinguishable from that of Ti Bat in this scene, implying that intellectual development amongst slaves is arrested at childhood.

Later, in what is perhaps the most egregious moment of racial insensitivity, the plantation’s slaves are gathered together to sing for the entertainment of Julie and her guests. In this depiction of slaves as jolly and carefree, the film supports anti-abolitionist justifications for slavery which hinge on the idea that not only are slaves far from mistreated but they are in fact being “protected” by their white owners. This attitude that one segment of the population is incapable of caring for itself and therefore needs to be taken under the protective wing of a stronger, more able group that will guide it with a firm hand, is an attitude applied as much to women during this era as to people of color.

In the grand scheme of the film, race and slavery play a very small role but one which is important for the way that it informs how Julie as a character is coded. In linking Julie so closely to characters that are consistently characterized as child-like, the film suggests that what Julie is ultimately lacking is maturity. Her defiance, her petulant outbursts, her scheming and plotting are not part of a genuine battle for autonomy, but an indication that she needs the guardianship she so desperately fights against. Her narrative arc, then, is not just one of redemption, but of coming-of-age. To achieve this goal she must break away from the child-like manners associated with the slave characters and align herself with the more mature minds of men like Preston without actually seeking to become the equal of men like Preston.

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