Monday, November 28, 2011
November 28, 2011: Bond, Racist Bond?
One of the toughest but most valuable skills for any AmericanStudier to learn—or, let me be more exact, that this AmericanStudier has had to learn—is the ability to analyze critically things that we love. Make no mistake, I’ve never had any problem analyzing the things I love: my undergraduate senior thesis centered on extended readings of three of my long-time favorite historical novels (Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, Gore Vidal’s Burr, and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident), I started my second book with a Preface analyzing my favorite song (Bruce’s “American Skin (41 Shots)”), and I’ve taught my three favorite American novels (Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony) in numerous courses. But those analyses have often tended, for obvious reasons, to focus on the things I love in those works, and while that’s not necessarily a problem (and probably inevitable given my general half-full scholarly perspective), it has perhaps exacerbated my difficulties being more critical about works that I love.
My boys have started to get into James Bond films recently—or at least into YouTube clips of the chases from the films; we haven’t watched a full one yet, and I doubt that either spycraft or seduction will interest them as much as vehicular mayhem at this stage—and one of their early favorite sequences, quite rightly at it’s one of the best action-comedy sequences of all time, is the boat chase from Live and Let Die (1973). Live has long been in my top few Bond films, and one reason—along with that boat chase and by far the best Bond theme song—is likely that it’s definitely the most American Bond film: much of it is set in New York City, New Orleans, and the Louisiana bayou, with the rest set on a fictional Caribbean island that is deeply interconnected with those continental locales. (I don’t think Edouard Glissant has written about Live, but maybe he should!) But one corollary effect of that American setting has also made Live the most controversial and critiqued Bond film (even among aficionados who have made their peace with the rampant sexism of the early films and the like): the villains are more or less all African American (or African Caribbean), and at times the film most definitely resorts to racial stereotypes or jokes in its portrayals of those characters.
No matter how much I love (and will always love) Live, I can’t deny those elements: the scene in which Bond shoots a Caribbean/voodoo statue and its eyes roll is only the most extreme of a number of similarly, uncomfortably racist asides. Nor can I entirely explain them away by noting that Bond villains, at least the lower-level ones, are always more or less buffoons, so the buffoonery of this film’s low-level baddies is not connected to race (that’s true, but doesn’t get at the small racist asides like the aforementioned one). I would certainly note that the main villain, as played with serious gravitas by the always great Yaphet Kotto, is no laughing matter, and a more than worthy adversary for James. But ultimately, my argument would have to come back to that boat chase, and to its humorous foil, the one and only Sheriff J.W. Pepper—Pepper is the film’s (and in many ways the series’) definitive comic relief, a character who exists to poke fun at stereotypical Southern good ol’ boys, but also someone who illustrates the more absurd and extreme and funny side to Bond himself and every aspect of his world (a side that Roger Moore was particularly adept at playing up). When Pepper mistakes one of the villain’s African American henchmen for his park ranger brother-in-law, cackling “If one side of the family don’t get him, the other side will!,” we most definitely laugh—but is the laughter racist? Is it at the casually racist Pepper? Is it just at the absurdity of the moment, as it counterbalances the building tension of the chase’s action?
All of the above, I’d say. I’ve gotten better at analyzing critically the things I love, and again I can’t and won’t deny the racism within Live. But it’s also a pitch-perfect Roger Moore Bond film (despite being Moore’s first), and the over-the-top humor (directed in every direction), wedded to local color that is in this case distinctly American in flavor, is a central reason why. More tomorrow,
PS. Links above, so I’ll just ask: any works that you love yet can analyze critically at the same time?