Uncle Tom's Cabin on Film 2: Tomming Today


    Universal's $2 million 1927 production was the last American film version of Uncle Tom's Cabin. M-G-M considered remaking the movie in 1946, but a protest from the N.A.A.C.P. halted the project.* In 1958 an abridged version of the Universal film, with voice-over narration by Raymond Massey, was unsuccessfully released (in part, apparently, in response to a re-release of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation). In 1969 a version was made in Germany with a pan-European cast, and briefly released into American theaters. In 1987 Showtime produced a made-for-TV version, with Avery Brooks as Uncle Tom, Samuel L. Jackson as George Harris and Phylicia Rashad as Eliza. Eighty years after the Universal film, it seems less likely than ever that Hollywood will remake Uncle Tom, but under other names and guises, Uncle Tom himself, the character Stowe created over a century and a half ago, remains a staple of the film industry.
"Not while Mas'r is in trouble," said Tom. "I'll stay with Mas'r
as long as he wants me,--so as I can be of any use." (Chapter 28)




    In Flight to Canada (1976), Ishmael Reed's revisionary send up of Stowe's novel, one moment shines a brilliant light on the cultural power of the figure of Uncle Tom. Raven Quickskill, a fugitive slave, has been caught by the two Tracers his master hired to bring him back to slavery. Quickskill notices one of the men has a cold, and offers to get him some vitamin C from the bathroom. While the men look over a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin -- "I hear [Stowe] made a pile on this book," one says -- he goes into the bathroom and out the window, recovering his freedom.* The Tracers would not normally let Quickskill out of their sight, but they can believe a black man would be more concerned about a white man's cold than the threat to his own liberty. As far-fetched as this notion might sound, Reed really didn't have to go very far to find it. Right there in the novel the Tracers are looking at is the scene in Chapter 28, for example, in which Tom tells St. Clare that even if St. Clare frees him, his freedom and family can wait until "mas'r" has no further use for him: "I'll stay as long as Mas'r is in trouble."

    St. Clare's "trouble" is spiritual. The vitamin Tom provides is his great spirituality, which paradoxically is the result of his extraordinary deprivation. After he was sold, he tells St. Clare one chapter earlier, "I felt as if there weren't nothin' left." Out of this suffering comes his faith -- "I's so happy, and loves everybody, and feels willin' jest to be the Lord's" -- and this faith he makes available to the white man who has lost his child: "I know He's willin' to do [the same] for Mas'r." In fact, St. Clare is saved by Tom -- though Tom is never freed by St. Clare.

    In the novel Tom is not an "Uncle Tom," which the dictionary defines as a black person who abjectly sells out the interests of his race to curry favor with the white power structure. Malcolm X's speeches and his Autobiography are probably most directly responsible for giving the term the rhetorical force it has today. As far as I've been able to discover, this idea of "an Uncle Tom" first emerges during the years immediately after World War I. Beginning in 1919, Marcus Garvey and his followers made "Uncle Tom is dead" one of the slogans of their nationalist movement. In the mid-1920s, the campaign that A. Philip Randolph led to unionize the Pullman porters repeatedly stigmatized those who opposed them as "Uncle Toms" serving the bosses. (The archive contains a SECTION with examples of these early 20th century texts and images.)

    It's not clear to me how this usage came about. In the novel Tom never betrays other blacks. The first time Simon Legree whips him, it's because Tom will not obey the order to whip Lucy, and Legree beats him to death because Tom will not reveal where Cassy and Emmeline are hiding.
    On the other hand, Tom is very willing to sacrifice himself to help others, white or black. Stowe would call this "Christian," and in theory sets it up as the ideal everyone should aspire to. Eva, for example, is equally selfless when she tells Tom "I would be glad to die, if my dying could stop all this misery" caused by slavery. But I propose to call what Tom winds up doing in the novel "Tomming" -- a term I'm borrowing from the actors who dramatized the novel to call attention to the fundamental perverseness of Stowe's narrative. As she wrote in her 1878 INTRODUCTION, Stowe began the novel with a vision of a black man dying in agony on a southern plantation, and wrote it, of course, to urge white readers to help black slaves. But when Tom gets to the St. Clare household in the story's middle section, the narrative emphasis shifts, though Stowe and her readers were probably unconscious of the change: while Tom never stops wanting to be free and reunited with his family, he comes to seem even more anxious to help the whiter characters, even the ones who "own" him, with the burdens of their lives.


    He saves Eva from drowning, but far more importantly teaches her about religion. He saves St. Clare from alcohol, and then, far more importantly, after Eva's death leaves St. Clare "bitter" and even more estranged from the faith his dead mother had tried to teach him, Tom saves his soul too. This pattern is repeated again at Legree's, where the "bitter" character is Cassy. Tom is beaten for the first time in Chapter 33. The next chapter, "The Quadroon's Story," begins with Cassy ministering to his bruised body, but as the chapter title suggests, it quickly turns from Tom's suffering to hers, and ends up with him ministering to her broken heart and aching soul. And what happens in this one chapter -- that Tom's pain turns out to be the source of his ability to heal someone else, whose sufferings command more of the narrative's and the reader's attention -- is what I think happens at large in Uncle Tom's Cabin. In this story, paradoxically, it is the "lowly" and disenfranchised black man's role to free others from their sorrows.

    Stowe did make a lot of money from the novel. It was so popular, I suspect, in large part because of the way Stowe, even as she makes her powerful case against the institution of slavery, winds up scripting a racial fantasy in which the black man remains, willingly, in such a subservient position, raising up someone else with the resources that have been nurtured in the depths of his own suffering. Such a narrative not only legitimizes the black man's deprivation, and so saves white America from feeling responsible or guilty about the socio-economic hardships blacks have faced; it makes that "blackness" available to white Americans while maintaining their privileged position as the group whose lives really matter.
"Mas'r always found me on the spot--he always will." (Chapter 5)

    It would be nice to think this racial fantasy disappeared when slavery was abolished, but in fact it is still one of American culture's favorite stories. For example, Hollywood hasn't tried to make Stowe's novel into a feature film since the mid-1940s, when an NAACP protest led MGM to cancel plans for a new Uncle Tom's Cabin. But under other names, "Tom" has played the part I'm describing here in countless movies. I've gathered clips from a few of the most recent examples together in this exhibit, along with a couple earlier instances of Tomming that make the pattern a bit easier to see. You can view the clips by clicking on the images. If you don't have a QuickTime Player, at the bottom of this page there's a link to the site where you can download it.

The Little Colonel (1935)


This film contains one of the Thirties' most famous musical numbers: the "stair dance" Bill "Bojangles" Robinson does with Shirley Temple. The clip at left comes immediately before he starts dancing, and reveals why he dances: to cure "Miss Lloyd" of her homesickness. She's the "Little Colonel," sent to her grandfather's Kentucky mansion by the illness of her father. Robinson plays "Walker." Since the film takes place just after the Civil War, he's Col. Lloyd's servant, not his slave. And he cures the white child with his wonderful body, not his soul. But in both this film and The Littlest Rebel (also 1935) the Robinson-Temple pairing is incredibly close to the relationship Stowe defines between Tom and Eva, and the role the black male plays in serving the needs of the otherwise more privileged white child is exactly the same.

Dumbo (1941)


The racial subtexts of this 90-minute animated feature are complex. Dumbo's big ears mean he is an African elephant, and his story catches up much in the experience of African Americans with slavery and racism. Because of his ears he is, as his friend the mouse says, "socially washed up," and "worst of all, turned into a clown," while the sentimental scene of him being separated from his mother recalls many moments in Stowe's novel. But two things keep us from seeing Dumbo himself as "black": his big blue eyes, and his meeting with the crows.
That meeting provides this movie with its "Tomming" episode. The crows themselves are created in the image of minstrel show "darkies," but when they say they're "fixin' to help" Dumbo we hear the way Stowe defines Tom's role. While Tom shares his faith, they give Dumbo a black feather and enable him to fly, lifting him out of the despair into which he has fallen. From that point on, though, he quickly leaves the "blackness" they represent behind: he gets even with those who ostracized and abused him (something blacks would not be allowed to do), and goes off as the star of the circus. Everyone is reunited, except the crows, who wave goodbye as the circus train disappears into the setting sun.
Sadly, but given the history of race in America not surprisingly, the film can imagine a mouse and an elephant as best friends, but cannot conceive a place in the circus for the crows, even though it was their help that saved Dumbo.   (Click on image to see clip.)

St. Clare said again to Tom, more earnestly, "Pray!" And Tom did pray,
with all his mind and strength, for the soul that was passing,--the soul that
seemed looking so steadily and mournfully from those large, melancholy
blue eyes. (Chapter 28)

    When Stowe winds up defining Tom's role as savior to the whiter characters, she helps fix the "right" place for the black man in the white imagination as firmly as slavery did. Even though Tom, Walker and the crows are the "lowliest" characters in their stories -- Dumbo, for example, sees no irony when the mouse tells the crows, with their ridiculous outfits and dialect, that the worst thing is that Dumbo has been turned into a clown -- they are the ones who have what the main character needs, and they are expected to provide that "help" without any concern for themselves. The main characters only come into contact with "blackness" when they've fallen into some kind of personal darkness. It's in that darkness that the black characters live, and out of which they can lift the white character. Once that white character has been saved in this way, the black characters must be left behind.

    When we look at Uncle Tom's Cabin or movies from half a century ago, it's easy to see the stereotyping involved in this Tomming scenario. Tom on his knees, Walker's ingratiating smile, the mindless laughter of the crows -- contemporary story-telling could never use such crude caricatures. But while it's harder to see the ideological assumptions that underlie our own cultural moment, now that we've established the Tomming motif, I hope you'll recognize it again and again in the following clips, from very recent movies. I can't apologize for the repetitiousness of what follows. The fault lies in our collective failure to imagine a different role for the black man than the one Stowe popularized over 150 years ago.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)


Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Alfred Uhry (1987), this movie also won the Oscar for Best Picture (1989). Like Uncle Tom, Hoke (played by Morgan Freeman) is hired to be a chauffeur. Though she's an old woman, not a young girl, like Eva, Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy) lives in a southern mansion and needs Hoke's help. When her temple is bombed, for example, Hoke tells her the story of the time he saw his friend's father lynched: sharing his "black" pain eases the burden of her "white" suffering. The 30-second clip at left is from the film's the penultimate scene. Suddenly senile, Daisy needs Hoke's help more than ever. When she tells him he's her best friend, we see how she remains the one empowered to tell him what his role is, and as the camera moves away from this couple, it's amazing how much the visual imagery echoes Eva and Tom (whom Stowe also calls Eva's "closest" friend as her helps her with her dying).

The Green Mile (1999)


Based on the 1997 novel by Stephen King, this 1999 nominee for Best Picture was a huge box office success. Its story generates considerable power by combining two deeply-held stereotypical images of the black male: the buck and the uncle. John Coffey (played by Michael Clarke Duncan) is, like Uncle Tom, a "behemoth." As someone on death row awaiting execution for a crime he didn't commit, he's in circumstances as dire as Tom's enslavement. Nonetheless, like Stowe's, the story expects him to keep saving white people. When he heals prison guard Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) of a crippling urinary tract infection, the white man goes home and has sex with his wife four times in one night -- thus evoking the sexual prowess of the "buck" even while healing the sick like the original "JC." The clip at left, though, comes from the end of the scene in which John is taken out of prison to (as he puts it) "hep a lady." The white woman is Melissa Moores (Patricia Clarkson), wife of the warden. Like Eva, Miss Lloyd and Miss Daisy, she lives in a southern mansion, and especially like Eva she is dying (of a tumor). When John enters her bedroom and sucks the disease out of her by kissing her as she lies in bed while a group of white men stand around watching, the movie exploits our cultural anxieties about interracial sex, but finally the relationship is the one defined by Uncle Tom and Little Eva, in which the black man acts with no other desire than to "hep." Once the "lady" is saved, John goes back to prison, one day closer to his execution. See if you don't recognize Eva and Tom again in the way the film visually defines the relationship between the white woman and the black man.

The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)


In this film, based on a 1999 novel by Steven Pressfield, it's a white man who needs "hep." Rannulph Junuh (played by Matt Damon) also lives in a southern mansion (this time in Savannah, Georgia). The mansion, though, and Junuh have fallen on very dark times. Once a champion golfer, he's become a psychically wounded veteran of World War I who has, as the film puts it both literally and metaphorically, "lost his swing." In his personal darkness -- as you'll see in the clip at left, literally out of that darkness -- comes black "Bagger Vance" (Will Smith). The religiosity here has been updated -- John Coffey's initials point to Tom's Christianity, but Bagger Vance's name points to the Bhagvat Gita and eastern spirituality -- but the plot line is exactly the same. The black man heals the white one, and all he asks in return is "$5 guaranteed" as his caddying fee. At the end he goes off into the sunset, while Junuh gets the girl and the mansion.

Save the Last Dance (2001)


This film didn't get nominated for any prestigious awards, but it did make a fortune for MTV, proving that the Tomming archetype is as popular as ever with the next generation. The story is set almost entirely in the black inner city, ordinarily a place white America would rather forget about than visit. But the movie does an extraordinary thing in its first couple minutes. As the opening credits roll, scenes of Sara Johnson (Julia Stiles) taking the train into Chicago from the white suburban world she has lived in are intercut with scenes of her mother's death some weeks earlier. By the time she gets to the black neighborhood where her divorced father (a jazz musician) lives, her private loss has over-written the decades of racial discrimination and neglect suffered by the blacks who live in South Side. Rather than a problem for white America, the black world of the inner city has become the place where Sara will be healed.
Tom in this story is named Derek Reynolds (Sean Patrick Thomas). His character has been updated too, and a bit more attention is paid to the conditions of his life as a young man trying to outgrow a wild adolescence and get to college and med school. He's every bit as intelligent as Sara, and they wind up lovers. But despite these "revisionary" elements, her story remains the focal point, and his role in her story remains the familiar one. He's a great dancer; the hip hop lessons he begins giving Sara in the clip here allow her to appropriate "blackness" as the attitude that will heal her pain and get her admitted to Julliard. That's still in a city, of course, but a long way from the inner city. The film leaves that behind with her.

Far From Heaven (2002)


Julianne Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, whose mansion is in the northern suburbs rather than the south. Socio-ecomically she couldn't be more privileged, but her husband's homosexuality makes her leisured life an ongoing anguish. When her suffering is at its worst, she goes around the corner of her house, and there, in the darkness, is her gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), speaking the line that never seems to get old: "Is there anything I can do?" (Click on image at left).
There is. The film tries to disguise the stereotypicality of his role by making him a very sophisticated gardener, and does include the story of what he and his daughter suffer as a result of 1950s white racism. Yet the essential elements remain the same. When prejudice drives him out of town, his departure is depicted as an unhappy ending -- for her story, which is still the one that matters.

About Schmidt (2002)


Based on a novel by Louis Begley (1996), this film shows how easy it is to tap into the Tomming archetype. You don't even need to hire a black actor; you can just point in the direction of Africa and blackness.
Jack Nickolson plays Warren R. Schmidt, a very white midwesterner who realizes upon retiring from his job as an insurance executive just how empty and futile his life is. (The symbol of a vacuum cleaner sucking air sums up what there is to say "about Schimdt.") In the depths of this despair, he responds to a TV ad and becomes a foster parent to Ngudu, a Tanzanian orphan. (The picture at left is the only time Ngudu appears in the film, and is the only black face we ever see on screen.) Just as Mrs. Whitaker can only share the pain of her well-furnished life with Raymond, so the letters Schmidt sends Ngudu along with the monthly checks to CHILDREACH become his only emotional outlet. The film is too bleak to enable Schmidt to be saved, but in its final scene (here) Ngudu, or rather the very idea of his blackness, does provide him with his only moment of deep feeling. Schmidt gets a letter from a European nun who works at the Tanzanian orphanage, assuring him that Ngudu "wants very much your happiness," and inclosing a drawing from the boy. Schmidt has not cried at his wife's death, or the discovery of her infidelity, or the estrangement of his daughter, but Ngudu's picture of the two of them together moves him to tears. It's a very affecting moment, but while the emotion being felt depends on the history of disease, poverty and exploitation that "Africa" evokes, the tears are all for the white man himself.

Tom looked up to [Legree], and answered, "Mas'r, if you was sick, or in trouble,
or dying, and I could save ye, I'd give ye my heart's blood." (Chapter 41)

Bulworth (1998)


Of all the films in this exhibit, Beatty's is the most like Stowe's novel in the way its racial good intentions are tangled up in racist projections and stereotypes. In his comments about the film, Beatty repeatedly and sincerely said he made it to dramatize the plight of the black inner city. But just as Stowe was finally most deeply invested in St. Clare and Cassy's grief as parents who have lost children, so Beatty's central concern is the way aging has unmanned Senator Jay Bulworth. The opening credits (left) depict him attempting to watch a re-election campaign commercial through the tears he sheds for himself.

Believing he has nothing to lose, Bulworth's rebirth begins when he decides to tell the truth about the power of corporate money in American politics to an audience in a black urban church. From that point on he descends more and more deeply into "blackness," exchanging his suit for the costume of a gangsta rapper, and (as you can hear in the clip at left) his bland rhetoric for the insistent rhymes and "obscenities" of rap.
What we are meant to hear in the clip is the repressed truth about how hard black Americans' lives are, but at the same time it's easy to hear how empowering the white Senator finds the "blackface" he's wearing.

The previous clip ends with the image of real black males looking impressed with Bulworth's protest against the inequalities they live with. But as you might expect, solving the problem of one's impotency by "becoming black" ultimately depends on sex. That's where Halle Berry comes in, playing Nina, a resident of South Central who is originally hired to assassinate Bulworth but ends up falling in love with him. He takes off the gangsta outfit, but when she anoints him as her black man his story reaches its happy ending (here).

Right after Bulworth kisses Nina, he is assassinated by one of the flunkeys of corporate privilege. The image at left isn't a link to a clip, because in a sense this one image already says too much to sum up. Visually, the scene echoes the famous news photograph of Martin Luther King's assassination (COMPARE IMAGES). Shocking as this appropriation is, the film's reviewers don't seem to have noticed it, perhaps because of all the racial borrowing that has already gone on. In this story the "black man" who saves Bulworth is the one he himself becomes, temporarily. Of course, nothing has changed for the real blacks who live in the South Central "hood" that Bulworth descends into. Ultimately it's easier for Beatty to martyr Bulworth than to take the story one step further in the direction of the social change that King died for.

"It's time we realized discrimination in the past doesn't justify
discrimination in the future." (Sen. J. Billington Bulworth)




    We can end with three endings, three scenes of goodby from 1853, 1941 and 2000 --
  (above left): The last of the 115 pictures Billings drew for the "Illustrated Edition" of Stowe's novel, showing freed slaves disappearing in the direction of Africa, leaving America free of both slavery and black people;
  (center): The very end of Dumbo, showing the black crows being left behind, but grateful for the role they were allowed to play in the story of Dumbo's rise to fame and wealth;
  (right): Bigger Vance disappearing into the sunset as Junuh sinks the crucial putt back at the all-white country club.

    When will we finally see the last of the Tomming archetype itself? I wouldn't like to predict. But I can suggest how we'll be able to tell when this fantasy has lost its hold on the white American imagination: when we can watch an inverted form of it, when the places of black and white in the scheme become interchangeable, when audiences will accept just as easily a story in which a black man uses a scene of white suffering comparable to slavery or segregation as the site of his personal renewal, when the white characters are willing to devote themselves wholly to his healing and are happy to be left behind with their hardships as he goes off to live happily ever after.

© 2005 Stephen Railton

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