Marx and racism

With a title like that, you might think I’m going to talk about how Karl Marx’s economical and political theories apply to racial inequality.

Nope. I’m going to talk about racism in the Marx Brothers movies.

Recently, with much pandemic-induced free time on my hands, I re-watched all of the Marx Brothers films, in chronological order. They were as funny and clever as I remembered. What I’d forgotten (or more likely never noticed before) is the casual racism. I’ve blogged about casual racism in Harold Lloyd’s films. I’m facing the reality that many of the films of that general era, ones that have withstood the the test of time and have become classics, reflect the racist attitudes of those times.

Let’s take a look. Trigger warning: Explicit examples of racism in films you may remember fondly from your youth.

Well, maybe I am a little headstrong. But I come by it honestly. My father was a little headstrong. My mother was a little Armstrong. The Headstrongs married the Armstrongs, and that’s why darkies were born.
– Groucho Marx, Duck Soup (1933)

In A Day at the Races (1937), there’s an extended sequence that starts with Harpo Marx playing a tin flute. A group of black children start dancing around him; they’re part of the families who live next to racetrack’s stables. The children sing “Who dat man?” They call him “Gabriel.” The group comes to the house where the adults are; those adults are somberly singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

All Harpo has to do is play his tin flute again, and the adults suddenly shift their mood in response to the white savior. They also sing “Who dat man?” and call Harpo “Gabriel.” They sing and dance joyfully and come to another shack where black people are performing a musical jam. Once more, Harpo interrupts and plays his tin flute; the black musicians stop and exclaim, “Who dat man? Why it’s Gabriel!”

Harpo leads them all to a nearby stable. The crowd exhorts Harpo to “Blow that horn!” Harpo plays his flute and the black musicians play in response, even though it’s clear (at least to modern ears) that they are more talented than he is.

A black singer, accompanied by the ensemble, starts singing to comfort the film’s romantic leads (since, of course, it’s the priority of a large crowd of talented black performers to please a couple of white people). The sequence turns into a high-energy dance number, easily the best in the film (if not all the Marx Brothers films), with the frenzied enthusiasm of performers who have to work ten times as hard to get paid a tenth as much. The Lindy Dancers are amazing, and it’s worth enduring the racist overtones to see their work.

Eventually the Authority Figures come to chase the Marx Brothers. The Marx Brothers try to hide, and come up with what I assume was funny at the time:

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 12.56.42 AM
From A Day at the Races, © 1941 by MGM

Of course, none of the black performers mind, even as the black-face Mark Brothers take center stage to dance in front of them.


I’ll discuss just one more film, but one that contains two examples of racism: The Big Store (MGM, 1941).

In the middle of the “Sing While You Sale” musical sequence, Groucho picks up a cotton plant display and starts singing about inspecting a plantation. He tosses the plant to these performers:

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From The Big Store © 1941 by Loew’s Incorporated

These four young men are literally singing about the joys of picking cotton.

Later in the movie, there’s a “large-family confusion” sketch. An Italian couple comes to purchase a bed, accompanied by their 12 children. Some go missing. Then a Chinese couple comes in with their 6 children; they are (of course) all wearing coolie outfits. Then to add to the confusion:

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 1.20.40 AM
From The Big Store © 1941 by Loew’s Incorporated

It all plays out with the broad stereotypes that one might expect.

I said I’d discuss just one more film, so I won’t go into this:

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From Animal Crackers © 1930 by Paramount Publix Corporation

What to make of it?

I’ll back down my high dudgeon just a bit to acknowledge that these moments take up a small portion of screen time in the overall body of the Marx Brothers’ films. Also, they’re a reflection of the times in which they were made; if I were to compare the casual racism I’ve detailed above to that found in other films of the period I might find that the Marx Brothers films contained relatively fewer racist overtones.

Still, how many racist jokes do you need to make to reinforce a negative image? Answer: one. I can’t help but think of the black, Chinese, or Native Americans in the theater audience. They had to accept the prancing around of white performers mocking their experience in the larger culture. Perhaps, given the pervasive effects of racism, they thought no more about it than did the Marx Brothers.

The Marx Brothers themselves were Jewish, as were many of their writers, directors, and producers. Jews in the 30s and 40s were no strangers to prejudice and racism. That awareness did not transfer to awareness of racism against black people. Such were the times then, and often now.

What might be done?

Warner Brothers dealt with a similar issue by putting an acknowledgement of racism in the DVD releases of the classic Looney Toons shorts. HBO put a disclaimer in front of Gone With the Wind.

I think it’s worth putting similar disclaimers in front of the relevant Marx Brothers films. I want people to see the Marx Brothers movies. As I said, they’re funny and clever, and we could all use more laughs during these times. They’re also an important part of the history of film and popular entertainment.

But we must also acknowledge their flaws, especially those flaws that were part of the passive rot of racism.

And what about Marx and sexism? I didn’t count the number of times Harpo and Groucho chased some random female across the movie screen. I’ll leave that analysis for someone else.

Watchmen – The TV series

At the time I’m writing this, the Watchmen HBO TV series is available on Hulu, and possibly other streaming platforms.

That first sentence was for the web-link summary. Let’s step back a bit.

I stated in an 2009 blog post that I felt that Watchmen was the finest comic I ever read. Part of the reason I got out of reading comics on a regular basis was I didn’t think I’d find anything better. It’s 11 years later, and I stand by that statement.

When I first heard that a sequel to Watchmen was being made for HBO, I was skeptical. The graphic novel told its story and was done. What more could be said? The answer, it turns out, was plenty.

The main theme of the Watchmen graphic novel was what might happen if people in our “real” world put on costumes to fight crime. It explored that idea and many practical consequences, including the reality of public reaction, government intervention, and the fact that underneath the costume there were still human beings. But the story was basically a self-critique of the “costumed superhero” concept, using and abusing the tropes of comic books to tell human stories.

The theme of the Watchmen TV series is racism. It’s clear why HBO has made the series available outside of its normal channels so that a wider audience can see it. Though the story involves costumed crime-fighters to some degree, this is definitely not a series for children, no more than the Watchmen was.

In particular, the series begins with a harrowing depiction of the Tulsa race massacre. I knew about the incident before I watched the series, but only because a friend had mentioned it at one time on his web site. It’s not a comforting sequence. Like the Watchmen comic, the TV series is not meant to make people comfortable.

As a fan of the comic, I have a few caveats:

– If you’ve never read Watchmen comic or seen the Zack Snyder movie, some of the plot points will seem opaque: Why is everyone so obsessed with “Dr. Manhattan”? Why are the Rorschach masks significant? Why should anyone care about the old guy in the manor?

– This is a sequel to the Watchmen comic, not the Watchmen movie directed by Zack Snyder. If you’ve only seen the movie, then you may have to get around the differences: Why do people keep talking about squids?

– The series has clever visual cues that readers of the comic will get, but will just slide past everyone else. These details are not critical.

I claim that the Watchmen comic is the best I’ve ever read. I won’t say that the Watchmen TV series was the best one I’ve seen. However, it does make a timely statement about the long-term effects of racism; the Tulsa massacre reverberates throughout the series.

This must be said: The series drops the ball on how law enforcement reacts to racial issues. In particular, the show only gives lip service criticism of suspending rights and due process when you’re the “good guy” and you’re fighting the “bad guys.” In that way, the Watchmen TV series is no better than the old pulp comic books that the Watchmen graphic novel condemned.

Interlude in a waiting room

I had to have one of my regular blood tests today. After checking in, I sat in the waiting room. Opposite me was a TV tuned to the Fox network. A talk show called Wendy was just starting.

Apparently a feature of the show was Wendy going over the recent news, with the studio audience applauding, cheering, or booing as prompted by Wendy. Her first news item was on Therese Patricia Okoumou, the woman who climbed to the foot of the Statue of Liberty yesterday to protest our nation’s immigration practices.

Wendy didn’t mention Okoumou’s name. What she focused on what that the tourists who’d come to visit the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July were blocked by the police response. Her chief criticism was for the guards who had let Okoumou through so she could stage her protest.

My first reaction was, “Wendy, you sold your soul to Fox.” Wendy, the bulk of her audience, and Okoumou are all People of Color. So are the children being held in cages, along with their parents who are trying to escape the violence of their home nations.

I feel empathy for those imprisoned people, not only for their own circumstances, but from memories of similar experiences of the Jews in the time of the Holocaust. I asked myself what happened to the empathy of Wendy and her audience.

My second reaction was born entirely from having watched the musical 1776 the previous night:

John Adams: This is a revolution, dammit! We’re going to have to offend SOMEbody!

It’s a darn shame that some tourists were inconvenienced by Okoumou’s protest. I think the families being torn apart are even more inconvenienced. And traumatized. And living in fear.

It is my hope that Therese Patricia Okoumou and her compatriots will still keep trying to climb that statue. They’ll reach the top of Liberty someday.

Blank Screen

I went to a screening of Incredibles 2 tonight. I walked into the theater about five minutes before the scheduled start. The screen was blank. That’s a bit unusual these days, but it was an IMAX screen; I figured that perhaps they didn’t have any commercial fluff that was in IMAX format.

The starting time of the movie came and went. People were still entering the theater. The screen stayed blank. People sat and watched the blank screen.

I began to entertain myself. “OK, this is a trailer for The Invisible Man Returns. Next, we have the trailer for Pitch Black. Now we have a trailer for a black-and-white movie, but because of a limited budget they couldn’t afford the white.”

I waited for twenty-two minutes after the scheduled start time, which is about how long trailers last these days. Finally, I asked the people sitting next to me to please watch my stuff as I went to the customer-service booth.

I asked the people there if anyone had reported that the screen in theater 10 was blank. No one had. A staff member said he’d check it out.

I went back to the theater and announced, “In case anyone’s interested, I just reported the problem.” A few minutes later the movie began.

The projectionist skipped the trailers and went straight to the movie… or what passes for “straight to the movie” these days. There was the warning about shutting off cell phones.

Then there was a special introduction from the voice actors and the director of Incredibles 2. More they once, they said that they’re sorry it took 14 years to make a sequel. But Samuel L. Jackson thanked us for our patience and assured all of us that it was worth the wait. Mr. Jackson, your words were truer than you know.

The chief antagonist of Incredibles 2 is the villain ScreenSlaver, who uses the power of hypnotic patterns on a screen to control people’s minds. During the film, the ScreenSlaver gives us the usual super-villain monologue about how everyone was mindlessly looking at screens.

Oh, poor ScreenSlaver. You worked so hard on your hypno-screens. Little did you realize that you can hypnotize a theater full of people with just a blank screen.

“The Last Jedi” – my experience

This is not a review. There will be no spoilers.

I had not intended to see The Last Jedi on its opening day. I anticipated the theaters would be jammed. Also, there were was a lot scheduled at work both today (Thursday) and tomorrow (Friday), including a #ScienceOnHudson talk and the lab’s holiday party.

Just as I was about to head home after the #ScienceOnHudson talk, I got a text message from a friend of mine. He couldn’t make it to the 10:30PM show, and wanted to know if anyone would like to have his ticket. My initial thought was that the film wouldn’t end until 1:30AM, which is a bit much for a work night. I drove home and got into my pajamas.

Then I saw a new text that said my friend and turned in his ticket for a refund. Several other friends said “We’re sorry we won’t see you tonight”. That was when I became aware it was a group trip to see the movie.

My geek cred returned with a vengeance. I went to the AMC web site to see if I could get a ticket for the newly-available seat. I had difficulties with the site (common for that site); while the seat was free the purchase didn’t go through due to a web error, yet the site reserved the seat and I couldn’t select it again.

As I struggled with the site, a new block of seats suddenly opened up. My guess is that a group of friends planned to go together, changed their minds, and refunded their tickets. I purchased one of those seats. I changed into my outdoor clothes and drove to the theater.

When I got there, no one had claimed those new seats, and the seat I had tried to reserve earlier remained empty. It wasn’t crowded after all!

I said I wouldn’t review the film, but I will comment on the performances of Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill. After being associated with their iconic roles for decades, they could have just phoned it in. They didn’t. They both brought a new energy to their performance.

I seriously believe that both Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill (the former in particular) should be considered for nominations for Best Supporting Actor. If Heath Ledger could win posthumously, I see no reason why Fisher couldn’t.

And now it’s after 2AM, I’m still a bit wired after the film, and I have a lot to do tomorrow. I shouldn’t be writing this blog post… but here we are!


This is one of those “Oh! I just watched this incredible thing and I gotta tell you about it!” posts. If you’re feeling a bit media-saturated and would rather just wait until the female Doctor is unveiled in the next Christmas special, I’ll understand if you want to skip this post.


Sense8 is the series that I just watched and I gotta tell you about, mainly because I don’t think it’s received the attention it deserves. I think the reason folks have not gotten into it is that, as reported by almost everyone who’s reviewed Sense8, the first three episodes are slow-moving. We know the premise already, let’s get into it! But by the fourth episode the potentials begin to gel, and it becomes a compelling story.

That central premise is an old one in SF, but has never been presented visually in this form before: A group of eight people (the sensates) become telepathically linked with each other. At first it’s a matter of them seeing and talking with one another, then they learn they can share each other’s skills.

The mythology surrounding this idea is also fairly conventional: They are not the only sensate cluster. There’s a shadowy organization bent on controlling or eradicating the sensates. Some clusters are in hiding, others are collaborating with the enemy.

If Sense8 can be described in such conventional terms within the genre, why is worth watching?

  • The series was created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the sibling team responsible for the film The Matrix, and J. Michael Straczynski, best known the TV series Babylon 5. They bring their full stylistic talents to this series. The action sequences sparkle in a way that I can’t bring myself to spoil, except to say that they adopt a visual language to show how the different sensates’ skills blend together.
  • I’ve watched enough media to know when I’m being emotionally manipulated. However, the Watchowskis and Straczynski know how to sell those moments. The first major sequence in the series is a group karaoke shared among the sensates in the fourth episode. They don’t entirely understand their connection yet, but you become immersed in their shared joy. If your heartstrings aren’t pulled by that when you watch it, then Sense8 is not for you.
  • Speaking of shared emotional sequences: The telepathically-linked group orgies. Nope, don’t watch the series for that if you can’t take the karaoke. Really. No orgy without karaoke.
  • Speaking of orgy sequences: The frank handling of gender and sexuality. One of the sensates is a trans woman; another is a closet gay actor. Their feelings and identities are treated just as seriously as any male-female relationships depicted in the show.
  • Did you get my reference to Doctor Who in the first paragraph of this post? Then you might like to know that Freema Agyeman, who played Martha Jones in the 10th Doctor era, plays the girlfriend of one of the sensates; Sylvester McCoy, the 7th Doctor, shows up the second season. The show definitely has Doctor Who street cred.
  • For even more genre cred, Jamie Clayton, who plays one of the sensates, supplies the voice of the character Jien Garson in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Bae Doona, another sensate, was in Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending. Let’s not forget Darryl Hannah, from the films Splash, Attack of the 50 ft. Woman, and My Favorite Martian. Now that I search through Wikipedia entries, I see that Tuppence Middleton was also in Jupiter Ascending. So let’s just say: plenty of cred!
  • There’s more: the quality of the cinematography, the use of world-wide locations, the acting talent.

Both seasons of Sense8 are available on Netflix. Unfortunately, Netflix cancelled the show after the second season, probably because the cost of the series (on the order of $9.5 million per episode for the second season) was too high given the viewership. However, due to fan demand, there will be a two-hour series wrap-up in 2018. And there’s still a possibility that, if viewership increases, Netflix will consider extending the series… hence this blog post.

There’s an interesting wrinkle to the renewal story: The porn site xHamster wrote to the Watchowskis suggesting that they’d be willing to continue Sense8. It’s probably just a publicity stunt. In general, though, it’s an intriguing idea. There are some SF stories, such as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, that might be (ahem) too visually challenging outside of a porn site. But, as I understand it, xHamster would not be an appropriate venue given their pejorative stance towards transgendered people.

Bottom line: See Sense8. Even if it remains forever incomplete, it’s still compelling viewing.


This past weekend I turned on my HBO subscription in order to watch Game of Thrones. It gave me the opportunity to binge-watch another HBO series, Westworld.

I have mixed feelings about the series. As I’d heard, the show has a narrative complexity and messes around with the viewers’ perceptions in an intriguing way. This sustained the show all the way until the ending of the final episode of the first (and so-far-only season), where it dropped the ball and became annoyingly conventional.

I’ll eventually watch another season of Westworld if they make another one, but I’m not going to activate an HBO subscription just to watch it.

The Hollow Crown

There’s a lot of good television becoming available right now (e.g., American Gods and Doctor Who). There’s one more show that’s a bit harder to find in the US that I’d like to bring to your attention.

The Hollow Crown is a British TV series that presents Shakespeare’s cycle of plays on the events that led to the War of the Roses:

Season One
Richard II
Henry IV, Part One
Henry IV, Part Two
Henry V

Season Two
Henry VI, Part One
Henry VI, Part Two
Richard III

What distinguishes this series is the quality of the production, bringing a Game of Thrones vibe to the battle sequences. Because the series was conceived as a whole, the same actors play the same characters throughout the plays, which helps the viewer understand the flow of events in a way that’s harder to appreciate when the plays are presented individually.

The level of acting talent is also impressive. There are two key roles played by actors familiar to genre fans: Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal (later Henry V), and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III). I have to say: Cumberbatch is far better playing the villainous Richard III than he was at playing Khan Singh or Stephen Strange; there’s even a hint of Smaug in his approach.

My conscious compels me to make two disclaimers:

– Shakespeare’s historical accuracy was shaky at best, and this production makes no attempt to correct that. Don’t watch these as a history lesson.

The Hollow Crown reduces the plays somewhat, to fit a two-hour time limit for each play and to make the material more suitable for a screen presentation. In particular, Shakespeare wrote Henry VI in three parts, which The Hollow Crown reduces to two. This does not hurt the production, since you’re not likely to be bothered by the omissions (e.g., Shakespeare’s depiction of Joan La Pucelle as a witch who conversed with demons).

You can find many guides to Shakespeare and history to help you appreciate the series. As I watched, I followed along with Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. It explained the differences between Shakespeare and history (and the likely reasons for the differences), and provided background for the plays’ events that would not be evident to modern viewers.

I watched The Hollow Crown on discs rented from Netflix. It was broadcast in the US on PBS, and might still be available on the PBS streaming channel. Otherwise you can purchase it on Amazon and Vudu.

No spoilers, sweetie

My take on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” matches that of most of the reviews I’ve seen: this isn’t the best of the series (I’d pick The Empire Strikes Back); this isn’t the worst of the series (tie between The Phantom Menace and The Return of the Jedi). This is a Star Wars movie, picking up the beats from thirty-odd years ago. My main complaint about the film is that J.J. Abrams pushed the “homage” button a bit too often. Otherwise, fans of the series and a general audience will get what they expect from a Star Wars movie: action, adventure, dueling spaceships, lightsaber battles. And, of course, heroes with enough pluck to bite the ears off a Gundaar. The film fulfills expectations and gives room for the series to grow in the future. Now that we’ve got the homages out of the way, we’re ready to go forward with Star Wars VIII.