“Topsy and Eva” and the Legacy of the Silent Era
There’s a Dave Chappelle skit from 6 years ago, right in the wake of Donald’s Trump initial, 2016 presidential victory. During his skit, the comedian alleges that he was met with a certain invective. Chappelle at that point in time had hosted “Saturday Night Live” and, in his opening monologue, said that he would “give [Donald Trump] a chance.” The way the comedian framed his sentiment, though, apparently didn’t strike a positive chord with everyone (arguably not being critical enough of Trump), and this is why Chappelle alleges the said notorious insult was thrown his way.
The insult, as you may have surmised, is derived from the name of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s eponymous 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe, a Connecticut-born author, wrote the fictitious work both to depict the reality of slavery and to encourage the idea that Christian love could overcome it. Throughout the years, many atheists and secularists, including Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, have debated that topic- are Judeo-Christian teachings consistent with or opposed to the practice of slavery? However, that’s a separate topic altogether. Stowe’s work did help ignite the Civil War, but it also served as inspiration for the very controversial pejorative people today are familiar with. And…that wasn’t the novel’s only controversial byproduct.
In 1927 when silent movies were still a thing, Canadian-born director Del Lord produced, and Catherine Chisholm Cushing wrote a “spin-off” film inspired by Stowe’s famous novel. The name, “Topsy and Eva,” refers to two major characters in the book. Uncle Tom (Noble Johnson) is featured but not as the main character. The story begins with two separate narratives. Two mythical storks bring forth two newborns- Eva and Topsy (respectively portrayed by the real-life “Duncan Sisters,” Vivien and Rosetta Duncan). Eva’s white stork (which soars through pristine skies) drops the baby off at the palatial manor of Augustine St. Claire (Henry Victor). Topsy’s black stork (which travels through thunderous clouds), though, doesn’t receive such a warm welcome. Black residents angrily dismiss the bird and the baby it carries with it when it lands on one of their chimney tops. With no loving or guiding figures in her life, Topsy grows up as any abandoned child undoubtedly would- angry, confused and isolated. When she appears on screen, she is poorly dressed and dirty. She constantly plays pranks on and steals from everyone. Then she meets Eva, who treats her kindly. Eva belongs to the St. Claire family, who purchase Topsy and Uncle Tom from the sadistic Simon Legree (Gibson Gowland) at a slave auction. Topsy, who, alongside Uncle Tom, must contend with Legree, eventually warms up to the St. Claire family and returns Eva’s sisterly love and affection.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was progressive for its time… not in terms of anti-racism but certainly anti-slavery! One of the most pernicious myths in that era was that of the “benevolent slave-owner”—the belief that slavery was supposedly less harmful if the masters treated their slaves well. This is an idea Stowe deeply criticized—whether you treat someone well or not, holding them in forced bondage is still reprehensible! The St. Claire family is certainly guilty of that. Another fallacious, historical belief is the assumption that every 19th-century abolitionist was also an anti-racist. Some were, but many weren’t. They may not have wanted anyone in chains, but when it came to voting, housing, education, work, and socializing, they weren’t nearly as open-minded, and early Hollywood certainly shared in that sentiment. By the late 1920s, the entertainment industries were generally phasing out the practice of “blackface”, but it was still in use. Rosetta Duncan sports blackface though in her role as Topsy, so, not a very good first move! The major problem with blackface is that its usage will always prove degrading. After all, you cannot capture a person’s complex individuality if you treat them like a Halloween character. Blackface was a crude form of makeup, and it always gave out a strong “uncanny valley” impression. For anyone who’s unfamiliar the term, the “uncanny valley” is what happens when a robot looks mostly-but-not-completely human…that eerie, “something’s not right” feeling. In the case of blackface no actual human being naturally looks the way a person would look if they were covered in such a cream. Performers in the old “minstrel shows” used blackface to deliberately mock and dehumanize the black/African American population. This leads to the film’s second major issue.
Topsy isn’t given any depth or dimension. Duncan’s performance is farcical and “slapstick-y” but also in very poor taste. It’s atavistic and stereotypical, and yes, while any child in real life (regardless of race, ethnicity, or background) who grows up without parents or parental figures may act “un-civilized,” context matters! Filmmakers at that time would’ve been acutely aware of the racial atmosphere in the United States. They would’ve been aware of minstrel shows and offensive racial caricatures. They would’ve also been acutely aware that one of their major collaborators- D.W. Griffith- wasn’t exactly a progressive social figure. Twelve years earlier, Griffith directed “Birth of a Nation”- a nearly three-hour-long silent Civil War epic widely regarded as one of the most racist films ever produced. The film- based on the 1905 novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan- portrays the KKK heroically, and subsequently received significant backlash from the NAACP. All this to say- Griffith probably wasn’t the best filmmaker to partner with.
So…could the film have worked in a non-racist, non-condescending sort of way? Yes- if an actual black/African American actress had played Topsy and her character was given more agency, subtlety and nuance. But, in the absence of those two conditions, this film or any other film like it couldn’t. Consider for instance, the difference between a film like Spike Lee’s 1989 classic “Do the Right Thing” and films like “The Blind Side” (2009) or “Green Book” (2018) — both Oscar contenders/winners with mixed reviews. “Do the Right Thing” fervently addressed racism, but it kept its characters well-rounded. On the other hand, many viewers were not all too pleased with the latter two flicks. The reason for both was primarily the same—the stories were going for a positive message, but they were too glossy, and the characters were too flat, too heroic, too oppressive, too villainous, or too passive. How does one create a well-regarded social drama with a positive message? Furthermore, how does one develop the type of real-life personality that well-regarded social dramas with positive messages encourage? The key is authenticity, vivid individuality, and a commitment to the truth. Reality is infinitely complex and so are human beings! For that reason, one-dimensional caricatures are always dangerous, and every form of bigotry at its core appeals to that—a flat, monolithic, low-resolution view of other people!