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Unexpected casual racism

Posted on November 8, 2012 by ari

Shira and I were watching a documentary we found on Netflix, A Program About Unusual Buildings & Other Roadside Stuff, when something rubbed me the wrong way: Unexpected casual racism and sexism! I ended up writing a review on Netflix; this is the full version – they made me cut a bit to fit their word count limit.

I enjoyed a lot of this film – I’m a fan of quirky architecture and roadside curiosities. But you know what I didn’t enjoy? The male filmmaker’s choice, when visiting a hotdog shack shaped like a giant hotdog in a bun, to include lots of footage of an interviewee’s peurile, cringe-worthy jokes about the phallic nature of the hot dog and its size, including a repeated, obvious sexual joke relating to a woman eating a hot dog.

But it’s the segment about Mammy’s Cupboard in Natchez, Mississippi that’s particularly troubling. Instead of avoiding this historic restaurant building, built in the shape of a racist caricature of an enslaved black woman, Sebak chose to portray it in a very positive light. He points out how much of its business comes from Natchez Pilgrimage Tours on their way between visits to local plantations.

I had to look these tours up later – Sebak doesn’t give much detail besides some shots of happy white people visiting big fancy houses. It turns out they’re tours run and attended by white people, that reenact and celebrate elements of life in the South in the times of slavery – while conspicuously ignoring the presence of enslaved black people in their rosy vision of Southern history.

Sebak seems to share this vision, if his many shots of whitewashed Southern charm and his failure to look deeper during the segment are any indication. He interviews the proprietor of Mammy’s, who says she knows the building is politically incorrect, but that they haven’t been given a hard time about it. I find that hard to believe. If they haven’t been given a hard time about it yet, I hope they do now that Sebak has included them in his movie. In any case, let’s just say that the casual sexism and racism turned me off and creeped me out, and have prompted to give this doc only one star.

If you think I’m being overly sensitive, search for Mammy’s Cupboard to see what it looks like. Then search for Natchez Pilgrimage Tours and check out their website. If you’re not seriously creeped out after that, maybe Wikipedia will sway you. From the page for Natchez, Mississippi:

Historic wealthy and famous families in Natchez have used the Natchez Pilgrimage, which is an annual tour of the city’s impressive antebellum mansions; to portray a nostalgic vision of its antebellum slaveholding society. Since the civil rights movement, however, this version has been increasingly challenged by blacks who have sought to portray the black experience in Natchez. According to the author Paul Hendrickson, “Blacks are not a part of the Natchez Pilgrimage.”

Anyhow, after searching a bit and being shocked by the casual racism on display by the folks at Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, and right there in Rick Sebak’s documentary, I felt like sharing. Casual racism isn’t okay. It’s not “politically incorrect” – it’s morally incorrect. It’s ignorant. It’s lacking in empathy and human feeling, to celebrate something so horrific and violent as a history of slavery. There is no way you can paint it to make it look pretty.

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  3. Possessions and Exorcisms: Seven Movies Worth Watching

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