The Subtle Racism of John Ford and Judge Priest
and a second chance with the Sun Shines Bright
John Ford's Judge Priest (1934) opens with My Old Kentucky Home playing in the background and the words "There was one man Down Yonder I came to especially admire for he seemed typical of the tolereance of the day and the wisdom of that almost vanished generation", came rolling up the screen. The movie was set in a small Kentucky town in 1890 and the widowed Wm. Pitman Priest (Will Rogers) was a judge.
The first scene is set in a courtroom and the most stereotypical character to ever grace the screen, Stepin Fetchit , is being tried as a chicken thief in Judge Priest's courtroom. Judge Priest says "Hey, hey boy, wake up there. Sheriff wake him up there. If anyones going to sleep in this court it be me." Stepin Fetchit then gets up and gives his "comic", almost undecipherable defense of himself. The discussion in the courtroom then somehow becomes one about the good old days, and the Confederacy. Most of the talk in the film will somehow end up in the battlefields of the "War for the Southern Confederacy". When the discussion moves to fishing, Juge Priest is suddenly very interested. The next scene has the Judge and Stepin heading to the river with poles on their shoulders. A happy Aunt Dilsey (Hattie McDaniels) then sings "I got to take down the Judge's clothes" as she she does the laundry and goes off to cook.
The story moves to the judge's nephew Jerome and his girl Ellie May. Jerome's mother doesn't like the pedigree of Ellie May, and is working to move her out of the picture but the tolerant Judge Priest will go to bat for her.
The judge brings his horse Gerneral Forest (Nathan Bedford Forrest would become one of the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War) to get shoed and then goes off fishing again with Stepin. Stepin forgets to bring the bait, and the Judge sends Stepin off running, although he doesn't have his shoes on because he is "Savin’ ‘em case my feet wear out."
We next visit an Ice cream Festival and candy Pull sponsored by the United Confederate Veterans Reunion and the Daughters of the Confederacy. Aunt Dilsey and the other black servants sing songs to entertain the guests. Sergeant Jimmy Bagby tells tales of his exploits in the war that everyone has heard hundreds of times before. Aunt Dilsey and the other "darkies" sing "My Old Kentucky Home", with the original lyrics of "Tis summer, the darkies are gay,", which was later "officially" changed in 1986 to "Tis summer, the people are gay" by the Kentucky Legislature.
The movie ends up as it began, in the courtroom. The end result is that Ellie May's character is upgraded in the eyes of Jerome's mother, because it turns out her father was a hero in the War. Anyone associated with the Confederacy is acceptable in Southern society.
I don't have a big problem with the glorification of the Confederacy. The ante-bellum South was a society that prided itself on its horse culture and military traditions. What I really object to is having the black actors taking part in the glorification. Having Aunt Dilsey sings about how the darkies were gay, is making her take part in a justification for a society that was brutal, cruel and dehumanizing to her ancestors.
The Judge asks Stepin Fetchit if he can play Dixie on his harmonica, and Stepin says he can play that or Marching Through Georgia for a racoon coat. The Judge says "Marching through Georgia? I got you out of one lynching, if you playin Marching through Georgia I'll join the lynchin." Although the dialogue was mean to be comdedic, the subject of lynching in 1890 Kentucky might not be that funny to a black audience. At a critical par in the final courtroom scene, Stepin and friends start playing a rousing version of Dixie, outside of the courtroom window. Most of the blacks in the town seem to show up, playing instruments or dancing, taking part in the glorification of the world in which they live.
The movie ends with the Confederate veterans marching down the street in a parade, as the crowd cheers. A John Ford "touch", having little black children waving little Confederate flags in the parade, will make most black viewers cringe.
Judge Priest paved the way for movies like Gone with the Wind, which painted the South as a place where "all" the people, black and white, were happy with the way things were. This view can't be any further from the truth. Blacks weren't happy in slavery and they certainly weren't happy in the small Kentucky town portrayed in this film. Blacks also weren't happy in the South in the year that this movie was made, despite what John Ford might have wanted you to believe. To say that blacks were happy with their second class status is condescending and demeaning.
Celebrating a racist system, whether it was slavery or Jim Crow, is something that should be condemned not applauded. I think that John Ford tried to portray a folksy society, without really seeing what he was really doing. As he went on in his career he would do a much better job of addressing the issues of race in America, but Judge Priest was not one of his finest moments.
In 1953 Ford made another Judge Priest movie called The Sun Shines Bright. Ford has said that is is his favorite of the movies that he made. The movie has Charles Winninger playing Judge Priest and again has Stepin Fetchit hanging around. Bur this movie, made almost twenty years later, isn't any where as racist as the first one. In a scene reminiscent of the one in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jude Priest single handily stops a crowd from lynching a young black man.
Judge Priest is a again a devout member of a Confederate organization, but in this movie the blacks weren't made to celebrate Dixie. They do play banjos and smile as the young men dressed in Confederate uniforms dance with their escorts, but at least they aren't waving Confederate flags in this one.
Ford always used ethnic stereotypes for humor, and he used the Irish more than anyone. The Irish in his movies were always drinking and fighting and the audiences of the time probably enjoyed the humor in their shenanigans. Not politically correct today, but Ford was looking to entertain the audiences of his day, not ours.
Judge Priest is again involved in an election, and this time against a Northerner. Judge Priest takes up temperance and anything else to get votes but he won't sacrifice his integrity. He risks his life and his position in the town to save the young man from lynching. Judge Priest also supports the burial of a woman of questionable character, and the towns people rather than turning against him, join in the funeral procession, respecting his decency.
Judge Priest wins the election because people recognize that he is a man of principle who will not succumb to narrow prejudices, but can be counted on to do the right thing. Judge Priest reads from the bible at the funeral service of the woman of questionable character, and in the reading Jesus says "He who is without sin among you, cast the first stone at her."
John Ford did a much better job with his second movie about Judge Priest. He showed a society that was divided in to two different groups, with one being paternalistic to the other, but isn't that the way things were at the turn of the century in the South? The movie again ends with a parade as the band plays Dixie, but this time the blacks aren't required to join in. The movie end with the servants singing "My Old Kentucky Home."