Rape and Race in the Movies

In Sergeant Rutledge (1960), which is a Western directed by John Ford, a black soldier faces a court martial for the rape and murder of a white girl.  At the end of the movie, someone else, a white man, of course, confesses to having committed the crime, and the title character is acquitted.

The movie To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is, along with a few subplots, a story about a black man who is accused of raping a white woman in Alabama in the 1930s.  Most of the white people in the town are ready to lynch him, being sure that he is guilty.  By virtue of some rather fortuitous evidence, that the black man does not have full use of his left hand, it is clear that the white woman lied about being raped.  The town is so prejudiced, however, that he is convicted anyway.

In the movie Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys (1976), nine black teenagers are accused of raping two white girls.  Once again we are in Alabama in the 1930s.  Once again there is a lot of prejudice in the town and a presumption that the African American youths are guilty.  Once again, it is pretty clear that the white girls are lying.  The boys are convicted anyway.

At the time these movies were made, the typical reaction of the audience was to deplore this racial prejudice, especially in what was regarded as the ultimate outrage in the Jim Crow South, the rape of a white woman by a black man.  This obsession was made especially clear in the movie Birth of a Nation (1915), the racist classic that justified the formation of the Ku Klux Klan as the only way to keep black men from molesting white women.

Interestingly enough, there is one thing that these four movies have in common.  No such rape of a white woman by a black man ever takes place. It is threatened in Birth of a Nation, a white man did the raping in Sergeant Rutledge, and the rapes are spurious in To Kill a Mockingbird and Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys; but in none of these movies is there a rape of a white woman by a black man.  The reason why this is so in the latter three movies is obvious, because the point was to create sympathy for African Americans, who are often treated unfairly.  In the case of Birth of a Nation, however, an actual rape of a white woman by a black man would have been too horrible to contemplate.

From completely diverse motives then, movies in which a black man actually rapes a white woman are rare, a couple of exceptions being Deep in My Heart (1999) and The Further Adventures of Tennessee Buck (1988), movies you have probably never even heard of, let alone seen.  A slightly more well-known movie in which this rare cinematic event occurs is Death Wish II (1982), about which more later.  In most cases, however, there is only the accusation of rape, which turns out not to be true.  And the way in which the accusation turns out not to be true in To Kill a Mockingbird and Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys is that the white women lied.

Another movie in which a man of color is accused of rape but is exonerated when it turns out that the woman lied is A Passage to India (1984).  The movie is set in India in the early part of the twentieth century when it was still under British rule.  A white Englishwoman accuses an Indian of trying to rape her, but she recants on the witness stand.  It is our impression that her lie was not deliberate, but rather that she became hysterical as a result of being unable to come to terms with her repressed sexuality.

I must confess that when I saw these movies when they first were made, I accepted the idea that the women lied as not only being plausible, but perhaps more importantly, as in no way being inconsistent with the progressive attitude of the movies.  In other words, such things go on in the world, but that does not guarantee their being depicted in a movie.  To take the example already alluded to, that of black men raping white women, while such things do occur in real life, they are almost nonexistent in the movies. And with the exception of Birth of a Nation, the reason is a desire on the part of the movie industry to portray African Americans (or Indians, in the case of A Passage to India) in a positive light.  But that same industry, the same producers in fact, had not the slightest qualm about making the women be the villains as part of their progressive agenda.  Their conscience was undoubtedly as clear on this score as mine was when I watched these movies with approval.  The fact that women do sometimes lie about being raped is not an explanation, for what is real and what we want to see in a movie are two different things.

Over the years there has been a gradual awareness of the prejudice against women when it comes to rape.  A lot of men used to think (and some still do) that rape is not a big deal (who can forget the old advice to “just relax and enjoy it”?).  Some rapes are dismissed as not being “legitimate” or as not being “rape-rape.”  In other cases, women are said to have brought it on themselves by dressing provocatively or by egging men on.  And finally, some are thought to be vindictive, seeking revenge for having been scorned.

Slowly, social consciousness is finally coming around to a more progressive attitude about rape, one that takes women seriously when they make this charge.  Unfortunately, women do sometimes lie about rape, as in the notorious case about “Jackie,” whose alleged rape was reported and then retracted by Rolling Stone magazine.  But that is reality, over which we have no choice.  Where we do have a choice is in deciding what is acceptable to put in a movie.  Given the climate today, it seems to me unlikely that a major motion picture will soon be produced that involves a woman falsely accusing a man of rape.  In particular, I have to wonder if To Kill a Mockingbird could be made today.  Hollywood is always looking for a movie to remake, especially if the original was a big hit.  And since the original was filmed in black and white, some might regard a remake as justified in that this time it could be filmed in color.  But I don’t think so.  I suspect that a movie in which a woman lies about being raped might be as unacceptable today as a movie about a black man raping a white woman.  It is ironic that the movie we once embraced for its progressive denunciation of racism, we might now have to regard as flawed for the misogynistic way it played off a prejudice against women who claim to have been raped.

Of course, To Kill a Mockingbird is even less likely to be remade now after the release of another novel by Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, which is actually the first version of To Kill a Mockingbird.  An editor advised her to rewrite the story, which she did.  To Kill a Mockingbird is a story about a girl named Scout, whose father, Atticus Finch, defends a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell, in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s.  Though Atticus proves that Robinson is innocent, a prejudiced jury convicts him anyway.  Later, when Scout and her brother are attacked by Mayella’s father, Bob Ewell, Boo Radley, a mentally retarded man, saves them by killing Ewell.  Atticus and the sheriff pretend to accept the story that Ewell fell on his own knife.

Gregory Peck, who played Atticus in the movie, has on occasion played a bad man, as in Duel in the Sun (1946), but when he plays the good guy, no one can surpass him for being morally upright. In fact, sometimes he is so good that it is a little too much to bear.  He is almost nothing but superego, an embodiment of moral rectitude.  I often suspected that the reason Atticus’s wife has been dead for some time when the story begins is so that we won’t think of him having sex, which might make us think him capable of being motivated by a strong passion rather than by the light of reason informed by knowledge of right and wrong.  Also, the love between a father and his daughter, which a lot of people think is the more important feature of the story, would lose some of its intensity if there were a mother for Scout and a wife for Atticus with whom the love would have to be shared.

As there will not likely be a remake of To Kill a Mockingbird, so too is it doubtful there will be a movie based on Go Set a Watchman, though for very different reasons.  In the earlier version of the story, Scout, as Jean Louise, returns home at the age of twenty-six to find that her father has an id.  He denounces the Supreme Court for Brown v. Board of Education, because he is opposed to integration, he despises the N.A.A.C.P., and it is revealed that he once attended a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan.  At one point, he says, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people,” and he asks his daughter, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?  Do you want them in our world?”

There has never been anything like this.  The disconnect between the saintly, much-revered Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird and the racist of Go Set a Watchman borders on blasphemy.

When watching the movie, I always had misgivings in To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus shoots a dog with rabies.  I figured the point was to prepare the way for when Boo (Robert Duvall) kills Bob Ewell (James Anderson), who figuratively is a mad dog that needs killing.  But it bothered me that the mob that comes to lynch Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) probably had exactly the same attitude, that Tom was a mad dog that needed killing. I always had a sense that the movie was inadvertently justifying lynching.

But now I am not so sure it was inadvertent.  In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise, as the grown-up Scout, is portrayed as disillusioned by what she discovers about her father, saying to him, “I’ll never believe a word you say to me again. I despise you and everything you stand for.”  On the surface, one would think that Harper Lee is expressing her disapproval of racism through this character.  But that may be just a front, a pretense of disapproval as a devious way of advocating her racist views through Atticus.  Furthermore, Jean Louise’s views are not that different from his.  At one point in her discussion with her father, she says, “We’ve agreed that they [Negroes] are backward, that they’re illiterate, that they’re dirty and comical and shiftless and no good, they’re infants and they’re stupid, some of them, but we haven’t agreed on one thing and we never will. You deny that they’re human.”  And so, perhaps the killing of the mad dog really was a subliminal way of justifying lynch mobs.

Whereas in To Kill a Mockingbird, Robinson is convicted, in Go Set a Watchman, he is acquitted.  I take this as a southern defense of the South’s judicial system during the Jim Crow period.  Go Set a Watchman is saying that a black man accused of raping a white woman can get justice. In other words, the book has it both ways.  Through the mad dog metaphor, it justifies the lynching of evildoers in the old days, while at the same time assuring us that when a black man was actually innocent, he was likely to be acquitted, even by an all white jury.

There are those who argue that To Kill a Mockingbird, as book or movie, stands on its own, and that authorial intent, as revealed by Go Set a Watchman, is irrelevant.  For most of us, however, the latter contaminates the former, and few people will ever be able to regard To Kill a Mockingbird in the same light again.

To return to the main issue of this essay, the way the movies handle rape across racial lines, African Americans turn out to be innocent of rape charges in To Kill a Mockingbird and Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys because the white girls lie about being raped.  In Sergeant Rutledge, however, the white girl is not only raped, but also murdered, and so the device of having the girl lie about being raped is not available.  Instead, it turns out that a white man actually raped and killed her.  However, some of the blame for what happens still falls on the girl.

The main female character of this movie, Mary Beecher (Constance Towers), is a strong, independent-thinking woman. However, most of the rest of the women in this movie are a bunch of simpleminded old biddies, whose purpose in life is to be scandalized by the shameful behavior of others.  One of the things that scandalize these women is the behavior of Lucy Dabney (Toby Michaels), the girl who is subsequently raped and strangled. The women chastise her for riding a horse astride. But Lucy says, in front of Chandler Hubble (Fred Libby), who we eventually find out is the one that actually raped her, that as long as she says her prayers and behaves herself, her father doesn’t care if she rides around like Lady Godiva. It is also worked into the conversation that her mother is dead. In other words, Lucy does not have a simpleminded old biddy for a mother to instill the proper sense of decorum into her.

At the end, Lieutenant Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter), whose job it is to defend Rutledge (Woody Strode), beats a confession out of Hubble while he is on the witness stand. Hubble admits that he had to rape Lucy because of the way she walked, the way she moved her body. You see, what with Lucy’s having her legs spread-eagled when she rides a horse and putting into Hubble’s mind the image of her being naked while on that horse as well, it was just too much for him. In other words, the movie is just a hair from blaming the victim, although it stops short of that, blaming the circumstance of her not having a mother to raise her properly instead.  One might think that the real blame for the rape would fall on Hubble, the man who raped her. But the movie portrays him as having acted under a sexual compulsion (especially since his wife is deceased, thereby depriving him of a normal sexual outlet). The point seems to be that it is up to women to behave in such a way as to not unleash the demon in men such as Hubble.

One way to make rape across racial lines more suitable for movie audiences is to lessen the color difference between the man and woman.  This can be done in two ways, by having the man belong to a race less dark than that of an African American, or by making the white woman be a brunette instead of a blonde.  In the movie The Searchers (1956), for example, Debbie, a dark-haired girl of about eight, is abducted by the Comanches, and the rest of the movie consists of Ethan (John Wayne) and Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) searching for her. As the years go by, it becomes clear that Debbie is getting to the age where the Indians will start having sex with her.  The thought of such defilement makes Ethan want to kill her, and even Laurie (Vera Miles) agrees that Debbie’s mother would have wanted Ethan to put a bullet in her brain. Just to get us in the mood for what is coming, Ethan and Martin check out some girls that had been captives of the Comanches to see if one of them is Debbie. We see three girls who are all crazy to point of either screaming or laughing maniacally. And they are all blonde.  But later, when at last they find Debbie, who is about thirteen and is one of the squaws of the Comanche chief, the principal villain of the film, she seems just fine.  And, as she is played by Natalie Wood, she is a brunette.  The idea seems to be that white brunettes can tolerate being raped by men of a darker race, because they have a dark aspect themselves, and thus can absorb the shock; but blondes cannot, for they are so white and pure that the violation destroys them.

The Searchers is another movie for which there will never be a remake, because Indians have all been replaced by Native Americans.  Native Americans are peace-loving indigenous people, who are close to Nature, at one with the environment, full of shape-shifting spirituality, and whom we stole this land from and treated atrociously.  Indians, on the other hand, are vicious savages that scalp men, rape women, and subject their captives to horrible tortures. Unable to hold their liquor, they are always going off the reservation, impeding our Manifest Destiny.  The last time Indians in this sense were in a Western was in The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), where they tried to rape a white woman. Since then, if a woman in a Western supposedly gets raped by a Native American, it always turns out that it was white men who did it, as in the movie The Lone Ranger (2013).  If an Indian actually scalps someone, as in Dances with Wolves (1990), it is a bad Indian, as opposed to the good Indians (i.e., Native Americans) in the movie who would never do such a thing. In other words, when it comes to raping white women, Native Americans have achieved the same immunity in the movies that African Americans have:  it practically never happens.

On the other hand, when rape is only threatened, then the difference in color can be as extreme as possible.  Consider, for example, the movie King Kong (1933) and its remakes in 1976 and 2005.  As many critics have observed, these movies subliminally play off the white man’s fear of black lust for white women.  And in each version, it is a blonde that King Kong captures and falls in love with. Having Ann Darrow played by a brunette just would not be the same.  She has to be a blonde to make the thought of rape as horrible as possible, which the movie is able to suggest with impunity because their difference in size makes any actual rape impossible.

As noted above, one exception to the general rule that African Americans do not rape white women in the movies is Death Wish II (1982).  However, color difference is minimized to make the rape more palatable.  Actually, there are two women in this movie that are raped.  The first one is gang raped, and two of the men that rape her are dark-skinned African Americans.  However, the woman is Latina, and this reduces the color difference.  The second woman, however, is a Caucasian, but she is raped by a light-skinned African American, once again reducing the color difference.  Also, she is a brunette rather than a blonde, thereby further reducing the difference.

Even so, this movie is definitely an exception.  Since then, movies that depict rape across racial lines typically have the man be white and the woman be dark, as in A Time to Kill (1996) or 12 Years a Slave (2013).  We are fortunate to still have white males available for the depiction of the worst forms of evil and depravity in general and of rape in particular.

5 thoughts on “Rape and Race in the Movies

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