As it turns out, Sunshine Sammy was a race man. Farina and Stymie too, and even Buckwheat for a minute or so.
This may be hard to fathom, considering the designation was generally applied, back around the ’20s, to men who exemplified the most righteous and upstanding attributes of black people, and advocated for fair and dignified treatment. It’s also hard to fathom because, at the time, they were just young black boys.
But they were young black boys with starring roles in Hollywood, and among the most popular performers of their time. There weren’t very many blacks of any age getting any sort of featured screen time back then, at least not in roles that didn’t demean the race. Thus, these young people were heralded in the black press, and even by the NAACP, as some of the leading exemplars of blackness, well before any of them were old enough to drive.
Sunshine Sammy, Farina, Stymie and Buckwheat were the principal black characters throughout the 20-year run of the Our Gang film series. The black community treated them (respectively, Ernie Morrison, Allen Hoskins, Matthew Beard and Billie Thomas) like rock stars. But their lives were much more complicated than the movie roles ever let on. Their regard within the black community would be transformed decades later, as the Our Gang franchise lived on years after its heyday.
Julia Lee gives a degree of depth and context to these four talented performers and their work in Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals. By foregrounding the stories of the black actors in the series, she uncovers how black America’s attitude towards its representation by Hollywood evolved throughout the 20th Century.
Hal Roach stumbled upon the movie business in the early ‘20s, and his two-reel comedies about the misadventures of a bunch of little kids charmed movie audiences until the series finally ran out of gas in the ‘40s. The Our Gang troupe was integrated from day one, and the kids treated each other as equals on screen (and, Lee reports, on the movie set as well). However, the roles the black kids held often played into mistrelsy-rooted stereotypes.
Sunshine Sammy had starred in a series of Roach comedies that paved the way for Our Gang; the series was known as The Pickaninny. With hair done up in pigtails, audiences at first thought Farina was a girl (Hoskins joined the series before sound recording began). Throughout the films, there are slapstick bits that echo the most egregious portrayals of black people from the dawn of American show business: easily frightened by ghosts; given to butchering the English language; fond of watermelons. Lee details one film, A Tough Winter (1930), which couples Hoskins’ Farina with Lincoln Perry’s Stepin Fetchit; dialogue like “Say, Step, this lettah’s all perfumigated” rules the day.
But there were also a few sly digs at racial disharmony. Lodge Night (1923) was an unabashed parody of the Ku Klux Klan; some southern audiences didn’t find it at all funny, even with a black elocutor (played by Morrison’s father) going from long-winded speaker to dice roller in a classic bit of minstrel schtick:
Your Own Back Yard (1925) centers on Farina’s not-so-excellent adventures after the rest of the gang excludes him from their play. While Farina ends up getting the last laugh, Lee points out the story is based on the coon song “Stay in Your Own Back Yard”, in which a mammy figure advises her young charge to stop trying to mix with the white kids.
As Farina aged out of the cast (as all the kids did by the time they started getting taller and looking less cherubic), Stymie took over as the black foil. Instead of pigtails and raggedy clothes, Stymie was something of a dandy, with his shaved head, checked suit and derby (a gift from Stan Laurel). Lee observes Stymie as more trickster than pickaninny; the scenes she quotes don’t feature him speaking in exaggerated dialect. When Buckwheat was introduced (originally played by a girl, Beard’s younger sister), the stereotypical gags returned.
Black audiences of the time seemed to be generally pleased with Our Gang, overlooking some of the more problematic individual scenes in favor of the overall concept of black and white kids playing together. In particular, Morrison and Hoskins were held up as role models, both for young kids all across the country and the black race as a whole. Such charitable assessments were in far less vogue during the franchise’s second life, beginning in the mid-’50s.
Due to contractual legalities, the series was rechristened for the small screen as The Little Rascals. Lee explains how the length of the films turned out to be perfect for half-hour slots in television schedules, and the series became a hit all over again in syndication. This time around, though, folks were not nearly as amused. Lee’s telling of the Our Gang story bounces what was happening with the franchise against what was going on within black America throughout the years; as the story moves into the ‘50s and ‘60s, black audiences were more offended by the cringe-worthy bits than comforted by the cutesy premise. Many were so offended that some of the scenes most redolent of minstrelsy tropes would be edited out of the syndication package.
Nonetheless, a new generation of kids grew up with fond memories of The Little Rascals. One of them, Eddie Murphy, would turn Buckwheat into one of his iconic Saturday Night Live characters. His Buckwheat was a grown man, but still wearing a striped shirt and suspenders, sporting frizzy and unshaped hair, and speaking with an exaggerated impediment:
Not everyone appreciated the joke, including Thomas’ son; the elder Thomas had passed in 1980. Eventually, Murphy killed off the character: literally, in an extended “Buckwheat is Dead” sketch which still stands as a great parody of the breaking-TV-news-of-celebrity-death ritual. Lee notes that the Buckwheat meme didn’t die off, with young white people embracing it and black folk rejecting it, and still others turning the name into a racial slur.
The nicest part of Lee’s study is her humanizing of the actors whose performances were once loved, and later reviled. Morrison ended up in the aerospace industry, Hoskins worked with the developmentally challenged, Beard overcame drug addiction and a stint in jail, and Thomas worked on Jaws and other films as a Technicolor lab technician. They each had complicated relationships with how later audiences regarded the series and their work in it, although they all spoke fondly of the experience of making the films.
As with much of the work of black performers throughout Hollywood’s history, modern audiences can’t easily dismiss the black stars of Our Gang simply because their performances don’t represent what a race man (or race woman) would be doing nowadays. Lee reminds us they were beloved in their day, and shows how the current concern about portrayals of blacks and black life is hardly a new one. By the same (no pun intended) token, she shows how the celebration of every sign of increased diversity and respect for talent of color, whether or not it actually rearranges the industry’s balance of power, has deep historical roots as well.
Almost a century’s worth of American kids spent quality time with the Our Gang comedies, in one form or another. We probably didn’t learn too many lessons about racial harmony, and we didn’t always realize exactly what we were laughing at, but we were entertained, nonetheless. Indeed, we might not regard Our Gang as a significant or prideful moment in black cultural history anymore. Lee’s work asserts otherwise, thanks to a succession of four black boys who were seen as not just stars but also, for a time at least, the unlikeliest of heroes.