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I'm American...Eh?
or, The Vindication of Stepin Fetchit


Gallileo lived under house arrest...but centuries later, we accept as fact his theory that the earth revolves around the sun. Socrates died by drinking hemlock...but centuries later, he is revered as a great philosopher. "Citizen Kane" bombed when it was first released...but decades later it is considered one of the greatest American movies ever made.

And now let us consider the actor known as Stepin Fetchit.

Stepin Fetchit was a black American actor who became successful in the thirties and forties. In fact, he was apparently the first black actor to achieve headliner status, sometimes sharing top billing with his white co-stars. No small feat in an era of undisguised racism and prejudice, where racial segregation was considered the norm. Yet history has tended to look unkindly on Mr. Fetchit. The reason is that Stepin Fetchit (a nom du profession, one assumes) had a schtick that made him very successful. His screen persona was of a lazy, shuffling, dimwitted, subservient black man.

It's an image that tends to make modern generations of blacks (and whites) uncomfortable. Granted, taken on its own, it shouldn't necessarily -- actors all the time portray, uh, idiosyncratic characters. But it is seen as being far more than a character in isolation. It is seen as how certain elements of society (I'd say white society, but that does a disservice to the whites who knew better and fought against racism) wanted black men to be perceived. Nor was Stepin Fetchit alone. There were other black actors who managed to parlay similar demeaning routines into commercial success. Of course, there were performers who took the middle ground -- Jack Benny's foil Rochester played his servant, but it's hard to find the characterization offensive even all these years later.

The few Rochesters notwithstanding, Fetchit and his peers have been regarded rather badly by history. Yet Fetchit himself argued that he opened a door that was previously closed. That if not for him, succeeding generations of respected black actors might not have gotten their breaks. True? False? Who can say? But history has rendered its verdict, fair or not. Not to put too fine a point on it, to most people Stepin Fetchit is the ultimate symbol of the sell out.

What does all this have to do with Canada and Canadian movies?

Well, in a sense, Fetchit has been vindicated. In a sense, Fetchit has become the role model for whole generations of mainly white actors, producers, directors and writers. Many of them being Canadian, but also some British and Australians as well.

You see, a few years ago I did a very rough survey and concluded that somewhere between half and two thirds of Canadian movies and TV series pretend they aren't Canadian -- that is, they are set somewhere other than Canada (usually the U.S.A.) and the characters are not supposed to be Canadian (usually they're American). Once you remove movies and TV shows made exclusively for the Canada-centric Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the statistics become even more extreme. Granted, things have improved slightly over the years, with even private broadcasters like CTV and CanWest-Global airing TV series that are set in Canada -- but it's still only a small improvement.

In other words, just by showing up for work, a Canadian actor, or director (or writer, or cinematographer) is denying who they are, is renouncing their country, their culture. Is that the same as Stepin Fetchit? After all, pretending that Canada doesn't exist isn't quite the same as promulgating a negative stereotype of Canadians -- which is the criticism that has been levelled at Fetchit in regards to blacks. But this cultural invisibility promotes the notion that Canadians are somehow lesser beings, that they are unworthy and, by extension, that their beliefs, their culture, their identity, are somehow...wrong. It is a denunciation of everything Canadians have struggled for, from multi-culturalism to gun control to free health care (the latter being something that actors, with their high rate of unemployment, presumably take for granted). Specifically, it says that the United States is the right way to live, and that Canada is the wrong way to live. This is a curious attitude to take (for Canadians -- not necessarily for anyone else) given that the United Nations regularly ranks Canada as a better place to live than the United States.

In a sense, such intentional omission can be as demeaning -- as potentially destructive -- as any shuffling Stepin Fetchit routine.

Obviously, some of the productions to which I have alluded are co-productions with other countries, and in such a context cultural concessions can legitimately be made. But there's a difference between concessions and out right surrender. There's a difference between saying "This is a Canada-U.S. co-production, so let's make some of the characters Canadian and some American" and saying "This is a Canada-U.S. co-production, so let's set it in the U.S. and have all the characters be American." And it's not just Canadians who are doing this. Consider the Canada-France co-production, the TV series "Relic Hunter", in which none of the characters are supposed to be Canadian or French, or the Canada-Australian co-production, the TV series "The Beastmaster", in which its predominantly Australian cast adopts American accents.

When Canadians show up for work on the sets of "Earth: Final Conflict" or "First Wave" or any of scores of other Canadian productions, and are told "pretend you aren't Canadian...or you're fired", do they think about Stepin Fetchit? Probably not.

But they should.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

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