Saturday, October 16, 2010

Searching for Wiliam Best

Anyone who knows me also must know that I'm a film buff. My brother is, as well, and we've spent countless hours anticipating, appreciating, loathing, and analyzing movies. It's a bit of an infatuation. I'll happily bore you to tears and ramble on and on about Akira Kurosawa, the Coen brothers, HUAC, film noir, adaptations from novels and plays, bit players, tricks of the trade, the Hayes Code and the rating system, Lee Strasberg, the "body horror"of David Cronenberg, and CGI. Facts, anecdotes and trivia. Movies can be high art, can make you think and wonder and cry and laugh your ass off. Strangely, a bad movie can also make you hate movies for awhile.

Right now, I'm watching High Sierra, the 1941 classic with Ida Lupino & Humphrey Bogart. I've seen it a dozen times, and it has everything going for it; acting, dialogue, character development. All that jazz. But I'm not going to fawn over it right now, though. I'm brooding about the performance of a bit player in the movie, an actor named William Best.

How can you remember, or forget, a man such as he? If you don't know who he is, I'll tell you.

William Best could be called a disciple of Monroe Andrew Perry, also known as Steppin Fetchit. If you happened to be "black" and a talented actor in the first half of the 20th Century, you were presented with a Hobson's Choice; work in obscure movies that very few theaters would show, or embrace the shameful popularity of a clownish, racist caricature.

You're probably familiar with this mocking stereotype. A black man who is simple-minded, affable, lazy, harmless and amusing. The speech is slow, the movement exaggerated and cartoonish. The affect comical, grating, or deeply disturbing, depending on the audience. He is always unemployed, a janitor, or a field hand.

As far as I can tell, Best played this character in every one of his 130 movies, sometimes credited as Sleep 'n Eat, if he was credited at all. At the height of his career, in the 1940's, he was lauded widely as a comic genius.

But nobody wants to remember him now.

It makes me sad in a way that is difficult to put into words. If Best is to be judged for being an "Uncle Tom," those who criticism him are guilty of anachronism. Best did what every artist, and every human being of consequence, does every single day. He did the best with what was given him. And paying the bills in less noble but equally important .

Wikipedia has an entry about best that puts it well, which is rare for Wikipedia.

Best was alternately loved as a great clown,
then reviled, then pitied, finally virtually forgotten.

Recently, a mainstream movie entitled, "The Blind Side" was released and received well. The depiction of a black man as a man-child (played by Quinton Aaron) is alive and doing very, very well. It has to be the most offensive black stereotype since Uncle Remus in "Song of the South." So don't judge William Best. If you're of a mind to judge anyone, consider harshly the throngs of people who forced Best and Aaron to demean themselves as artists, and as human beings.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Awesome article.