Scrap in Black and White (1903)
This short from Edison shows us something about race and children, but it may be hard to pin down exactly what that message is. From the ending punch line (forgive the pun), it appears to be intended as a comedy, although I’m not sure how funny it is.
An impromptu boxing ring has been rigged up in a park or backyard, and two boys of perhaps 10 to 12 years of age sit in chairs on either side. One is black, the other white, and they seem to be evenly matched in terms of height and musculature. White adults serve as referees and supporters, and there is another white child sitting on the grass as an audience. The two boys begin to fight, and after a short time the white boy goes down and the referee begins to count. He gets up before the count is over and the fight continues until the bell. Then the boys go to their corners and are fanned with towels. The white boy drinks from a water bottle, while the black boy drinks from a bucket. They get up and begin fighting again, winding up in an embrace, and they both go down. The men throw buckets of water on both of them, and then laugh heartily, when they get up wet and walk out of the ring.
Michelle Wallace, who has written about race in early film, gives a short intro to this movie on the “Invention of the Movies” DVD. She says that it raises some questions about the racial order, since “the black boy is allowed to win.” The problem with that (and I suspect she hadn’t seen the movie immediately before making that comment), is that neither boy actually wins, the fight is called on account of the ending joke. In fact, it looks to me as if the white boy “takes a dive” on instruction from the adults during the part where he is briefly counted over. Prior to that, he is fighting much harder and gets in what look like real hits, while the black boy merely taps his opponent occasionally and seems not to know how to box. I would agree that there is no clear racial hierarchy imposed on this film, however. The children appear to be equals, for the purposes of this simulated boxing match, and they both wind up equally humiliated by the adults’ joke. Unlike movies like “Watermelon Contest,” the point of this does not seem to dehumanize the black subject, which is interesting, although I have no explanation of why they wanted a white and a black fighter, instead of two white children, for this movie.
Camera: A.C. Abadie
Run Time: 1 Min, 11 secs
You can watch it for free: here (no music).
Little films like this are indeed interesting. We seem to go into them with very, err, black and white expectations of what they’re going to do, but sometimes they can end up being surprisingly neutral. Entertainment history has its shades of gray.
Thanks for your comment! Sometimes it can be hard to read the context for a single film in isolation, also. I’m still not certain I’m reading this one “right.”