What Happened in the Tunnel (1903)
This is a short comedy from Edison that exploits racial stereotypes as well as gender relations but isn’t likely to offend modern viewers.
We see the interior of a railroad car from a slight angle and above. In one seat, near a window, sits a young white woman and a large black woman in a maid’s outfit. Behind them is a white man with a large nose. The white woman is reading, but the man behind her strikes up a conversation. We can see by her reactions that he is being somewhat forward, and that she’s embarrassed, but the maid keeps smiling broadly. Suddenly the screen goes black (the train enters a tunnel). When the lights come up again, we see that the white woman and the black woman have changed places, and the masher is now kissing the black maid! He shows extreme embarrassment and consternation and hides behind his newspaper.
Part of the reason that this movie still “works” in the context of modern sensibilities is that the only person shown as having racist attitudes is the masher, who we already don’t like because he is forcing his attentions on the white girl. In a totally non-racially charged context, the movie can still work: he is attracted to one girl and not the other, and gets tricked into kissing the wrong one in the dark. However, the known racial order makes this more effective: he isn’t just annoyed that he’s kissed the “wrong” woman, he’s worried about the judgment of others on the train who have seen him kissing a black woman. If you analyze it more closely, the racism under the surface becomes clearer. The black woman is in on the joke from the outset – we conclude from her smile that she has a plan to get rid of this obnoxious fellow from the beginning – but doing so requires her to experience the humiliation of being the butt of that joke. She has to accept being seen as undesirable or not entirely human by onlookers in order to effect her punishment on the villain (this would still apply if she were just a fat white woman in the same role, but it has further implications because of her race). It’s notable that they brought in a real African American for this role, instead of a woman or even a man in blackface.
Director:Edwin S. Porter
Camera: Edwin S. Porter
Starring: Gilbert M. Anderson, Bertha Regustus
Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs
You can watch it for free: here.
Why and how is this not likely to “offend modern viewers?” What viewers are you considering? The fact that this short plays on race, class and gender, have you considered the degree to which this speaks of Western standards of beauty? This film is clear: Black women are not desirable. It is but a joke to kiss one. It is but a mistake to have kissed one. It is but for the entertainment and subversive desires of a white woman. Clearly, she is the one manipulating the Black woman who appears likely her servant and the man, who is wooing her. She wishes to “teach” him a lesson or simply dissuade his advances and her decision is to have her servant, a black woman, be the recipient of unwanted advances and to be forced to accept this action but as a game for her mistress to execute and enjoy.
Thank you for your comment. I find myself in essential agreement with what you say, and it seems to me that I made some of those same points in the third paragraph of the review. Nonetheless, the opening line is awkward, and five years later, I don’t think I would say it that way. What I _think_ my not-so-much-younger self was trying to say was that while many wouldn’t see the harm in the movie, it looks pretty ugly under closer examination. I don’t like to edit these posts too heavily, leaving them as a kind of diary of where my thinking was at the time of posting, but I’m going to give myself a day or two to think about it, in this case.