Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Requiem for Childs

I recently finished reading the book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: an interpretive history of blacks in American films by Donald Bogle (4th ed, 2002). Bogle held a fascinating approach to the history of African-Americans in Hollywood cinema. As I leafed through the book on the university's shelves, I think the deciding factor in motivating me to check it out was when I noticed how remarkably even-handed Bogle was toward the early black film actors. In fact, he seemed more reasonable in his assessments of the likes of Stepin Fetchit & Mantan Moreland than he was to Sidney Poitier or John Singleton. I suppose it's a case of expecting more from those who held greater opportunities.

Bogle did his best to cover the major African-American stars & directors but with a little more than 400 pages, he simply couldn't comment on every notable performance. While he committed one chapter to each decade of film, one could easily author an entire tome on each decade's African-American actors & directors.

Because not everything could make the cut, it was occasionally surprising to see what did seem worthy of comment to him. There wasn't much made of genre films like sci-fi & horror, for instance. Heck, he breezed past Billy Dee Williams' performances in the Star Wars franchises which - while definitely not Academy Award-level acting - were at least seen more times by more people than any other performer. And yet, he did feel compelled to comment on Ridley Scott's Alien because of (7th-billed) actor Yaphet Kotto. Here's what he wrote:

"As soon as audiences saw his tall, sturdy frame and heard his calmly controlled voice in a film like Ridley Scott's sci-fi thriller Alien (1979), they felt confident of Kotto's powers. As the characters on the doomed space expedition were killed off one by one, audiences had the mad hope that the traditions of horror films would now be completely reversed: both a woman (Sigourney Weaver) and a black would emerge as the only survivors. Maybe the space age would mark a new day for minorities. So strong and commanding a presence was Kotto that one felt he deserved to live. Consequently, it appeared as if Alien's filmmakers almost had a filure of nerve by letting their black hero be killed by the space monster after all."

Four things came to my mind as I wondered what a digression about Alien was doing in this book:

  1. While this might be Kotto's most widely-seen work, as I noted above that didn't win Williams any particular notice for the Empire Strikes Back & Return of the Jedi.
  2. Although he lightly touched on the significance of Sigourney Weaver's character surviving through the film, it really has to be noted just what a big deal her character was for female heroes in genre pictures. Yes, the book's focus is on African-American actors, but Kotto rested down on 8th-billing - this film belonged to Weaver.
  3. The quoted passage above is the only point where he touches on the "black guy dies" horror film cliche. Elsewhere in the book he delves into the "Toms" who sacrifice themselves for Caucasian heroes, but, again, he barely touches the genre films where the "black guy dies" trope became so over-used. Given the amount of research he put into African-Americans in film, I would have enjoyed hearing how the cliche began and how well-established it had become by the time of Alien.
  4. Rather than focus on the negatives about Kotto's place in Alien, he could have been talking about 1982's the Thing and African-American (5th-billed) star Keith David (neither David nor the Thing are mentioned in the book).

And now, for what I really want to talk about: Childs, as portrayed by Keith David in the Thing. If you haven't seen the film... I'm about to ruin everything (except for the funny lines).

This happy-go-lucky picture concerns a dozen men stationed in the Antarctic at a U.S. facility. Upon realizing a hostile, shapeshifting extraterrestrial has infiltrated their ranks and is virtually undetectable, the men succumb to paranoia. MacReady (Kurt Russell), the man most dogged in his efforts to root out the alien, is unfortunately as much a target of paranoia as the others.

The dozen men comprising the cast are not well-defined, deliberately so. If the performers had looked into the cameras and told the audience their personalities Gravity-style, it would have worked against the climate of paranoia. Most of what we learn about the men comes from their actions - and especially their reactions to the tension of the situation.

The station's crew seem to be very isolated from each other, each man living his own head rather than engaging the others in small talk (Palmer is the only one who appears in love with the sound of his own voice). Indeed, MacReady living apart from the others in his cabin is more easily believed to be the Thing because of that distance - but likewise, the lack of strong bonds of friendship between the men heighten the paranoia. If they were able to only tolerate each other before the Thing arrived, its arrival tests their tolerance to the limit.

The most friendly behaviour we see from Childs is in a subtle moment as he and Palmer watch television (VHS tapes, having no broadcast feed). As usual, Palmer runs his mouth off, but Childs seems content with whatever they put on; more significantly, Palmer lights up some pot and silently shares it with Childs. I would be exaggerating if I called them "best of friends," but there's some kind of mutual respect between them.

Childs' involvement in the Thing's first attack (and first gross-out moment) comes when it begins copying the dogs in their kennel. MacReady summons Childs to bring the flamethrower, which, ignorant of the situation, gives Childs momentary pause. In fact, Childs doesn't realize what he's in for until he's finally in front of the kennel and facing the Thing. He freezes for a moment as the Thing begins to ready for attack, but fortunately Childs snaps to attention in time to torch the Thing to death (or temporary submission, as the case may be).

As the horror of the Thing's nature dawns upon the men, Childs is the first to give voice to their fears, asking: "So, how do we know who's human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?" Although MacReady has fairly sound theories about the extraterrestrial, Childs ignores his "voodoo bullshit" and repeatedly looks to the station's scientist Blair for answers. Blair seems to be the only person Childs respects - at least, respects for his abilities of analysis and insight. Unfortunately, Blair cracks up after surmising just how bad the situation is; Childs tries to remain friendly to Blair, right up until the moment Blair draws a gun and shoots at him.

As the movie develops, Childs repeatedly clashes against MacReady's assumption of authority. At one point the station's official leader, Garry, loses his men's trust by being just a little too-quick to draw his gun. Garry stands down and the floor is open for a new leader. Childs nominates himself, but MacReady opines "It should be somebody a little more even-tempered, Childs." Later events will prove both Childs and MacReady are still human, but the distrust between the characters serves to unnerve those of us in the audience. Looking at it from Childs' perspective, he knows he's still human but can't vouch for anyone else; it becomes clear Childs is trying to seize control of the situation to protect himself (and probably as many others as he can manage). Unfortunately, Childs is under the mistaken impression he's the protagonist of this picture (which, he could've been if it had been filmed from his perspective instead of MacReady's). In a way, he foreshadows director John Carpenter's film Big Trouble in Little China where Kurt Russell portrays a sidekick under the mistaken impression he's the hero.

After evidence incriminates MacReady as being the Thing (evidence the real Thing surely planted to pit its enemies against each other), Childs assumes command of the others against MacReady, although MacReady's possession of a flamethrower and dynamite gives him the upper hand. Determined to settle the question of which of the remaining men are human, MacReady has them tied up. Even there, Childs resists; MacReady threatens to kill Childs, to which Childs responds, "Then kill me." In fact, MacReady does wind up killing another of the men - Clark - who had been strongly suspected by the others as being the Thing. when MacReady finally does perform his blood test and it proves the dead Clark to be human, Childs fumes "Which makes you a murderer, don't it?" Not that Childs seems to place any faith in MacReady's blood test as he repeatedly derides the proceedings, until the test works (admittedly, MacReady himself wasn't prepared for what would happen when the test succeeded).

Ultimately, Childs is the second-last to be tested, right before Garry. Just as Garry's quick-trigger temper placed him last in MacReady's queue, Childs' insolence appears to be why MacReady left him to the end. It's worth noting that another of the men who makes it through the blood test (though is ultimately the last man in the picture to die) - Nauls - was also portrayed by an African-American actor (T.K. Carter).

In the picture's climax, Childs and MacReady are the last men alive, but the camp has been destroyed and, having been separated, they aren't 100% sure whether one of them is the Thing. At this point, though, it doesn't matter - Thing or human, neither of them will survive the Antarctic climate. Childs and MacReady share a quiet drink (bringing to mind Childs sharing Palmer's pot earlier) as the film ends.

Here then is an African-American character who survives the entire picture, as Pyrrhic as that may be. In his book, Bogle looked especially to roles where African-American actors had something genuine to say about the African-American experience and there's certainly nothing in the film's text which makes a point of Childs' ethnicity, upbringing or outlook - thus, it's easily overlooked.

Yet, Bogle also liked to observe that the African-American stereotypes from the foundation of U.S. cinema have persisted over the decades in new forms (much like a shapeshifting intruder), hence the book's title. The three male stereotypes he identified were the "Tom," the "Coon" and the "Buck." As a secondary cast member of the Thing, you could argue Childs is a Tom. And yet, Bogle identifies Toms as noble, self-sacrificing souls who usually give up their happiness in favour of a Caucasian protagonist, such as Sidney Poitier in the Defiant Ones. Childs is secondary to MacReady, but chaffes in that role, being very independent-minded and refusing to trust MacReady. No, I think Childs to be too independent to be a Tom.

Then we have the Coon, the buffoon type who is usually lazy, larcenous and/or cowardly. Think, say, of Chris Tucker in the Fifth Element. Childs' brief hesitation to destroy the Thing in his first encounter with it is the nearest he comes to Coonish behaviour; he's not an object of amusement or ridicule.

Last we have the Buck, the aggressive, violent type, the "big scary black guy." It's interesting to note that while Bogle dates Bucks back to the Birth of a Nation, there's precious few of them in films up until the dawn of blaxploitation. Childs' fierce independence could almost identify him as a Buck, yet again his hesitation in using violence with the flamethrower stands against him being identified as a thuggish caricature.

Bogle only identified those three roles, so what am I to do? Claim that Childs is an essay response to a multiple choice question? Yes, I suppose I am. For a first-time viewer of the Thing, Childs is instrumental in heaping up the picture's paranoia. Through him, we see most strongly the case against trusting MacReady, while at the same time we in the audience can't quite trust Childs. If the book on African-American performances of the 1980s is ever written, I hope there's at least a full sentence portioned out for Keith David's Childs.

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