Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Julia A. Stern's "Bette Davis Black and White"

Julia A. Stern is Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence and professor of English at Northwestern University. She is the author of The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel and Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Epic.

Stern applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Bette Davis Black and White, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my new study of Bette Davis and American cross racial understanding, Bette Davis Black and White, unfolds an important historical background for my study. It does not, however, refer to Bette Davis herself or the texture of her cross racial collaborations.

Instead, page 99 offers a thick description of the educational and performance background of Black actor and underacknowledged co-star of Davis’s In This Our Life’s Earnest Anderson. This account of Anderson’s dramatic training at Northwestern University and the segregated lives Black students lived in Evanston in the 1930s is the backstory for my focus on Davis’s interactions and co-performances with Black artists. Anderson is hands down the most gifted of Davis’s African American on-screen collaborators who, I argue, constitute a dream team of their own: Hattie McDaniel, Sam McDaniel, Theresa Harris, Eddie Anderson, Matthew Beard, Dolores and Phillip Hurlic, and more.

In This Our Life offers the most powerful case study for my argument about the anti-racist dimensions of Davis’s oeuvre, though she plays a murderous bigot in the picture. In fact, Anderson composed and delivered his own antiracist screed for the end of the film, which earned censorship in Harlem and the South, where his transformative soliloquy from jail is cut. James Baldwin wrote movingly of the picture in The Devil Finds Work, his volume of film criticism, describing viewing the movie on Broadway and 42nd street, uncut, and seeing it in Harlem, where Anderson’s virtuoso performance was deleted.

Bette Davis Black and White is a film history, a study of Davis’s most racially charged pictures, and a personal memoir. I investigate Davis’s progressive racial politics: de-segregating the Hollywood Canteen; entertaining all-Black troops with Hattie McDaniel’s USO company during WWII; participating in Black voluntary associations; and mentoring Black actors. The book takes up Davis’s seemingly incomprehensible Blackface masquerade on her 70th birthday, a photograph of which she includes in her final autobiography and shows on The Tonight Show. I also explore my own coming into racial consciousness as a twelve-year-old Jewish girl in an all-white suburb of Chicago, with Davis’s films as my guide. Bette Davis becomes my lens through which to grapple with the dark and complicated history of racial representation and understanding in the United States in the second half of the 20th century.
Learn more about Bette Davis Black and White at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue