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MOKEY offers unusual glimpse of black life in the south
MOKEY (1942) is a low-budget MGM melodrama set in a poor southern town where blacks and whites live in close proximity. Young Mokey (eight-year-old Robert Blake, a member of the "Our Gang" cast at the time) lives in a small but fairly comfortable house while his three closest friends, black siblings (two boys and one girl), live in a much more ramshackle place a short distance away. Mokey's guardian is a black maid (Etta McDaniel), who doesn't have much patience with Mokey and leaves the job when Mokey's dad remarries. (She later comes back temporarily.) The three black children (played by Cordell Hickman, William "Buckwheat" Thomas, and Marcella Moreland) live with an older woman, Aunt Deedy (Cleo Desmond), who is not their "blood kin." When Aunt Deedy gets sick she calls in a traditional healer, a "conjure woman" played by veteran black actress Madame Sul-Te-Wan (who was in D.W. Griffith's BIRTH OF A NATION). There are a total of seven black speaking parts, four of them quite substantial. A middle section of the film has Mokey running away from home and living with the black children as their cousin "Julius." They do him up in blackface and give him a cap to cover his straight hair. It fools Aunt Deedy—for more than three weeks! She doesn't bathe him or check his hair the whole time. The town searches high and low for Mokey but three weeks go by before Mokey's father (Dan Dailey) thinks to question Mokey's black friends about his whereabouts, which gives some idea of how invisible the black population was despite being so close. Along similar lines, we witness some disapproval on the part of Mokey's new stepmother (Donna Reed) after Mokey has introduced his three black playmates to her. When she later asks Mokey if he has any friends and he replies that she's already met them, she then asks, "But don't you have any other friends?," clearly implying that those three aren't good enough for him.
The young black actors are quite good, especially Cordell Hickman, who was active in the 1940s and, in the performances of his I've seen, always carried himself with a certain dignity. (He's best known for playing the white protagonist's close companion in THE BISCUIT EATER, 1940.) The little girl, Begonia (Marcella Moreland, daughter of actor Mantan Moreland), is quite sassy and addresses Mokey and the other white playmates as "white boy," with more than a hint of condescension. William Thomas, better known as "Buckwheat," was Robert Blake's co-star in the "Our Gang" series. The black characters speak in southern dialect, sometimes a tad more exaggerated than necessary.
My point in laying out this detail is to call attention to the extent of the film's investment in black life. We often see black characters in subservient roles in films from the 1930s and '40s, but we don't often see their lives away from the white folks. Here we do and it's quite refreshing. There are other films like this I can cite, but I'd most like to single out the horse-racing melodrama, MARYLAND (1940), which has a whole subplot set in the segregated black society which supplied the workers for the horse industry in Maryland at the time. I've reviewed that film on IMDb and my review is the only one to cite this subplot.
When I read comments complaining about racial stereotypes in films like MOKEY, I can only think that the tendency towards political correctness wants to whitewash this country's history. Without these characters we wouldn't get to see these remarkable performances by black actors trying to inject humanity into the stereotypes. It's easy to dismiss stereotypes when you don't see these characters as human beings. Which begs the question of who's the most racist. The creators of these films who sought to include black people in them to a degree that was rare in that period or the politically correct critics of today? Isn't the film somewhat noteworthy for at least acknowledging the racism of that time and setting rather than denying it?
For the record, Jim Gallaher, the son of the man who was the basis for the Mokey character, reports in a review here that his father did indeed live with a black family under an assumed name when he'd run away and traveled far from home, but is doubtful that he ever wore blackface. I'm assuming that because Mokey stays so close to home after he's run away in the film, the screenwriter had to come up with a tactic that would plausibly delay his discovery by the townsfolk for a significant amount of time and the blackface gimmick was the only one that could work.
Other reviews have adequately addressed the problematic aspects of Mokey's character and the difficulties such a boy causes for otherwise well-meaning people, so I'll leave that subject to them.
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