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David Barber <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 17 Jan 2002 17:48:48 -0800
text/plain (80 lines)
To a large extent I agree with Steve Railton, in particular that the Burns
film punted when it presented one side only of the debate on the racial
dimensions of HUCK FINN.  This makes two recent PBS Twain features that
endorse the position associated prominently with Fishkin, Chadwick, and
Bradley (three interviewees in both films).  The earlier one was the BORN
FOR TROUBLE section of CULTURE SHOCK, which aired exactly two years ago.
Those who saw that production may recall that the three scholars I've just
mentioned were filmed in sumptuous, warm, indoor settings.  In what looked
like an afterthought, a small gesture toward fairness, John Wallace and
Julius Lester were interviewed--outdoors in the cold, for about ten seconds
each.  But that program was openly debating the racial issue, whereas the
Burns film had no such announced goal.  (But as Burns has said, race is his
basic subject in all he does.)  In any case, the onesidedness of the Burns
film's take on HUCK may fairly be considered a lapse of its integrity and,
as Railton says, "a kind of insult to the many people (mostly African
American, of course, but others too) who've tried to get teachers and school
systems and critics to consider the ways in which requiring *Huck* is a
legitimate subject for debate."

Still, the ending section of the Burns film brought me to tears, and there
were lots of great moments, most of them naturually showing Clemens in a
strongly positive light.  But to the film's credit it didn't ignore the
downsides, didn't, as others have noted, "Disneyfy" him.  One scene which
lingers, memorable and disturbing, was that progressive close-up on that one
Angel-fish's face against Clemens's coat, with her expression that can at
most kindly be called ambivalent.  Without saying a negative word about
Clemens's relationship with these young girls, the film subtlely suggests
the possible underside.

Dave Barber
U. of Idaho

-----Original Message-----
From: Mark Twain Forum [mailto:[log in to unmask]]On Behalf Of Stephen
Sent: Thursday, January 17, 2002 6:36 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Burns and Twain

Was anyone else in the Forum troubled by the one-sidedness of the way
Burns' account presented the issue of race/racism in Mark Twain's works?
It was obviously a central theme (in both the film and the works), but to
me it's wrong to work so hard to show how Twain can be read as a critic of
racism, and *Huck Finn* read as an ironic expose of racism, without giving
any time to the voices that have been raised over the last 50 years
complaining about the potentially racist elements in *Huck Finn.*  The
people who made the film are certainly allowed their own ultimate take on
the issue, but simply leaving out the other side seems both slick (like a
white-washing) and a kind of insult to the many people (mostly African
American, of course, but others too) who've tried to get teachers and
school systems and critics to consider the ways in which requiring *Huck*
is a legitimate subject for debate.
        It was interesting (and admirable, on the whole) that the film
relied so
much on the original illustrations from Mark Twain's books, but they kept
coming back to the one picture of Jim on the raft (after the fog) where you
CAN'T SEE that caricature of a face that (with Twain's consent) Kemble gave
Jim in just about all the other pictures (none of which, I think, show up
in the film).  And the choice of having such a recognizably black voice
narrate the film seems a bit manipulative too -- if that voice is telling
us that Twain was simply way ahead of his time as a critic of American
racism, well, then of course we have to believe it.
        To me it would have been much more honest and accurate to talk about
the representation of race in Twain's works was shaped by his times and FOR
his times, and how the conflicted nature of (say) the representation of Jim
(part dignified human being/part minstrel show stereotype) reflects the
deeply divided nature of our history -- and our contemporary society too.
        I found a lot of enjoy in Burns' film (not the soundtrack -- what
Betsy have to do with Clemens' life and Twain's work? the Pike county
connection?).  But I was really unhappy with its determination to avoid the
controversy about race in Twain that can still tell us a lot, about him,
our past, and so on.  Steve Railton (Univ. of Virginia)