- Our Gang: A Racial History of "The Little Rascals." by Julia Lee
Like a lot of Gen Xers, I spent many afternoons watching The Little Rascals shorts on television during the 1970s and early 1980s. Consequently, I was very excited to read Julia Lee's entertaining and enlightening Our Gang: A Racial History of "The Little Rascals." One of the few American cultural forms in the first half of the twentieth century to feature a racially integrated cast, the Our Gang shorts debuted in 1922 and continued to be produced until 1944. They also became immensely popular when they began running in syndication on television in the mid-1950s.
Lee's book focuses on the four African American Our Gang stars: Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, and Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas. In addition to her discussions of comic talents, their experiences at Hal Roach Studios, and their lives after their acting careers ended, she examines the relationships among the four actors, the characters they played, and the broader African American community. She notes the highly favorable reception of Our Gang shorts during the 1920s and 1930s from the press and public, especially for Farina. Even though he was often cast as the pickaninny stereotype and served as the [End Page 130] butt of racist sight gags in many of his early shorts, Farina became a more fully developed figure as he grew up. The African American press praised him as an excellent role model who "offered hope for the future" (xvii), and his public appearances attracted thousands of fans.
When the Our Gang shorts (now called The Little Rascals) began to appear on television in syndication during the 1950s, African Americans' attitudes began to change. Whereas some Southern lawmakers objected to the show because it featured Black and White children playing together "on a purely equal social basis" (199), the NAACP and the African American press were becoming increasingly uneasy about the stereotypes promulgated on the show and how they affected children's views of African Americans. Neither group, ultimately, had much sway over local television stations as neither the NAACP nor Southern lawmakers could wage campaigns against the show in every local market. By the early 1970s, the cultural landscape had changed significantly, and the threat of local stations' dropping the series forced King World, which now held the syndication rights, to remove the most racially offensive shorts and remove some of the particularly noxious scenes from others. In the final chapter, Lee documents the resuscitation of Buckwheat in the 1980s via Eddie Murphy's impressions of him on Saturday Night Live, the poorly received movie reboot in the 1990s, and the gradual disappearance of the Little Rascals from television.
Though shorts like "Cluck Cluck Klams," with its broad parody of the Ku Klux Klan, occasionally raised the ire of White Southerners, the Our Gang comedies were extremely popular, and the black and white child actors were major celebrities during the Jim Crow era. Lee attributes the widespread approbation mostly to the fact that the cast were children. America's nostalgic affection for gangs of male children and the long history of interracial friendships among children in the South made the hijinks and close friendships of characters much more palatable than they otherwise would have been. Furthermore, there was little threat of miscegenation with young black boys as Our Gang actors had to retire by age ten or eleven.
Lee provides an evenhanded and insightful account of the Our Gang phenomenon. She deftly captures the show in all its "messy contradictions," balancing an appreciation for the comic talents of cast members and writers with a sharp analysis of the racist stereotypes it purveyed. [End Page 131] Without resorting to inflated claims or cherry-picking to bolster her arguments, she provides cogent and illuminating readings of numerous shorts. Along with very moving accounts of both the performing careers and post-Our Gang lives of Morrison, Hoskins, Beard, and Thomas, there is a lot of insider Hollywood material. There are stories about...