- Our Gang: A Racial History of The Little Rascals by Julia Lee
By Julia Lee.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 336pp. Paper $24.95.
When producer Hal Roach turned away a perfectly coifed child actress he found tiresome and looked out his posh studio office window to see a scruffy group of boys fighting over sticks in a lumberyard, the idea for The Little Rascals was born (22). Or, at least, this is one of several Little Rascals origin stories that Julia Lee discusses in her well-researched book about the franchise. Though it debuted in 1922 as silent film shorts titled Our Gang, the series was later retitled The Little Rascals and has had a long and controversial history stemming from the series’ depiction of white and black children playing together, its ever-changing cast of children, its transition from silent into “talkie” form, and its eventual dissemination through television syndication from the 1950s to the 1980s. As Lee argues, “In 1924, Our Gang offered a fantasy of the American melting pot. In 1944, it offered a fantasy of Uncle Sam’s family. In 1964, it was the fantasy of racial integration. In 1994, the fantasy of PC multiculturalism” (235). Lee, a literature scholar who studied under Henry Louis Gates at Harvard and who is interested in African American history, has her own nostalgic memories of The Little Rascals after having watched the series as a first generation Korean immigrant in 1980s Los Angeles. She has an eye for detail in her history of Our Gang’s African American child characters, exploring the racial politics they faced outside of the protective studio lot where they worked until they aged out of the cast. [End Page 281]
Lee is an expert storyteller: she weaves the child actors’ biographies into a larger history of racial tensions, making this book enticing for both scholars and for those who hold affection for any iteration of this gang of rascally children. Each chapter begins with a vignette, mimicking how Our Gang shorts once introduced main features in movie theaters where they were first released. These snippet views into race relations of the early to mid-twentieth century usher in Lee’s arguments about changing racial ideology, especially as the Our Gang shorts themselves were informed by contemporary events. For instance, in the Our Gang short “Lodge Night,” the children form the “Cluck Cluck Klams,” alluding to the KKK’s dramatic Inglewood Raid of 1922 (56). Using Our Gang as a vehicle to examine events like the Inglewood Raid, Jesse Owens’s Olympic victories, and Emmett Till’s murder, Lee carefully leads readers through key moments in American history to show how a group of ragtag children transcended different generations and served as “a fantasy of interracial friendship” throughout its run (54). Lee also examines African American military history, as many of the child actors she follows, including Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, Allen “Farina” Hoskins, and Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas, served in the armed forces during World War II. She explores desegregation in the military, in public schools, and in film and television media throughout the mid-twentieth century.
Lee is cognizant of the mythology surrounding the series and its parodies, including Eddie Murphy’s controversial Saturday Night Live Buckwheat impersonation during the 1980s (221). Her writing navigates these events and her own analysis of changing racial perceptions well. In appealing to viewers’ sense of familiarity and nostalgia, Our Gang and The Little Rascals built a “reputation for wholesome, inoffensive fun,” even as the African American characters engage in pickaninny and Sambo stereotypes (144). Lee’s “racial history” is a critical, descriptive project, though it is not a prescriptive one: she does not judge the franchise’s social harm or value. Instead, she demonstrates the complexities of this children’s series loved by diverse audiences of distinct generations.
This book is a useful guide for scholars of popular media and race studies who are interested in film history, generational race relations, and the racialization of childhood innocence. She shows that even as American audiences, “eager for the reassuring myths and comforts...