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'Our Gang' Chronicles Lives Of African-American Actors In 'The Little Rascals'
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'Our Gang' Chronicles Lives Of African-American Actors In 'The Little Rascals'

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'Our Gang' Chronicles Lives Of African-American Actors In 'The Little Rascals'

'Our Gang' Chronicles Lives Of African-American Actors In 'The Little Rascals'
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NPR's Robert Siegel talks to author Julia Lee about her book Our Gang: A Racial History of The Little Rascals. She chronicles the story of the African-American actors in the films. They were hailed as heroes of the black community for a time but were later reviled for their roles.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The kids in the "Our Gang" comedies - "The Little Rascals" - enjoyed as long a run on screen as anyone, starting in 1922. Before movies had sound, they had silent shorts with the kids - kids who were always solving problems or making trouble. Then came sound, and then came reruns on television. More recently, a couple of forgettable movies with the title "Little Rascals" were made in an attempt to revive the franchise that was originally called "Our Gang." They were renamed "Little Rascals" for TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUR GANG THEME SONG, "GOOD OLD DAYS")

SIEGEL: That's the tune "Good Old Days" - the theme song of "Our Gang." The child actors would age out of the "Our Gang" comedies, and they'd be replaced. But there was this constant -while most of the gang were white, there was always at least one black child in the cast.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED "OUR GANG" FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Where's Buckwheat?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) There he is.

BILLIE THOMAS: (As Buckwheat) Pop's had his head swell.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) What made your papi's head swell?

THOMAS: (As Buckwheat) My Mommy hit him on the head with a monkey wrench.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Where art thou?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) There he is.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) It's Buckwheat. Hurray.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Author Julia Lee, who teaches English at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, dug deep into the lives of the African-American actors who performed in "Our Gang," and she's written a book about them. It's called "Our Gang: A Racial History Of The Little Rascals," and she joins us from member station KNPR in Las Vegas. Welcome.

JULIA LEE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: You tell us about the four principal black actors. In the silent films, there was Ernie Morrison, known as Sunshine Sammy - along with him as a baby and then in the talkies alone was Allen Hoskins was given the name Farina.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED "OUR GANG" FILM)

ALLEN HOSKINS: (As Farina) Trevor, there ain't been no dogs around here for years - must be one of them spook dogs.

SIEGEL: How old are those movies when Farina was making his debut?

(LAUGHTER)

LEE: Well, the movies began in 1922. And, you know, Farina Hoskins - his real name was Sonny - he was actually a year and a half perhaps when he started on the series - could barely walk, could barely talk. And he grew up on the series.

SIEGEL: Well, now we've heard Farina. Farina was replaced in the cast by Matthew Beard or Stymie.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED "OUR GANG" FILM)

MATTHEW BEARD: (As Stymie) My name is Stymie. I wouldn't wash my feet for nobody.

SIEGEL: And finally, the role of the black youngster on "Our Gang" was given to Billie Thomas who was known as "Buckwheat" and who spoke very little. And when he did speak, he didn't speak very clearly.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED "OUR GANG" FILM)

THOMAS: (As Buckwheat, unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) So two boys took your marbles away and hit you with tomatoes.

SIEGEL: What you write in your book "Our Gang," is that what people witnessed in these comedies - that is to say, a bunch of kids playing together - white - and also a couple of black kids - was an idealized version of American race relations at the time, and you find a significant version of race relations.

LEE: Right, the thing that is just mind-boggling when you think about it is that in 1922, we're talking about - this is the height of Jim Crow. You have the Ku Klux Klan undergoing a period of resurgence. You have lynchings going around across the country. And so race relations were at an incredible low, and yet you have this series that's so popular that shows black and white children playing together as if there's no such thing as race at all.

SIEGEL: Some of these films ran into trouble with Southern movie theaters. There were objections to what was in them.

LEE: They did. There were protests - or not - letters, you know, written to the local trade magazines complaining that there was too much, quote, "Sambo" in the series. The gang also made fun of the Ku Klux Klan in one short called "Lodge Night," and that created some pushback from some theater owners in regions where the Ku Klux Klan was very strong.

SIEGEL: You know, I'd looked at that one, "Lodge Night." I would have some sound of it if it weren't a silent film. But yes, the kids do make fun of the Ku Klux Klan. But on the other hand, there's a scene with a black lecturer who's using long nonsense words and his black audience breaks into a crap game. That's humor that the Ku Klux Klan would have felt perfectly comfortable with.

LEE: Right, and that's what's so interesting is that "Our Gang" was walking this very fine line. It imported a lot from minstrelsy. But at the same time then, you have these white and black children poking fun at the Ku Klux Klan as an all-white organization and mocking its rituals. I think partly this was why the series managed to be so popular is that it offered some familiar stereotypes while, at the same time, presenting a really progressive and even radical message.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED "OUR GANG" FILM)

BEARD: (As Stymie) It might choke Artie, but it ain't going to choke Stymie.

SIEGEL: How popular were the black children in the "Our Gang" comedies in the black community in America?

LEE: They were absolute stars. They were considered saviors in many ways. In the early or mid-1920s, they were actually the most popular black stars in the United States.

SIEGEL: Julia Lee - these "Our Gang" comedies were really old when I was really young.

LEE: (Laughter) Right.

SIEGEL: And I'm a lot older than you are. So I want you to tell me your encounter with the "Our Gang" comedies - when and where?

LEE: So I grew up in Los Angeles. And, you know, my parents were Korean immigrants. They worked a lot. And so my sister and I would often watch television at home in the afternoons, and often "Little Rascals" was on. And so my sister and I would watch this and have no idea that these films were produced more than 50 years earlier, and that it was considered unusual - and even illegal in places - for black and white children to play together. Instead, like most kids, I thought that the rascals were hilarious. And it was only when I got older and started to look back on some of these films that I realized wow, well, there were some problematic racial stereotypes being used. And so then the interesting thing for me with this project was to figure out well, so how could it be simultaneously reflective of the racism of the time at the same time that it was quite progressive in its depiction of interracial friendship?

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED "OUR GANG" FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) OK.

SIEGEL: There came a time when the black community - or certainly leaders of civil rights groups were really uncomfortable with the portrayals of African-American...

LEE: Right.

SIEGEL: ...Children. When was that and how did that play out?

LEE: It started to happen in - around the '50s and into the '60s. Previously, the black community had been quite supportive of "Our Gang." The NAACP supported the series and people like W.E.B. Du Bois actually visited the Hal Roach lot in a trip to Los Angeles. But later on, as the NAACP began to gain some legal victories and the community as well started to become tired of these old-fashioned stereotypes, that - by the '50s the series was already 30 years old. It seemed like a throwback, and there was greater agitation to get rid of the series from television where they were now being showed widely. And so certain local television markets ended up boycotting "Our Gang." At the same time though - and this was remarkable - is that in the '60s, there were actually also southern stations that were boycotting "Little Rascals" - not because of the demeaning black stereotypes but because these images of interracial friendship were so inflammatory.

SIEGEL: Julia Lee, thanks for talking with us today.

LEE: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: Julia Lee is the author of "Our Gang: A Racial History Of The Little Rascals."

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED "OUR GANG" FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) Where's Buckwheat?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) There he is.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) Yes, Mommy?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Where's you at?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character)Right over here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Come away from where you is - over here where I is.

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