Marfa's Mexican-Americans Remember 'Giant' And Southwest Segregation The documentary Children of Giant tells the story of some of the people in the 1956 film — not James Dean or Rock Hudson, but rather the Mexican community that appeared in it.
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Marfa's Mexican-Americans Remember 'Giant' And Southwest Segregation

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Marfa's Mexican-Americans Remember 'Giant' And Southwest Segregation

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There are plenty of examples of a lack of sensitivity in the way people are depicted in movies. But in 1956, one big Hollywood production got it right. The film, "Giant," about a Texas rancher, starred James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. The movie also turned the lens on the injustices suffered by Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. "Giant" was filmed mostly in Marfa, Texas, and a new documentary returns to the town nearly half a century later. It's called "Children Of Giant," and it's showing on PBS stations around the country. Tom Michael of Marfa Public Radio talked to some of those who remember what it was like when "Giant" was in town.

TOM MICHAEL, BYLINE: It's drafty in this tiny adobe schoolhouse in Marfa, Texas, a country town in the western part of the state. The red banner on the wall reads, Blackwell School 1889 to 1965.

HECTOR GALAN: Sitting in this building here - this was a segregated Mexican school.

MICHAEL: Hector Galan directed the documentary.

GALAN: And the time that George Stevens was filming in Marfa, most Mexican-American communities throughout the Southwest were segregated, and he captured it so perfectly.

MICHAEL: Director George Stevens had a level of creative control that was unprecedented at Warner Bros. in the mid-1950s, says his son, George Stevens, Jr.

GEORGE STEVENS: When you think of "Giant," which was probably the most expensive film made that year, certainly the most ambitious, it was just so unusual for, at the very center of it, to be this question of identity.

MICHAEL: The film was based on the 1952 novel by Edna Ferber, which took a piercing look at the Texas myth. She traced the rise of power, from cattle ranchers to oil barons. She also uncovered issues of gender relations and tensions between whites and Latinos that George Stevens brought out in his movie. In the documentary, Hector Galan contrasts the progressive Hollywood vision of an interracial world with the nuanced realities of a border town.

GALAN: What was happening throughout the Southwest with us, Mexican-Americans, I mean, we were enduring the same type of injustice that African-Americans were, say, in the South. The African-American presence in the Southwest was very, very small, so we were the ones that got it.

MICHAEL: In a departure from the book, Stevens added a scene in which Bick Benedict, Rock Hudson's character, stands up to a racist diner owner who insults Benedict's mixed-race grandchild.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GIANT")

ROCK HUDSON: (As Bick Benedict) Give the little feller some ice cream.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As diner owner) Ice cream? I thought that kid would want a tamale.

MICHAEL: Richard Williams knew that world growing up in Marfa.

RICHARD WILLIAMS: I remember people saying, don't go in there, don't go in there. Stay away from that store.

MICHAEL: He attended the segregated Blackwell School. In fifth grade, he remembers how the teachers, in an attempt to force the kids to speak only English, marched them outside for a symbolic burial of Mr. Spanish.

WILLIAMS: There was a little mock ceremony of a funeral, and everybody gathered around the flagpole that was in the middle of the campus. The students were instructed to write a Spanish word on a piece of paper. There was a cardboard box and we were just supposed to drop it in there. And that was a symbolic burying of the language. And I know some of the parents were outraged.

MICHAEL: But one of the documentary's producers, Karen Bernstein, cautions against using a contemporary lens to judge the intentions of the school's namesake.

KAREN BERNSTEIN: In some ways, I think what Jesse Blackwell was doing was, he was trying to provide basics about math, you know, all the sort of basic literacy things that you need to live in an English-speaking society, right?

MICHAEL: Today, the school is a museum, but director Hector Galan says it took a while for old attitudes to change.

GALAN: Even when "Giant" left Marfa, I think it was another 10 years before they shut this down.

MICHAEL: Anglo ranchers, longtime Hispanic residents and hipster newcomers sat side-by-side in Marfa's movie theater for the screening of Galan's documentary. But Lucila Valenzuela remembers it wasn't always this way, especially when it came to the rules of West Texas theater owners.

LUCILA VALENZUELA: We would have to go up on the balcony. And I used to play this little game. I'd come down and go sit in the very front row, and he'd come and tap me on the shoulder, and I would spend the whole movie playing cat-and-mouse with Mr. (laughter) Davis. And it was just the fact that - why do I have to sit up there? Yeah, we could see the movie much better, but why is it mandatory that I sit up there? No, it was because I was Hispanic.

MICHAEL: Back in 1955, when "Giant" was filmed in Marfa, its director George Stevens foreshadowed that Texas would become a majority minority state, which it did in 2011. In the film's crowning scene, Bick Benedict looks at his two grandchildren in the crib, one with light skin, the other, dark skin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GIANT")

HUDSON: (As Bick Benedict) My own grandson don't even look like one of us, honey.

MICHAEL: And that, says Hector Galan, director of the documentary "Children Of Giant," is what Stevens and even novelist Edna Ferber saw in their story - the future of Texas. For NPR News I'm Tom Michael in Marfa.

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