I hoped to love Julia Lee’s Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals (2015) because the subject is right up my alley: the social and cultural impact of a classic American film comedy series. But for an academic book I found it curiously half-baked, possessing at once too much and too little of several key aspects of the story it wants to tell.
As is well known, Hal Roach’s Our Gang series of comedy shorts was groundbreaking in its integration of African American actors into its all-kid casts. Since the series ran for 20 years, the kids were periodically replaced as they aged out. Over the life of the series there were four key African American kids in the series, each taking his turn as the star, almost like a relay race. The first two, Sunshine Sammy and Farina were the undisputed stars of the series during their stints. The second two, Stymie and Buckwheat, were among the most popular and best known in the films, but appeared during the years when Spanky, Alfalfa and Darla held center stage. The tag team element suggests a structure in four sections, each focusing on each of the young actors. It’s latently there; Lee’s own book suggests it. The strongest element in the book is the biographical material on these four child actors.
The problem is that in her attempts to broaden the scope of the book and make it more ambitious, Lee doesn’t go nearly far enough. There is some commendable background on blackface minstrelsy and stereotypical stock characters like the pickaninny and zip coon, but not nearly enough to justify the title of the book. There was at least a century of backstory leading up to Sunshine Sammy’s screen debut; it didn’t happen in a minute. Likewise, the author’s familiarity with the films themselves strikes me as superficial, or at least there is scant evidence of any deep engagement with the films in the writing here. There is some description of a very few films, but surprisingly little and without much insight. In that respect, this is not a book I would recommend to film or comedy buffs, most of whom will be light years ahead of the author in terms of their familiarity with the material. Also, there is virtually nothing about what was happening in OTHER films of the same period. Other child stars, other African American stars, other comedy stars. She reveals a lack of breadth in her familiarity with the scope of her subject when she trots out The Jazz Singer for the millionth time, as though that were some sort of key blackface movie, when its only landmark aspect was sound. I find an emphasis on that movie in this context dilettantish. Blackface was ubiquitous in 1927. And what was happening on stage at the time? In comic strips? It’s necessary to compare and contrast all this material for any kind of true picture to emerge and it’s just not here. Some of the backstage interactions she quotes from primary source material are clearly studio press release fluff, to be regarded with a grain of salt at best, but the author communicates little awareness of this. And while it is appropriate for the other (white) actors in the series to be backgrounded in this book, perhaps not as much as has been done here, as one gets no sense of their personalities, or how the white kids and black kids compared in terms of screen time, and so forth.
Lee’s book does give a nice sense of the inherent contradiction of the racial aspects of Our Gang. It broke much new ground, by having an integrated cast, by humanizing its African American actors…even while it perpetuated muted iterations of traditional stereotypes now distasteful to us. During the TV era, Lee tells us, whites in the South protested the broadcast of the films because they were too sympathetic to blacks, then a few years later groups like the NAACP protested the showings because of the stereotypes! Ya can’t win for losing. But from the perspective of 2017 they make wonderful teaching tools, and charming ones too. So from that angle, I’d recommend Lee’s book, especially to young people and newbies. Its heart is in the right place even if it needs a lot more elbow grease to transform it into the book the subject deserves.