The Our Gang Films: Background information when reading The Sellout

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The Sellout

by Paul Beatty

The Sellout by Paul Beatty X
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2016, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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Beyond the Book:
The Our Gang Films

Print Review

The GangOne of the central characters in The Sellout is Hominy Jenkins, an elderly black man who was, in his youth, a lesser-known member of the group of child actors featured in the Our Gang series of short films. Hominy Jenkins might be fictional, but Our Gang was certainly not. Produced from 1922 to 1944 by comedy producer Hal Roach, the original films (many of which later made it to television under the title Little Rascals) began as silent movies and ultimately encompassed more than two hundred shorts as well as a feature-length movie.

The GangAmong the most memorable, long-standing characters were Alfalfa, Spanky, Porky, Darla, Farina, and Buckwheat. The films – and consequently their child stars – were phenomenally popular. Featuring child actors in comedic situations, the films were notable for featuring a relatively diverse cast – including both white and black characters as well as Asian-American and Italian-American children – at a time when racial tensions in the United States were particularly fraught.

The GangIn her recent book Our Gang: A Racial History of The Little Rascals, Julia Lee traces the racial imagery used in the films themselves as well as the reception of their African-American stars. She notes that, especially when viewed with contemporary eyes, the films utilize numerous racist stereotypes, often for humor; on the other hand, however, the films portrayed children of different races playing together as equals, imagery that had not been previously seen on screen (and that got the films banned from some Southern theaters). By recalling the history of Our Gang and its complicated balancing act between minstrelsy and a sort of progressivism, Beatty gives readers hints as to the kind of playfulness and complicated cultural commentary his novel engages in as well.

The Gang: Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, Andy Samuel, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, Mickey Daniels and Joe Cobb in a 1923 still from one of the earliest comedies.
Poster of the movie Our Gang.
The Gang, courtesy of Hollywood Reporter.

Article by Norah Piehl

This article is from the January 18, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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