Mifune Toshiro (Toshiro Mifune)

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[Mifune Toshiro* for the film Seven Samurai, looking like the talented hunk he was. Photograph courtesy of Janus Film]

Today’s Historical Hottie is none other than the prolific Chinese-born Japanese actor Mifune Toshiro, known in the western world as Toshiro Mifune.* Mifune was born in April 1920 to two Japanese missionaries in Shandong Province, China. After nearly two decades of living in China, he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War and, because of his experience working in his father’s photography studio, served as an aerial photographer.

After the Second World War, Mifune went on to work in the Photography Department of Toho Productions, where he would meet the masterful film director Akira Kurosawa during film auditions. This meeting would go on to shape both of their careers, creating a partnership that spanned 16 films, many of which such as Rashomon (1950) – a personal favourite of mine, Seven Samurai (1954), and Throne of Blood (1957) – another favourite! – influenced, and continue to influence, the art of cinema around the world. Despite later difficulties in their professional relationship, Kurosawa continued to believe that he was “proud of nothing I have done other than with him [Mifune].” His acting career was not, however, limited to just these 16 films with Kurosawa – which would have been prolific on its own. Mifune acted in over 120 films, various TV shows, and inspired the likes of people like Clint Eastwood in his portrayal of a rough, lone warrior. Mifune’s portrayal of samurai and ronin was groundbreaking as, at the time, film representations never ventured into portrayals that centred on rough or coarse characters, but instead depended upon particular stereotypes of refinement which Mifune broke. After a long, illustrious career that at times was wrought with difficulties (a failed film school from the 1980s, for example), Mifune passed away in 1997,

Mifune is one of the most important screen actors of the 20th c, despite the fact that perhaps few outside of cinema lovers know his name or the impact he has had on modern film. At a time when North America was hostile to East Asians, especially Japanese people due not only to the Second World War but decades of anti-Asian racism enshrined in law and culture, Mifune’s rise to worldwide prominence is even more astounding. In honour of Mifune, we here at the HHBlog urge you to check out some of his films if you haven’t already! What better tribute to a rich and creative body of cinema acting than to sit and watch one of his many incredible performances.

~ M

*Traditional Japanese naming customs place the family name first and given name last, unlike common western naming customs which place given name first and family name last.

Bibliography

Lyman, Ryan. “Toshiro Mifune, Actor, Dies at 77; The Primal Hero of Samurai Films.” New York Times. December 25, 1997. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/12/25/movies/toshiro-mifune-actor-dies-at-77-the-primal-hero-of-samurai-films.html

Turan, Kenneth. “Review: In documentary ‘Mifune: The Last  Samurai,’ Spielberg, Scorsese and others  she light on the legendary Japanese actor.” LA Times. December 1, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-mifune-review-20161128-story.html

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Mifune Toshiro (Toshiro Mifune)

Anna May Wong

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[A black and white photograph of Anna May Wong looking glamorous as all hell circa 1935. Her gaze is focused somewhere behind her and to her right, creating the illusion of ignoring the camera and her onlookers. This photograph is in the public domain, and was found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anna_May_Wong_-_portrait.jpg ]

Today’s post is dedicated to the talented and absolutely fabulous actress known as Anna May Wong. Born Wong Liu Tsong (Yellow Frosted Willow) in Los Angeles early in 1905 to Chinese-American parents who ran a laundry, Wong went on to become one of the only Asian-American actresses of the early to mid-twentieth century in American cinema (Hodges, 1). Beginning her career at a young age, first in silent film and moving into talkies, she worked in the film industry as a renowned actress until her untimely death in 1961.

Her films ranged from 1922’s The Toll of the Sea, 1929’s Piccadilly, 1931’s Daughter of the Dragon, and 1943’s anti-Japanese propaganda film Bombs Over Burma, with her being cast in different “ethnic” roles ranging from Inuit to Mongolian throughout her career. As scholar Anthony B. Chan notes in Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961), Wong’s varied roles were “designed to reveal an exotic, stern, and mysterious Asian being rather than a matter-of-fact person who relished the art of repartee. Her films served to create an aura of aloofness that seemed to encourage a sexual encounter but at the same time pushed aside the possibility of touching and intimacy” (Chan, 193).

Wong was constantly cast as the “ultimate cinematic tease” in Hollywood films (Chan, 193), as a stereotypical “Dragon Lady” in her early years, leading her to leave for Europe in search of more fulfilling roles that did not rely on her playing a supporting “exotic” character. By leaving the United States film industry for the industries flourishing in Europe, she was able to escape being constantly typecast as an exotic supporting role, which came out of a combination of anti-miscegenation laws that disallowed her from having on-screen romances with anyone who was not Asian and from Euro-American actresses constantly being cast in yellow-faced leading Asian roles. Eventually, she was signed on to Paramount in the 1930s and returned to the United States after starring in several European films of varying success. As her fame grew in the United States during the 1930s, she began to advocate on behalf of the Chinese-American community and new Chinese refugees during a time of extreme anti-Asian racism and hostility in the United States that had begun with the California Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century and continued on throughout the next century.

Wong’s career spanned a breadth of roles, from stereotypical and offensive to witty and empowering, that constantly subverted Euro-American expectations of (East) Asian-American women. She was an “icon to the people of Chinese North America” who wrote tongue-in-cheek signatures on publicity photos destined for Euro-Americans, such as “Orientally yours” (Chan, xii;  Hodges, xvii). Anna May Wong’s life leads us to interrogate the ways that rebellion and subversion often co-exist with what, at times, appear to be the upholding of oppressive norms. Furthermore, Wong’s “exoticized” beauty forces us to grapple with the ways in which beauty is often weaponized against particular gendered and racialized historical subjects, leading to a forced simplification of an individual’s complexity and humanity. Wong’s sexualized appeal as a racialized subject of White fetishes regarding East Asian women is an essential aspect in understanding the complicated history of media portrayals of Asian women that reverberate into the present day.

We here at the HHBlog have the utmost respect for trail-blazing women like Anna May Wong and hope that in detailing a little bit of her life in all of its intricacies, we have inspired you to think critically about the way women living at the intersections of fetishized and sexualized racism resist, rebel, and survive.

~ M

Bibliography

Chan, Anthony B. Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961). Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2007.

Hodges, Graham Russell Gao. Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012.

Tiana (Thi Thanh Nga). “THE LONG MARCH: From Wong to Woo: Asians in Hollywood.” Cinéaste 21, no. 4 (1995): 38-40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41687420.

Anna May Wong

Sylvia D. Hamilton

Sylvia Hamilton

[A photograph of Sylvia D. Hamilton, from her professional page as Assistant Professor and Rogers Chair in Communications at the University of King’s College, Halifax http://www.ukings.ca/sylvia-d-hamilton]

Who counts as an historical subject? Who is worthy of our attention when historians tease out the narratives we call “history” from the amorphous past? And, moreover, who is the “we,” the “our” that can be found – sometimes explicitly, other times just a looming threat – in historical writing? For today’s post – the last in our celebration of Black History Month – I want to highlight Sylvia D. Hamilton, a Black Canadian filmmaker, and writer who has helped to shift both who counts as an historical subject in Canada and who counts as the historian, the always present “our” in historical writing. Sylvia D. Hamilton is therefore both historian and historical subject, both the one crafting narratives and the one centred in various stories.

Instead of the usual post where myself or Spirit write a tribute to an historical (and in this case, living) person, or set of persons, I will in its place allow for Hamilton’s own words to tell you where she is from and why she does the work she does. The following is an excerpt from her fantastic 2012 article “When and Where I Enter: History, Film and Memory.” Let her words inform you, remind you, or perhaps even challenge you into thinking about how Blackness is an integral part of the Canadian national project, and about how the same issues of anti-Black racism that exist in the United States punctuate Canadian history (and the many Canadian presents), as well:

Since our earliest days in Canada as African-descended people, we have striven to find a compass: to locate ourselves in this vast land, to plot our position on the physical and mental map of Canada…

I am the grateful daughter of Marie Nita Waldron and Gerald Mac Hamilton, the granddaughter of Ida Grosse and Gilbert Hamilton and of Hattie Kellum and William Waldron, and the great granddaughter of Charlotte and Charles Grosse. William Waldron was a sailor and watchmaker who came to Halifax from the Barbados at the turn of the century and married Hattie Kellum. All are the reason I can stand before you today.

I have become a seeker, trying to plot some of the co-ordinates, not just for myself, but also for others. For me, as a filmmaker and a writer, history and memory combine to create a lens through which I view the present. These joint themes figure in much of my work that draws on oral story telling, archival and other found documents and objects, and on geography to tell stories about African Nova Scotians and African Canadians generally.

My work re-inserts and re-positions African-descended people in our landscapes by presenting stories and images of people being witnesses to their own lives. Their experiences and stories are the evidence of their realities. I think that a true understanding of our past and its meaning, one rooted in our bones, is vital to our future.

 

Thank you to Sylvia D. Hamilton, for telling your story.

~ M

P.S. I encourage everyone who has access, to read Sylvia D. Hamilton’s article cited here. And I especially encourage everyone to watch her fantastic and at times heartbreaking documentary The Little Black Schoolhouse (2007) which chronicles the experiences of Black Canadians who were subjected to school segregation in Nova Scotia.

Bibliography

Hamilton, Sylvia D. “When and Where I Enter: History, Film and Memory.” Acadiensis XLI, no. 2 (Summer/Autumn 2012): 3-16.

 

 

 

 

Sylvia D. Hamilton

Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance (Sylvester Clark Long)

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[A photo of Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance smiling]

Another Friday, another Historical Hottie. Today we are graced with the smiling face of Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, born December 1st, 1890 as Sylvester Clark Long. Both his parents were born enslaved, and according to the film Long Lance, were each of mixed background (Black, Indigenous, and White). He initially gained fame as a writer, after publishing his autobiography, going on to become an actor in the mid-twentieth century. He attended the Carlisle Indian School in the United States, infamous in its abuse of not only Indigenous but also Puerto Rican and African American youth.

Long Lance eventually went on to star in the 1930 film The Silent Enemy. He was a strong advocate for representing Indigenous Peoples and cultures respectfully within mainstream Euro-America and Euro-Canada. For many years he hid his identity as a man of mixed background (Black, European, Indigenous). Unfortunately, when his identity was revealed, this caused Long Lance to suffer to the point of committing suicide in 1932 (some people believe he was actually murdered). His will left all of his wealth towards aiding Indigenous youth in Alberta.

Although I do not want to refute Long Lance’s lived experiences and his family’s Indigenous claims, I think it is also important to acknowledge that his claims of being Indigenous are muddled in the half truths of any personal history and are still contested. It is also important to situate him within the broader history of Black Americans and White Americans claiming Indigenous history, often times with little evidence but other times with accuracy – especially in relation to Black Americans who are often denied being Indigenous due to anti-Black racism.

Today’s Historical Hottie is a gentle reminder that compassion and acceptance for each and every one of us can go a long way.

~ M

Bibliography

Long Lance. Online. Directed by Bernie Dichek. 1986. https://www.nfb.ca/film/long_lance

Reel Injun. Online. Directed by Neil Diamond. 2011. http://www.cbc.ca/passionateeye/episodes/reel-injun

Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance (Sylvester Clark Long)

Oscar Micheaux

[A photograph of Oscar Micheaux, date unknown]
[A (fantastic) photograph of Oscar Micheaux, date unknown.]
Oscar Micheaux, born in the state of Illinois, USA in 1884, was a Black American filmmaker, writer, and businessman. Micheaux used his artistic storytelling talents to fight against injustice during a time when White supremacy and anti-Black racism often resulted in lynchings, violent sexual assaults against women and men, and a legalized system of discrimination in the Southern USA called Jim Crow.

Micheaux founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company in 1918, and utilized his self-owned business to write, publish, and distribute novels and films across the United States. Due to the larger sociocultural context within which he lived, Micheaux (as many within Black communities in the USA did) was forced to utilize innovative techniques that allowed for him to succeed in a White supremacist society. Often promoting and hand-delivering his films in person to theatres across the United States, Micheaux embodied the themes of his films.

At the time that Micheaux was an active filmmaker and writer, many activists in Black communities utilized social uplift as one way to combat segregation, stereotypes, and broader White supremacist power structures. It was with these themes that Micheaux was concerned with in his films, and his everyday life. Although uplift strategies, from a twenty-first century perspective, can be viewed as problematic in many respects this by no means should detract from the efforts of those who fought racialized injustice in the USA (and many of whom paid dearly, often with their lives or those of loved ones).

Along with themes of social uplift, Micheaux’s films often drew upon the rich West African and African American traditions based around the trickster trope. As with those of social uplift, Micheaux, too, lived a life that embodied the trickster as he often would subvert White perceptions of Black Americans as unintelligent and utilize them to his advantage. For example, Micheaux’s 1924 film A Son of Satan was completely censored in Virginia. Yet Micheaux disregarded the censorship of this film (as he often did), and acted as though it was due to his ignorance and not cunning that the film had “accidentally” been shown.

As with all of the Historical Hotties featured here, Oscar Micheaux is a wonderful example of the many revolutionary, radical, and rabble-rousing people that make up our shared histories. Here’s to one fabulous trailblazing trickster + justice seeker.

~ Monique

Bibliography:

Ooten, Melissa. Race, Gender, and Film Censorship in Virginia, 1922-1965. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2015.

Oscar Micheaux