When Irish-Americans Rioted Against Whiteface
Theda Bara was a siren of early film, playing seductresses like Salomé and Cleopatra. An “evil woman” on screen, she was in private life more given to reading in her free time than ruining men. She was unique in her time as a screen actor in that she took the time to research and read about the people whom she played.
As lucrative as her career playing femmes fatales was (she was earning $4,000 a week), by the late 19-teens, Bara wanted to shed her “vamp” image and reinvent her public persona. The project she thought would help her do this was Kathleen Mavourneen, a tale of a happy Irish peasant girl who attracts the designs of an ill-intentioned squire.
The reviews were positive. The famous film industry columnist Louella Parsons praised Bara's role as “one of the best performances of her career” and The Houston Chronicle noted Bara's “beauty and charm.”
But there was an unforeseen problem. Theda Bara was, after all, not Irish.
Fox Studios had concocted an outlandish biography for her, saying that she was the daughter of an Italian artist and French actress, born in a tent in the shadow of the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, raised in the Théâtre Grand Guignol in Paris, and then discovered by an American film executive and whisked away just in time to escape the Great War. Lies, of course. In reality, Theodosia Burr (yes, named after Aaron Burr's daughter) Goodman was a middle-class Jewish girl from Cincinnati.
To the Irish-American community, such a woman had no place playing an Irish girl, and the depiction of Ireland in Kathleen Mavoureen was offensively stereotypical. Recounted in Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara by Eve Golden, “all hell broke loose” when the film opened. “The Friends of Irish Freedom and the Central Council of Irish Associations violently objected to the depiction of poverty in Ireland... Other groups — in a foreshadowing of today's Politically Correct casting furor — objected to a 'Jewess' portraying a beloved Irish heroine.” Riots started in San Francisco and spread throughout the country. Mobs destroyed theaters. Bara received death threats. The movie was withdrawn after only a few days in theaters.
First of all, let's do away with Golden's dismissive categorization of today's controversies relating to whitewashing and white actors playing people of color as “Politically Correct casting furor.” (She wrote these words twenty years ago, and yet we're still hearing complaints about being “politically correct.”) These are important issues that I have written about before. Minority communities deserve fair treatment in stories about members of our communities, fictional or otherwise.
What I want to focus on is that this rioting mob, offended at the depiction of the culture of their ethnic origin, was not Black or Native American or Latino or Asian. They were Irish. We would call them white now, but at the time, the Irish-American community faced some discrimination. (I say some because the early 20th century was also the time of Jim Crow laws and lynching and the Chinese Exclusion Act.) Over time, however, Irish-Americans were able to fold themselves in the American whiteness. This isn’t an option for people of color in the United States. No matter our successes and accomplishments — or even our proximity to whiteness, as is the case of Asian-Americans in tech — we will never be white. Nor do we want to be!
What we want is fair representation in popular culture, and that is still an upward climb. For example, the actor Ed Skrein recently resigned from playing Ben Daimio in Hellboy, after its producers failed to learn from the casting mistakes of Aloha, Ghost in the Shell, and Doctor Strange. Daniel Dae Kim is set to take over the role. (Kim and Grace Park quit their jobs on Hawaii 5-0 after the show’s producers refused to pay them equally to their white co-stars.) And speaking of casting mistakes, as of this post, the white actor Zach McGowan is still cast as native Hawaiian Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele in the upcoming World War II film Ni’ihau. In the case of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, even being shown on screen is a challenge. A new report found that 64% of American television shows over the past decade didn’t have a single regular AAPI character.
I have seen the pushback against people who speak out about these inequities. They’re met with barrages of responses from (mostly) white people who insist that protesting is an overreaction, who go to great length to rationalize whitewashed casting, or who wonder why we make such a big deal when there are far more pressing issues in the world. And we’re not even destroying theaters!
So let’s remember the Irish-Americans who quite literally fought against an offensive depiction of their heritage when we’re faced with detractors who think our hashtag campaigns are too disruptive and radical.
To learn more about Theda Bara, check out this October 2014 episode of You Must Remember This.)