I’m a major fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s work. In addition to the specific qualities of his direction, he sits comfortably at the intersection of my cinephilia and my Anglophila, and when pressed to choose, I name him as my favorite director. I grew up seeking out whatever works of his I could find, often on a scratchy VHS tape borrowed from the library.
I don’t remember exactly when I fell in love with it, but I attribute my early awareness of Hitchcock’s work to my father. My parents divorced when I was seven, and my father and I weren’t very close when I was young, but we did visit. A classic film buff himself, who was also not great at communicating with or entertaining his children, he would often put on a movie and we’d sit and watch. There was never a selection made post-1972, and there was frequent Hitchcock.
In high school, I took Film Study as an extra English elective, and the curriculum was very Hitchcock-heavy. I had also discovered the TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, airing in reruns on Nick at Nite, and I swooned over the many tales of deceit and murder neatly presented by recognizable acting greats at the early stages of their careers. I delighted in Mr. Hitchcock’s gloriously droll intros and outros and the juicy twist endings. I just thought the show had it all. I didn’t even miss the black people.
There’s a weird mental bargain I’ve made as a fan of classic cinema: I’m a black female actor who longs passionately for more ethnic diversity in entertainment, and I have been turning the volume down on that passion to enjoy my old movies and TV shows.
Lack of diverse racial representation in film and television throughout history is a highly fraught subject that has filled books, and I feel it intensely with regard to Mr. Hitchcock’s work. One of my prevailing thoughts when enjoying it is that I wish I were alive then; I fantasize about having worked with him. I dream of having somehow been the lone black femme fatale to join the lineup of his famously “cool blondes.” That thought is immediately met with an internal Yeah, right. As if that could EVER have happened. And then I go through my mental list of the people of color I’ve seen in Hitchcock’s work. It’s a very short list. There’s the extra in the opening scene of Frenzy, a handful of bellmen in his famous train scenes, and a few mysterious “exotic Latino types” sprinkled throughout the TV series……..[continues thinking…]
Alfred Hitchcock’s problematic issues with women have been documented, and that’s troublesome enough on its own. Add race to the equation, and I feel a strange sort of guilt for loving his work as much as I do. The conundrum of enjoying the artistic work of someone who’s done foul things comes into play with many of our faves, and we each have to decide for ourselves where we draw the line. Personally, the documented crimes of R. Kelly and Roman Polanski are their legacies for me. I need not involve myself with their work ever again.
I admit that with Hitchcock though, I learned of his dark side many years after I fell in love with his work, and I do mean fell in love. I don’t condone his behavior, and I’ve been on the receiving end of similar trespasses myself. I speak out about my personal experiences and try to look out for younger or less experienced women in showbiz to break the cycle of directors thinking they have claim to their leading ladies’ bodies.
But Mr. Hitchcock’s behavior didn’t cross over into any criminality that we’re aware of. That doesn’t excuse it, of course. Let me say that again: That. Doesn’t. Excuse. It. But my familiarity with such scenarios may be a part of why I’m able to continue consuming his canon, however guiltily. It was simply known that he had problems dealing with women. So does one of my favorite directors working today. You’ll notice I’m very careful to say that I love Alfred Hitchcock’s work, not Alfred Hitchcock. I didn’t know Alfred Hitchcock, and by all accounts I would’ve hated the man, but he also defined my favorite genre of my favorite type of entertainment.
I grapple with his (mis)treatment of women, yet the race thing is both expected and inexcusable. On the one hand, his early films date as far back as 1922, and though I know we’ve been everywhere since forever, bemoaning the lack of onscreen racial diversity in the 1920s would be a bit of a reach. Blackface was still en vogue, and in Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (1937) that ugly trend even makes an appearance. Still, he directed in London and the United States straight through 1976, by which point people of color were working in film and television on both sides of the pond, and yet so few dark faces appear on the Hitchcockian horizon.
In addition to the times when I sit down at home to watch a movie start to finish, I frequently play them the way most people play music–as background or to set a mood. I own much of Hitchcock’s huge library of works on DVD, and I often pop in a movie while I’m working out or cleaning up. The other day I had Topaz (1969) on, and my heart leapt when Roscoe Lee Browne appeared onscreen. Topaz isn’t one that I watch very often, and I had kind of forgotten he was in it.
Of course we’ve come a long way, but the fight for increased and better onscreen representation still rages on. Sometimes when I voice a complaint, I’m told by an unhelpful asshat that I shouldn’t need people of color onscreen to be able to enjoy something, and of course I don’t. But I want them. They are us, I am them, and it is special to see something akin to a reflection when enjoying entertainment.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to not long for representation in my favorite films. I have no idea what it’s like to see someone who looks even remotely like me in the things that I love the most. I still love them, but that longing is such a deep ache. Hell, Hitchcock even had more gay and queer characters in his work than folks darker than an eggshell, so at least I get to see that. But gay characters were often the villains, so there’s another representational battle there.
John Dall and Farley Granger made a handsome couple in Rope (1948).
As I’ve gotten older and expanded my tastes, my love of Hitch’s stuff still hasn’t waned, despite its blinding whiteness. I’m going to continue to fight the diversity fight, and I know I’ll continue to love Hitchcock’s work as well. No matter how incongruous that feels sometimes.