Bonnie & Clyde and the Hollywood Scrub

Iva Bernice "Blanche" Caldwell Barrow [top], actress Estelle Parsons as Blanche Barrow [bottom]

Iva Bernice “Blanche” Caldwell Barrow [top], actress Estelle Parsons as Blanche Barrow [bottom]

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were ripped to death in a hail of automatic rifle and shotgun fire on a dusty road in Louisiana in May of 1934.

Their bloody end was befitting the wider American sense of mythic justice still common today – “live by the sword, die by the sword“, or “an eye for an eye“.

In this distinctly Calvinist Protestant reality, every human being makes a choice to do good or evil.  Wicked thoughts germinate in the minds of the ungodly, until springing one day, fully-formed, into wicked actions.

Believing that evil deeds are SOLELY the product of individual decisions allows an unjust or unequal society to wash its hands of any responsibility or stake in the deeper root causes of drug abuse, social dysfunction, violence, and crime.

American “road gangsters” like Bonnie and Clyde were not born bad.

Few human beings ever are.

But an ugly story of the grinding, crushing poverty of a lonely, fatherless girl during The Great Depression (first married at 15), or of a young boy brutalised and raped while in the US prison system, is hard to leverage into a story arc which will fill cinema seats.

The American entertainment industry never sleeps, and never lets a sleeping dog lie.  The glamorisation of lives lived in the fast lane is a Big Dollar.

So three decades after their deaths, Hollywood gave us Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as Bonnie and Clyde.

This sort of glossy retake on history was not new.  After all, one of the earliest cinema hits back in 1915, “Birth of a Nation“, was a three hour recruiting advertisement for the clan, managing to magically transform racist vigilante thugs into heroes.

So again, nothing really new.

But the story of people like Bonnie and Clyde provides an extra twist.  You see, once the American pop culture machine decides to rehabilitate or glamorise a story, something else often begins to happen.

People in the story begin to turn whiter.

This phenomenon has existed for decades in The Western film genre – with its morality tales of courage ALWAYS starring taciturn “white guys”.

Serious historians of course know that the majority of cowboys were Mexican, Native American, and African-American.  But for most of the 20th century, this minor detail didn’t matter.  The point of The Western was to function as little more than a stage on which to hang propaganda and justification for the largest land grab seen since the age of Alexander the Great.

Ethnic cleansing and land appropriation are events too large to be hidden, so the very meaning of these actions must be altered.

In a collective act of supreme gaslighting, greed, racism, theft and murder were somehow transformed into “heroism”.

The years between the end of the Indian Wars and the beginning of the Great Depression (1890-1929) saw much of white male society casting around for new causes on which to hang their sense of purpose, importance, superiority, and dominance.

These were the peak years of the eugenics movement, peak years for clan membership.

America has a particularly deep history of overlap between its military and police forces, and many pitiless veterans of the Indian Wars and clan members became lawmen, turning their skill-set against America’s domestic underclasses.

But if post-western, post-Indian Wars lawmen are to be seen as “heroes”, if they are going to send large numbers of men to spray fusillades of bullets into the “bad guys”, then those “bad guys” need to be worthy, cunning, dangerous, “equal” adversaries – not desperate, messed-up young kids.

I was thinking about all this while preparing a new podcast episode, and wondering why Clyde Barrow’s sister-in-law, Blanche Barrow, was played in Arthur Penn‘s 1967 film by a medium-built, 40-year-old, blonde, Anglo-Swedish actress from Massachusetts named Estelle Parsons (who is, in fairness, a fine actress and still going strong at 95).

You see, the real-life partner of Buck Barrow was neither blonde, medium built, nor of Anglo-Scandinavian ancestry.

Iva Bernice “Blanche” Caldwell was a black-haired, multi-ethnic girl from Oklahoma who never weighed over 100 lbs in her life.

Perhaps even more to the point, she was born to a 15-year-old mother married to a 39-year-old man, and was only a teenager herself when she hooked-up with Buck Barrow.  The day that Bonnie and Clyde were shot down, Blanche was still only 22-years-old.

It’s not easy to glamorise or garner empathy for skinny, part-indigenous kids from Oklahoma who get involved in crime.

Stories of the American social system failing impoverished, multi-ethnic “brown” kids just wouldn’t be “Hollywood”.

And besides, poor “brown kids” and poor “white kids” making common cause against “The Man” is A VERY BAD LOOK.

Modern Hollywood is beginning to improve in terms of reflecting the real multi-ethnic face of America.

But when things go historical, all hope for an accurate reflection of the past can be cast aside.

It seems there is nothing which cannot be appropriated, sugar-coated, scrubbed, “white-ified” and turned into money.

Not even peoples’ real identities, real stories, and real ethnicities are safe.

©Brian Halpin


#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #BonnieAndClyde #BlancheBarrow #whitewashing

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