Pretty much every film I’ve watched during the pandemic and the protests for racial justice has been charged with a different type of energy. I’ve been learning more and more about how racist attitudes come across in the different media we consume and I want to talk about it more. I think confronting these attitudes in books and films is important because washing over it doesn’t seem like a good way forward. I am a relative newcomer to public discourse on race, so I am trying to approach these conversations with humility. I know I will make mistakes. I am listening and trying to do better. Watching this particular film 60 years later has allowed me to put both that time and this current moment into a conversation with each other and I wanted to share my observations with you.
I haven’t read the play (though if you have, you should let me know in the comments how it compares to the film!), so this discussion is confined to the movie and how it handles race. I know that Tennessee Williams didn’t like this adaptation, but I’m not sure which aspects particularly he objected to or how race is dealt with in the play.
In Richard Brooks’ 1958 film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick and Maggie’s marriage disintegrates as his father’s birthday party becomes a fight over the inheritance of a massive fortune. The film has a lot to tell us about white superiority not only in the South, but about our own time throughout the United States and beyond.
While the film focuses on the lives of the white protagonists and their hopes and dramas, slavery and racial attitudes intrude all the time but are always in the background and unacknowledged, which isn’t surprising in a setting where the truth is considered vulgar and to be avoided, like calling Big Daddy’s illness the ‘c’ word instead of cancer.
In one of the first scenes of the film, the children playing on the lawn of a big Southern plantation are playing Dixie and waving a confederate flag. They are preparing this song for their grandfather, in an attempt to convey to him the kind of legacy he’d be leaving if Brick’s older brother inherits the estate. These internalized racist attitudes form the backdrop of the entire film and I consider them to be part of the family’s heritage. These racist structures helped create and prop up the legacy Big Daddy will leave behind. I mean, the entire film revolves around the inheritance of a plantation style manor and its environs and the only Black people we see in this film are servants, setting up the party or tending to a member of the family. We learn nothing about them because as Big Daddy says “You don’t build an empire by remembering faces.” This movie is concerned with the fallout of the empire, not the men and women whose unpaid or underpaid labor built it.
In a movie that’s all about legacies and the threat of them disappearing, there is a kind of anxiety all the time. Maggie is terrified that she’s not pregnant because it means she’s not providing an heir; Brick is terrified that his football legacy and, more importantly, the legacy of his friend, will be called into question. There is impending death in the family. These anxieties mean a lot of things are not discussed, but they still come to the surface, providing churning undercurrents. Brick understands that their lives are built on weak and shaky foundations, and he tells his father “Men who build empires die and empires die too.” But here he ignores that although power shifts and moves slightly, it is still a rigged game.
Although racial anxieties are not explicitly discussed, that doesn’t mean that they’re not present. Cotton, the great crop of the South that has such intimate and violent ties with slavery is on people’s minds throughout the film. Brick played in the Cotton Bowl, someone is voted Miss Cotton Queen. In this way, cotton is still being used as a tool for white racist attitudes of superiority that have been built on exploited lives and labor.
Big Daddy follows this pattern when he makes a grand show of talking about how he came from nothing and was able to build this huge estate and business. While he came from a poor background, he certainly ignores that it is his white privilege that allows him to rise up into the plantation manor (I think in the play he comes into the plantation as overseer? That’s not discussed in the film). The economically suppressed becomes the suppressor in his turn.
It is hard to say whether they don’t see the racist structures that they stand upon, or if they just believe that it’s vulgar to tell the truth because if they confronted it, it might mean a very real loss of their privilege, or, at the very least, a knowledge that they are not as “good” as they believe themselves to be. I think that although Brick says he can’t live with the lies in the family, he does in his own way because he would rather numb his way through life than work to change it. Without the lies or the liquor, their way of life would not be possible. As Big Daddy says, “There’s nothing to live with except mendacity.” But that’s the great argument that I think theater makes–that truth and illusion are different and that what is real hurts and confronting it hurts. This confrontation is necessary for real change, and I found most of the characters in this play to be really unlikable–not because they were flawed–but because they weren’t willing to do the work to confront their own lives.
What did you notice about the undercurrents of race in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? Have you seen the film or play? Let me know in the comments!