Purlie Victorious (aka Gone are the Days!)

It’s hard to deny the accusation of systemic racism in Hollywood when you watch a film like Purlie Victorious– it’s such a sharp criticism of America, done in such a hilarious way, and so clearly still-relevant today that the only answer to the question why have I never heard of this great movie? is so clearly: Racism.

Purlie Victorious was a 1961 play written by the great Ossie Davis, back then a young, budding actor and writer married to the equally great Ruby Dee- both Spike Lee mainstays in their later years. Watching this wonderful film, it’s pretty clear why Lee has included this duo so often in his work- they are both amazing actors with incredible chemistry together, and they are pioneers of African American cinema, blazing the trail which Lee himself benefitted from decades later. Seeing them shine on film here, young and brash and brilliant, is half the fun.

But the other half is even more important: watching a vicious indictment of hundreds of years of mistreatment in the form of a sitcomish satire, painful because the jokes are so true. When Lutiebelle (Dee) refuses to play along with a scheme that Victorious (Davis) has cooked up, he retorts: “Why not? Some of the best pretending in the world is done in front of White Folks!” The play is full of clever lines like that, which are funny on the surface and deeply painful when you stop to think about the implications.

Brilliant, too, are the White actors who were gutsy enough to star in an All-Black production in 1963- Sorrell Booke, better known as the Dukes of Hazzard’s Boss Hog, plays a proto-Hog here, in full satirical mode. He must have had a blast portraying the cartoonishly racist Captain Stonewall who just can’t wrap his head around these modern Negroes with their desire for integration and respect. His longing for the good ol’ days and completely ignorant nostalgia for slavery (and Negroes who knew their place) is almost endearing, despite the ugliness behind the joke. That ugliness is balanced by his son, Charlie- a kindhearted lad who was basically raised by their Negro servants and represents the young and liberal White culture that embraced civil rights, open to all sorts of ideas the old guard could not accept. Alan Alda plays Charlie, and Purlie Victorious happens to be his cinematic debut; though his Southern accent isn’t the greatest, you can see his affable persona already budding here to great comic effect.

But the real star here remains the script. The white folks, in some ways, get the best lines, because they’re the easiest to ridicule: “The meat is tainted. It’s also a little wormy.” “Well, then sell it to the negroes!” Or “I’ve been telling these negroes for years- go to school! Take a couple of courses in advanced cotton picking! You think any one of them have listened to me?” Jokes about wearing blackface, the confederate flag, and lynchings are all over this film- Davis pulls no punches and spares no historical expense at pointing out the suffering of his people through comedy, a style so obviously emulated by Lee decades later. When Purlie gets pushed too far one night and storms out of his house looking for a fight, you can pretty much see Lee lifting that entire scene and dropping it into the climax of Do the Right Thing.

I remember watching Spike Lee’s Bamboozled when it came out thinking the premise was clever but lacked the satirical brilliance to make the film work; Purlie Victorious is what Bamboozled would have been had it worked. (Watching Bamboozled again recently, it’s actually a better film than I had originally given credit for, but it’s still nowhere as well-written as Purlie.) Even with it’s limited budget and theatrical staging (sometimes it’s less a movie and more a filmed play) Purlie Victorious is exactly what it needs to be: a funny, frightening, sweet, bitter expression of what it’s like to be Black in America in 1961, or 2021, or, sadly, probably, 2061.

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