There were two very important things I learned from “My Cousin Vinny.” First, I never realized how badly my life needed Ralph Macchio with a New York accent before today, and second, the movie drew attention to the issue of racial discrimination in the South. At first, I wasn’t sure if the racial placements of black people in subservient positions was intentional or not until a pivotal moment in the movie where Mr. Trotter (the Third), the prosecutor, is making his opening statement to the jury. He states, “Truth. That’s what ‘verdict’ means. It’s a word comes down from old England…and all our little old ancestors.” As he finishes feeding the jury his lines, the camera lands on a black juror. The truth had immediate impact on me as the preceding scenes boasted images of Confederate flags, black stereotyping of apparently poor old men wasting their days gossiping on a town bench, a black mechanic nobody takes academically seriously, and a black cook working behind the counter at a diner. It shocked me to see how many black actors and actresses had been placed in submissive positions until halfway through the movie. The directors, intentionally or not, treated the black characters like side quests in a video game. They felt very optional to me, even though they held the answers to solving the case. For example, the black mechanic warned them that tires get stuck in the mud, an imperative point in the case that was mocked by the main white characters initially upon arrival into town, and the chef told them how grits were cooked, also an imperative detail passed through the cook and communicated to Vinny Gambini, the defense lawyer, that proved the “witness” had lied about his timeline to pin the guilt of the case on two boys he presumed were guilty of the crime. Vinny didn’t take their words into serious consideration until the time proved useful to him. He waited until the opportune time to claim their knowledge as his own for the betterment of his status in the legal community, which did not even exist until Vinny’s female fiancé called in a favor to a friend. The lack of acceptance and acknowledgement of feminism and the lack of recognition of women as intellectual equals in this movie infuriates me, but that is a topic for another day.
I would like to flash back to the courtroom scene where the words “…old England…and all our little old ancestors…” hung ominously in the air before the face of a black juror. Black people, originally aboriginal Africans, were brought to the English colonies in the early 1600s by white colonists. Back then, African-Americans’ opinions and beliefs were treated like secondhand smoke—diseased and undesired (https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-milestones).
However, the knowledge of these black characters held the answers to the court case. They offered minute details to the defense attorney that none other held. They knew the process behind the acclaimed facts, but nobody believed them because of the color of their skin. Even in modern pop culture, black characters are treated as humorous reprieves rather than morally autonomous characters who offer intellectual continuance of the conversations being held at the white tables.
Particularly in the South, many white people to this day see black people as poor descendants of slaves who picked cotton and were nothing more than the dirt on their field clothes while quite-the-opposite-movement was happening—one of financial, physical, and academic freedom. The color of one’s skin, contrary to popular belief, did not determine the intelligence in one’s brain. There was great irony and acknowledgment in not accepting black education in the South. The movie was filmed in 1991, but the Confederate flag, the ultimate symbol of black oppression, wasn’t removed from Alabama’s statehouse grounds until 2015 according to The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/06/24/alabama-governor-has-confederate-flag-removed-from-state-capitol-grounds/). While white Alabama citizens were not willing to accept that black people had inherent independent freedom, they were denying it from people as free as their white selves. They were equals, yet the white people of the Southern state could not accept this.
It was extremely disheartening to see black people treated as inferiors, even as recently as 1991, in films because equality should be acknowledged throughout the U.S. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world or country, and while I wish I could lead a crusade through North America, I appreciate the attention the directors drew to the concept of racism through this movie. Do I think they could have done a better job at making the black characters less of secondhand novelties? Absolutely. Do I appreciate the attention they were trying to draw to the unconstitutional treatment of blacks in America? Without a doubt. I believe a finer balance could have been reached, but I truly believe their hearts were in the right place. National attention needed to be diverted to rural America where slavery was still an accepted idea, even though it was no longer practiced. Just because something is no longer practiced does not mean it is no longer believed.
One thought on “Pop Culture Assignment / “My Cousin Vinny””
It is really interesting to consider how this film – which ostensibly is about a cultural clash between New Yorkers and Alabamians – chooses to represent race in the Alabama courtroom (and in a small Alabama town) in the 1990s. This is also a decade during which a lot of big studio films about the Civil Rights Movement get made – “Mississippi Burning,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” etc. And the 1962 “To Kill a Mockingbird” film adaptation is such an iconic portrayal of the Alabama courtroom – it’s dated by 1991, but still looms so large in our cultural imagination. “My Cousin Vinny” is very conspicuously not about that history, and indeed seems to be presenting the local community as a united front in the face of its Brooklyn visitors. It strikes me that that presentation only works if the visitors are distinctly Italian American – that is, they have their own ethnicity that sets them apart and becomes a focal point that draws attention away from disaggregating the Southern town. I absolutely love “Vinny,” but it really is interesting to think about what it takes in order for a film about law in the South to be light and funny!