Duncan Sisters as Eva and Topsy

The Duncan Sisters as Eva and Topsy

The following video is from a 1935 two-reel movie:


Prior to the movie, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was adopted into a musical titled, Topsy and Eva, one sister playing Eva and the other in black face playing Topsy. In these roles, the sisters grew to be performance royalty. Topsy and Eva became a traveling, eventually appearing on Broadway. In the 1930s, new songs were added and the show was revived twice and again in the 1940s. The sisters continued to play the roles into the 1950s, so the story’s popularity is undeniable.

A silent film was made based off the stage play, however, it did not have much commercial success. I am most interested in D.W. Griffith’s involvement with movie, as he worked as the final editor. Griffith is considered to be the Father of Film, however his racist and excitatory films such as Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation, are catalysts and permission givers for racist hate groups and some of the most violent crimes committed on American soil. I wonder what is interest was in a show like Topsy and Eva. Was it a cinematic interest? An opportunity for further mockery of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s message? Were the two characters of any interest to him? These seem to be important questions as, historically, Griffith had such a knack for inciting the spread of intensely divisive and fear ridden emotions. From those emotions rose sentiments that have since shaped the legal, social, infrastructural, and cultural institutions that have negatively impacted race relations in the United States.

Today, media’s psychological influence can thank Griffith for his introduction of imagery. Images, especially those that move, reimagine scenarios and often it can be hard to separate those images from reality/truth. They are stuck, engrained, and determined to color every thought with their presence.

Topsy is a fictional character, but her presentation in the novel and in works like the one above, influence the way the viewers regard children of color. Children of color, in turn, change the way they view themselves, wonder at what’s even possible for them, accept that maybe foolishness is acceptable, dream smaller, believe they are less, etc.

The visual impact of this video is serious and detrimental to both the mocked and the spectator. However, the historical memory of such films and imagery has inspired art that counters Griffith’s spirit, art I hope to uphold in my reimagining of Topsy.

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