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Colorization of the Grapes of Wrath

migrant-motherI think it’s time to colorize The Grapes of Wrath. And I don’t mean the Turner Classics process exactly. It may help to dumb down the artistic contrast of the black & white for a contemporary audience palate of splashy Disneycolor, but how about trying to make Steinbeck’s theme more accessible to today’s spoon-fed viewers? Let’s colorize the skin of the poor migrant workers to reflect the inhumanly-treated populations of today’s displaced im-migrants of color.

I can’t remember where I come down on colorizing the old movies. No one’s insisted on infusing CMYK into Ansel Adams or Picasso’s sketchbook, why are masterpieces filmed in black and white supposed to be pigment deficient? We don’t presume to dub dialog over the silent movies made before the age of the talkies. As yet. Of course, Ted Turner was concerned for reviving interest in old intellectual properties, many of which were already in-artful. And perhaps his salesmanship maneuver has been proven effective. When my family sat down to watch Grapes of Wrath, the grey image tuned a number of youthful eyes away.

Like Dorothea Lange’s famous photographs, John Ford’s film depicted disadvantaged Okies with whom the American audience could identify. We may not know what it feels like to be forced off our homes, but how the families cope with the hardship, we all can recognize. I’m curious how the film was received by Californians in 1940, coming less than ten years after the original plague of destitute Oklahoma refugees. How would the characters have faired with our sympathies if they had been played as coarse hillbilly Crackers with guns and a poor person’s chip-on-the-shoulder desperation?

The poor protagonists of The Grapes of Wrath were weakened skinny po-folk, who staked their relief on the strength of a single hopeful job listing flyer, who protested their oppression without resorting to violence, and who accepted hardship as their lot. Seeing into their daily lives, viewers were shown a dignified, earnest people who treated others with respect and compassion. Antagonist characters in the film were less charitable, taking advantage of the hard-luck migrants with guile, violence and authority. People into which the Oklahoma refugees traveled, New Mexico, Arizona and California, treated the migrants like vermin. Even as onlookers might express admiration for the Okies’ determination to cross Death Valley, the better fed Californians held them in disdain for not knowing enough to be in such a predicament. The Okies were blamed for their own poverty. They threatened to burden everyone’s already depleting resources. Only the viewers understood the unfair actions which had landed the otherwise self-sufficient sharecroppers to have to leave their livelihoods.

The circumstances of the Dust Bowl cum great depression era forced removal of the small Oklahoma farmers is eerily familiar to today’s economy and its foreclosures. Homesteaders find themselves made homeless, as a consequence of business decisions between corporations, banks and regulators. The Oklahoma farmers wanted to point their shotguns to warn the financial disruptors from their land, but found the conduits of the dirty work were their own neighbors and relatives. Everyone was merely following orders from someone higher up. That the system could be at fault, left the victims with no clear recourse.

Here’s the classic eviction exchange.

THE MAN
I can’t help that. All I know is I got my orders.
They told me to tell you you got to get off,
and that’s what I’m telling you.

MULEY
You mean get off my own land?

THE MAN
Now don’t go blaming me. It ain’t *my* fault.

SON
Whose fault is it?

THE MAN
You know who owns the land–the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company.

MULEY
Who’s the Shawnee Land and Cattle Comp’ny?

THE MAN
It ain’t nobody. It’s a company.

SON
They got a pres’dent, ain’t they?
They got somebody that knows what a shotgun’s for, ain’t they?

THE MAN
But it ain’t *his* fault, because the *bank* tells him what to do.

SON
All right. Where’s the bank?

THE MAN
Tulsa. But what’s the use of picking on him?
He ain’t anything but the manager, and half crazy hisself,
trying to keep up with his orders from the east!

MULEY
Then who *do* we shoot?

THE MAN
Brother, I don’t know. If I did I’d tell you.
But I just don’t know *who’s* to blame!

There was a lot more in The Grapes of Wrath which could inform a modern world view. The dreaded “Cats” for example. These were the Caterpillar tractors which were shown ravaging the land like locusts, arriving to demolish the houses of the reluctant dispossessed. Bulldozers are still used for that function today. In fact, Caterpillar manufactures armored versions to deploy in war zones for the destruction of houses. Palestinians have shown to be less reluctant than the poor Okies about trying to shoot the bulldozer drivers who are taking aim at their homes. Israel is expanding its settlements in Palestine with the aid of Caterpillar tractors which clear the land of its recalcitrant invadees.

Likewise, the union busting strategies portrayed in Grapes of Wrath are the same used today. Police officers are called in when work supervisors encounter workers who show too much skepticism for the employer’s scam. Troublemakers are arrested lest the workforce succeed in organizing itself. Instigators are paid to infiltrate a social event and start a fight, to give law enforcement the excuse to break in and make its calculated arrests. Casual viewers may think the famous 1939 film depicts a bygone age. Not at all.

Director John Ford made sure that the Okie migrants were deathly skinny, while everyone else, from gas station attendants to deputized union-busters, was immaculately dressed and well fed. But the audience could identify with both sides, because both were white. Imagine if the displaced peoples were not the same color.

Today’s migrant workers are hispanic. They are illegal immigrants, just like Okies passing through the Arizona checkpoint in Steinbeck’s novel.

GUARD
Where you going?

TOM
California.

GUARD
How long you plan to be in Arizona?

TOM
No longer’n we can get acrost her.

GUARD
Got any plants?

TOM
No plants.

GUARD
Okay. Go ahead, but you better keep movin’.

Could a modern audience appreciate the travails of a Mexican family in an exact same predicament? Mexican farmers have been forced from their land in an even less polite manner today. They have similar claim to their homesteads, some of them even have indigenous claims. But American and Mexican corporate interests have been forcing the Mexicans to flee. The migration north is not about seeking fortune; picking lettuce it most certainly is not. The work our illegal immigrants are willing to do is out of desperation and subsistence. Corporate America reserves our agricultural work for migrants because it’s cheaper. Otherwise American citizens have devised unions to ensure that workers are paid an honorable wage. Exploitation of the illegal immigrant is simply a bypass of decent labor practices meant to protect everyone.

In selfish, protectionist terms, hiring illegal immigrants undermines the strength of unionized labor. Ultimately the exploitation of others dehumanizes us all.

I wish Americans could see The Grapes of Wrath as a projection of the ongoing injustices suffered by all exploited migrants. As well-fed American citizens leading prosperous lives, wouldn’t it be our responsibility to help the victims of our system? Instead, we are those cold-hearted leather-jacketed Californians herding them into lives of slow death by hard labor and starvation.

The Grapes of Wrath offered a strong Socialist message, disguised in a protagonist who did not yet have all the answers. Before setting out to light the way, Henry Fonda’s character says this to his mom:

TOM
…maybe I can do sump’n. Maybe I can jus’ fin’ out sump’n.
Jus’ scrounge aroun’ an’ try to fin’ out what it is that’s wrong,
an then see if they ain’t sump’n could be done about it.
But I ain’t thought it out clear, Ma. I can’t.
I don’t know enough.

MA
How’m I gonna know ’bout you?
They might kill you an’ I wouldn’t know.
They might hurt you. How’m I gonna know?

TOM
Well, maybe it’s like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul
of his own, but on’y a piece of a big soul–the one big soul
that belongs to ever’body–an’ then…
Then it don’t matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark.
I’ll be ever’where–wherever you look. Wherever there’s
a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.
Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.
I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad
–an’ I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re
hungry an’ they know supper’s ready.
An’ when our people eat the stuff they raise,
an’ live in the houses they build, why, I’ll be there too.

I had to see The Grapes of Wrath in high school. It was required. Are schools today trying to infuse students with social wisdom? How about a Grapes Redux starring people of color? Imagine this closing line, spoken by a dark skinned mother, about the hardship that is her people’s fate:

MA
…Maybe that makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But we keep a-comin’. We’re the people that live. Can’t nobody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa. We’re the people.

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