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John Ford weaves three "Judge Priest" stories together to form a good- natured exploration of honour and small-town politics in the South around the turn of the century. Judge William Priest is involved variously in revealing the real identity of Lucy Lake, reliving his Civil War memories, preventing the lynching of a youth and contesting the elections with Yankee Horace K. Maydew. Written by
Bernard Keane <BKeane2@email.dot.gov.au>
I feel like I have to walk over eggshells to say anything at all about this movie, Ford's remake of his earlier, 1934 Will Rogers vehicle Judge Priest. Both films have some hard-to-take racial stereotypes, first and foremost in the personage of Stepin' Fetchit, who, along with Butterfly McQueen, stand as the ugliest black performers of their era. But the offense doesn't stop there. The Sun Shines Bright contains a plethora of objectionable material, some of which probably well deserves to be objected to, and some of which will be construed as hateful by modern audiences when it really isn't. The story concerns an aging judge running for re-election in Kentucky, somewhere near the Mason-Dixie line around the turn of the 20th Century. Judge Priest is a Confederate veteran, as are many of his friends. They celebrate this with open nostalgia, although there isn't really any hatred between them and those in the county who fought for the North. The main story of the film is of Judge Priest's deep humanity, and his love for all people. There are two main plot threads, that of a lynch mob out to hang a young black man and that of a dying prostitute, who happens to be the long absent mother of one of the town's outstanding young women. Priest must defend the black man from the mob and arrange a dignified funeral for the prostitute, even though it very well could cost him the election. The film's treatment of African Americans seems quite more in tune with the 1930s than the 1950s. The original film, Judge Priest, might be less offensive, actually. Yes, the blacks in that film were caricatures. However, the star of that film, Will Rogers, who famously never met a man he didn't like, seemed more like a friend to the African Americans around him, including Stepin' Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel. He even sings with McDaniel at one point. Priest in that film seems something of an outcast from the whites; they respect him, even love him, but he is not exactly one of them. In The Sun Shines Bright, Priest spends most of his time with his fellow veterans. Stepin' Fetchit is there most of the time, too (he even attends a veterans' meeting with a gray cap on his head), but he and Priest don't seem like buddies. Fetchit is his servant. Even though Fetchit and McDaniel were also his servants in the earlier version, like I said, they seemed more like friends. When Judge Priest helps out the African Americans of his county in the later version, his actions seem more patronizing than friendly. He is the father figure to every black person. At the end of the film, it almost seems like they're worshiping him. Worse yet, when the election is held, we see everyone vote except for the blacks. It's not even implied that they have already voted. Despite these very important problems, The Sun Shines Bright is a very good film that would indeed inspire a deep love for humanity long before it would ever inspire bigotry. I would never dismiss the problems of the film, but I think that what it accomplishes is much more valuable than what most would damn it for. 9/10.
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