That Casablanca finished first several years ago in a poll of critics designed to select the greatest screenplays in the history of cinema is not altogether surprising. I wouldn’t place it this high. I might give a nod to Lubitsch’s Ninotchka or Naruse’s Floating Weeds or Ozu’s Late Spring. Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle has a film length voice-over narration which is invincible, but the film itself is a failure, which is to say that the screenplay fails. Nonetheless, Casablanca always charms me.
But there is a moment in the film which always rankles me. And despite the fact that white supremacy and anti-Black racism were at that time more profoundly rooted socio-historical, socio-psychological, and socio-linguistic structures than they are today, I’ve never been able to explain how this moment could have been placed in the film or even more why this moment was not expunged at some point prior to the film’s release. No matter how many times I might try to think it was a question of a “convention of the time”—and I don’t think it would have necessarily been a convention amongst those who wrote the screenplay—an explanation eludes me. Certainly the easy explanations don’t satisfy me or to whatever degree they do, they become exonerations and I don’t think there should be any exoneration here at all. Could I say that from one point of view or from one significant affective and one significant affective-ideational place within me this moment could vitiate my good will for the film? That it doesn’t really do so bothers me even though I understand the inescapable polyvalent simultaneity of human experience and of human thoughts and emotions.
Ilsa Lund has entered Rick’s club with her husband, Victor Laszlo. She sees Sam—whom she had known well in Paris—at the piano and wants him to come join her. She asks a waiter: “Could you ask the boy at the piano to come over here?” Doubtless, the point is obvious and perhaps so obvious that it will considered tedious. But the tedium will appear as such only to those caught in the vortex of cynical reason’s proliferations or in the vortex of that reactionary and delusional notionality held and trumpeted by right-wing opinion wherein all references to continuing or past socio-linguistic instantiations of domination, racism, and denigrations of African humanity are considered to be anachronistic and/or divisive. But the obviousness of the point in question is rendered neither null nor illegitimate just because there are a million other instances in past—and in present—cultural productions and in cinematic history where there are indignities and infelicities in relation to people of African ancestry, to people of color, etc. Still, no matter what prolepses, no matter what anticipations to objections in advance I might or have employed, I can immediately hear the inevitable retort to my displeasure at the existence in the film of the nominative, “boy”. According to this retort the nominative’s use was simply a function of the fact that the film dates from l942 (the film was proposed to Warner Brothers on December 8, l941). This inevitable retort is impatient—and pre-fabricated—because for it there is no matter to raise, no discussion to be had. Convention and past but not present history rule—and explain all.
But who in the United States in l942 used the word “boy” with reference to an African-American man? Millions certainly. More. It was conventional usage—and thereby the willed usage of domination—in the South and amongst millions of others in non-southern states and across class and ethnic lines too. Yet, it was not a universal convention and it was not a conventional usage amongst a significant portion of the country’s population, indeed in significant portions of the country and population it was understood as a pejorative, even a pejorative of the first order, and was condemned.
It must immediately be considered that the usage makes no sense at all given the character who utters it. Ilsa is someone with left-wing views (not liberal, but rather left-wing). These views would have as an important component a condemnation of ethnic and racial domination and prejudice (which is not to say that all leftists at the time, European or American—or at any time, past or present—were or have been immune from racism and prejudice or lapses in this regard). Her husband, Victor Laszlo, is, given his status as an anti-Nazi resistance leader, almost certainly a communist, if that is one were to extrapolate the most probable scenario from the film’s objective significations. And the man she is in love with is (or was) almost certainly a communist, given that he had been an American volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (the majority of whose members were of communist affiliation), the American brigade within the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War against the fascist army of Franco. Moreover, one could easily speculate that Sam himself was a Spanish Civil War volunteer and combatant, given that there were a significant number of African Americans who went to fight in Spain (or as in the case of several women, volunteered to serve as nurses there), and that it was in Spain that Rick and Sam formed their friendship (or maybe they even volunteered together and had already been friends in New York). Of course one could vis-a-vis the origin of the friendship of Sam and Rick also imagine that in l938, when the International Brigades were disbanded by the Spanish Republic (the Republic desperately hoping that this move could win them—impossible and naive hope—aid from western countries), Rick made his way to Paris and there met an expatriate American jazz musician, Sam, and that they became friends. I prefer to think they became friends in Spain—or even already in New York.