There’s a scene in the film Kind Hearts and Coronets that has troubled me for a while, and I’m not sure how to address it.
The bit occurs toward the end in a dialogue between debonair serial killer Louis Mazzini, who has murdered all of the members of his estranged D’Ascoyne family in line to inherit the dukedom before him, and Sibella, his conniving mistress, who has framed him for the supposed killing of her husband. Mazzini (played by Dennis Price), now behind bars, is asked by Sibella (Joan Greenwood) if he remembers the nursery rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo,” which—in the form depicted in the movie—features an atrocious, offensive term used pejoratively to describe someone who is black. Both characters say the word, equating it with the people Mazzini has dispatched … something Sibella insinuates as part of her realization that his rapid rise to nobility isn’t natural.
So this is an issue. It’s a crucial scene, and the two protagonists, whom we’ve followed throughout the film, make these remarks in the casual way reserved for people lacking even a cursory understanding of racial sensitivity. Yet these are protagonists, not villains, and despite their despicable actions, also have likable qualities—ones that are essential to the film’s watchability.
Can we separate these traits from each other? Must we view them as either good or bad? I’m reminded of the mobster in The Godfather who is repulsed by the idea of selling drugs near schools but has no compunction about doing so to African-Americans and letting them “lose their souls.” He was a cut-and-dry villain, and the movie points that out. But Mazzini and Sibella are textured, flawed; their traits are mixed. Racism is one of their worst ones. Does that preclude us from enjoying their adventures as a whole?
One alternative is rooting for the characters such as the movie’s callous duke, who’s much worse, so that’s out. Another, however, is the affable, photography-mad nobleman who has done nothing wrong and is blown up in his lab by Mazzini. We’re forced to disagree with this decision and laugh at the incredible villainy, so perhaps we don’t have a choice.
And maybe that’s what bothers me so much—not being free to decide for myself whom to like or dislike. The movie makes the choice for us and does so ingeniously. One can make the argument that the offensive dialogue is in character and in keeping with the era in which the film takes place, but I wonder if that’s enough. Does that legitimize its use?
It’s a question I’ll need to continue asking as long as I watch and rewatch the film. Only great pictures deserve that kind of inquiry.