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22 November 2009

The Mail Is Always On Time In Pleasantville

In Pleasantville everything is . . . er, pleasant. Moms are home makers and caregivers. They cook and clean and smile a lot. Dads are the wage earners and rule makers. They wear slippers and smoke pipes while they read the newspaper. Everyone is nice and polite. Everything is clean. Everything is black and white. All is pleasant in Pleasantville.

Bud tries to fit in but Mary-Sue rebels against the oppressive pleasantness. Mary-Sue’s raucous behavior upsets just about everyone. When her unpleasant behavior results in a little color creeping into the town of Pleasantville, some people take steps to stamp it out. They like Pleasantville just the way it is. Needless to say, they are ultimately unsuccessful. More and more people embrace their new world as the color spreads across the landscape. There are those citizens of Pleasantville who are shocked and afraid of the changes that are taking place in their pleasant little black and white world.

Pleasantville starts out in monochrome and ends up in glorious full color, but it is an obviously White film. There are no Black people in Pleasantville – not one single person with dark skin. So, is this film an indictment of the racism and bigotry evident in 1950s television in America? Does the fear and rejection by the monochrome people toward those who have color in their skin represent the bigotry toward people of “color” in America? Does the film mock the complete naiveté of the Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet genre of what passed for television entertainment more than fifty years ago? It doesn’t take long to recognize where the film is going and how it will all end. Equally predictable is the behavior of the characters and the division that results once color starts to bloom in the cheeks of a few townsfolk. The only people who remain colorless are the town leaders. Segregation, violence and rioting soon breaks out in Pleasantville. The result is their world is forever changed. Brilliant color envelopes Pleasantville despite the best efforts of the town leaders.

The absence of Black people in Pleasantville is deliberate. There were no Black people in Ozzie and Harriet or in Father Knows Best. During that time in America, Black families were not exactly welcome to actually live in lovely American suburbs. The film back-doors the issue of fear of change and racial prejudice in America by distracting the audience with dated characters and charming scenery.

I live in Pleasantville. The hedges are neatly trimmed. There is no crabgrass growing on the lawns. All my neighbors have a big American Flag on the front of their houses. All the mailboxes are the same dark green. Every house looks just like the one next door. Everyone has a back lawn picnic table and a garage. In my Pleasantville we are the only people with color. No one has thrown a bench through our window, but we haven’t been invited to dinner by our neighbors either. The little blond hair, blue eyed girl next door doesn’t play with our kid. No one bothers us, but no one wants to get to know us either. Sometimes I feel separated, segregated if you will, from this community. You know the feeling you get when people are polite but you know you aren’t welcome?

The film would not work if there were Black people living in Pleasantville. The film is an examination of the mindset of a segment of White America. Black people would be a distraction and a curiosity. Much like we seem to be a curiosity in my Pleasantville. My neighbors speak only when spoken to, and then only in the briefest of pleasantries.

“What are we going to do, Bob?”
‘Well, we’re safe for now. Thank goodness we're in a bowling alley."

The world is perfect in Pleasantville.
Everyone always smiles.
The high school basketball team wins every game.
Mom always has dinner on the table when Dad comes home.
All the girls are virgins.
Everyone looks the same.
And the mail is always on time in Pleasantville.

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