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Friday, April 19, 2019

Beyond the Canon: Sidewalk Stories + The Kid

It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white, male auteur. Beyond the Canon is a monthly series that seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion. This month’s double feature pairs Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories (1989) with Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921).

By Jourdain Searles

Cinema informs our hearts, guiding our sympathies towards those who reflect ourselves and the people we want to be. This is largely why American cinema skews so often towards whiteness—showcasing white faces, bolstering the concept of white identity as the everyman, the default, and ultimately the most sympathetic. It remains a medium dominated by white creatives who instinctively create narratives that reflect their understanding of the world.

It can be assumed that in 1921 white audiences looked upon Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid and saw their fathers, sons, or the fathers and sons they never had. The Kid was perhaps one of the first family-oriented comedic tearjerkers. In it, a tramp (Chaplin) finds an abandoned child (Jackie Coogan) and raises him as his own. Then the child’s mother (Edna Purviance) appears, complicating their way of life. As per the classic storytelling structure, the tramp is reluctant at first to take on the kid, but by the end of the film, he can’t live without him. Neither can we—as the film ends, our minds wander into fan fiction: What kind of man will the kid become? Will he become someone like his surrogate father? When he’s older, will that closeness fade between him and the tramp?

The Kid
There is no question that The Kid is a masterpiece. But it also cannot be denied that the film’s enduring legacy is partially down to its whiteness, cementing its mainstream appeal for generations to come. The remainder of the film’s success rests on the shoulders of Chaplin, an auteur with a keen eye for delivering and producing sympathetic, layered performances, with a heart firmly rooted in the trials and tribulations of the underclass.

It makes sense that black director Charles Lane easily applied the structure and pathos of The Kid to his debut feature Sidewalk Stories (1989), a (mostly) silent, black-and-white comedic drama about a young, homeless street painter played by Lane (The Artist, as he is named in the credits), the little girl he takes on as a surrogate daughter (Nicole Alysia), and the professional black woman (Sandye Wilson) with whom he strikes up a surprising relationship that transcends economic boundaries.

Sidewalk Stories debuted at Cannes, where it reportedly received a standing ovation, before promptly fading into prolonged, unfair obscurity—it was unavailable on home video in the US until 2013. In addition to a general lack of industrial support for black independent filmmakers, perhaps the film’s unflinching, all-too-real depiction of a struggling underclass contributed to its prolonged lack of play. Wrenchingly poignant and unafraid to depict an accurate, soul-crushing portrayal of homeless life in New York City, the film shows The Artist and his poor community living parallel to the wealthy in Manhattan—with their long, expensive coats and self-assured, eyes-forward strides, they do their best to strategically avoid those calling out for help around them. And the film's plot is catalyzed by a brutal, frankly presented murder and mugging—the father of The Artist's surrogate daughter is on the wrong end of a knifing.

Sidewalk Stories

Arguably Sidewalk Stories’ most profound revisionist success is that it asks audiences to care for the well-being of society’s most ignored child: the little black girl. After all, since The Kid premiered to rave reviews in 1921, audiences have become accustomed to the cinematic white child—an adorable precocious moppet that is the embodiment of white innocence (with his expressive eyes and pinchable cheeks, Coogan became American film’s first child star and thus the primary archetype for children onscreen.) In Sidewalk Stories, it’s Alysia—Lane’s real-life daughter; undeniably cute, with natural pluck and an affectionate nature—who is the focal point. She instantly attaches herself to The Artist and trusts him with her whole heart. He, in turn, adores her with an intensity that surprises even himself. Through the role of protector and provider, he finds himself—imbuing this lost-and-found classic with a transcendentally powerful, personal-political undertow.

Join us for Beyond the Canon on Sun, Apr 28 at 2pm

Jourdain Searles is a critic and screenwriter who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer, MTV News, and Paste Magazine.

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