Murder by Death's problematic depictions don't detract from its fun quotient; or do they?

Kuzhali Manickavel

Nov 05, 2019 09:43:29 IST

'Allegedly Problematic' is a monthly column by Kuzhali Manickavel, which takes a cheeky look at literary/cultural offerings from the past that would now be considered, well, problematic — and asks, 'But are they really?'.

Read more from the series here.


When looking for things to whine about on the internet, it is always best to look to the past. The past veritably brims with soft targets that no one cares about, which are problematic in ways no one cares about either. If you’re really lucky, you might find something which is not only a soft target, but also a bit on the obscure side. In this column, we are going to focus on a movie many people have not heard of, called Murder By Death.

Written by Neil Simon and released in 1976, it is essentially a silly movie that does not try to be anything other than a silly movie. This comedy parodies a number of characters and themes found in some of the more famous whodunits. Poirot, Miss Marple, Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles are all spoofed. It features well-known actors, a ridiculous murder mystery and is funny and problematic at the same time. The easiest thing to do right now would be to don our flowery caps of righteous indignation and battle the social evils of our time by picking this movie apart.

I’m not sure how to do that though, because I actually love this movie. I love it to bits. I loved it as a child. When I watched it as an adult, I tut-tutted appropriately at all the problematic moments and still loved it to bits. Unlike Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I am looking forward to watching this again even though I just watched it recently. I know much of the dialogue by heart and will often say some lines out loud, for no reason at all. I am aware of its flaws but I still think it’s a great movie.

 Murder by Deaths problematic depictions dont detract from its fun quotient; or do they?

Still from Murder by Death, 1976

Having said that, I’m not sure if this is a movie I would watch with just anyone. I don’t know if I would necessarily recommend it (I have also just gone on the internet and admitted I love this movie. So there’s that.) When it comes to Murder By Death, I’m profoundly guilty of saying things like 'Sure it’s racist/homophobic, but-', which is basically a roundabout way of saying yes I enjoy this problematic thing but I tut-tut at the right places and know those are bad so it’s fine.

I guess the problem is in the tut-tutting. Peter Sellers in brown face in The Party warrants an entire column to lament racism on the big screen. But Peter Sellers in yellow face in Murder By Death is only worth a tut-tut? Admittedly, that’s not very fair but this is often what happens when people make fun of someone else instead of Indians — suddenly, it’s not such a big deal anymore. In the movie, Sellers plays Inspector Sidney Wang, a parody of the famous detective Charlie Chan.

Great pains are taken to ensure that Sellers is as oriental as possible. His moustache, his eyes, the way he dresses and most of all, the way he speaks is intended to convey the fact that he is “Chinese”, in that strange way that Hollywood often defines what it means to be Chinese. And as is the way with most things Hollywood, the powers that be also decided that the best way to portray this oh-so-Chinese character would be to use a Caucasian dude. Wang’s English and the way the others criticise it forms the basis for most of the jokes in the movie. In many ways, it’s a run-of-the-mill racist stereotype that has been done many times before and for some reason, is even done today.

It’s worth noting however that Charlie Chan, the character that Wang parodies, is just as problematic. Wang almost seems like a caricature of the racist stereotype, endlessly spouting ancient Chinese proverbs and stories, with an almost dogged determination not to use pronouns, prepositions or articles. And there’s something else — Wang’s adopted son Willy. Unlike his father, he speaks “normally”, dresses normally and is probably the most normal character in the whole movie. He’s even portrayed by an Asian actor. It is strange to see this kind of portrayal, side-by-side with such a problematic one. But I guess it just goes to show that it is possible not to be a jerk about these things.

In our next column, we will take a look at the other problematic nuggets in this cinematic extravaganza!

Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of the short story collections 'Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings' and 'Things We Found During the Autopsy', both available from Blaft Publications

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Updated Date: Nov 06, 2019 09:22:43 IST