the little rascals, originally known as Our Gang, have stirred up irresistible trouble ever since the short comedies debuted on silent film in 1922. Chubby and scrawny, bossy and sweet, black and white: The producer, Hal Roach, saw to it that his posse of children was motley. Bob McGowan, the avuncular director, made sure the crew never ran out of hijinks. How about a firecracker in a birthday cake?
A succession of young actors took it from there. Winning over audiences of all colors and ages, they made the transition to talkies. In the 1950s, the films were repackaged for TV. Re-edited versions and movie remakes followed.
All along, the African American stars were making bigger mischief, too, as Julia Lee reveals in her agile and insightful cultural history. A professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, she relishes the deeply mixed messages embedded in, and extracted from, the films’ vision of racially integrated childhood.
Our Gang, born and bred in the Jim Crow era, played to pickaninny stereotypes, and also parodied the KKK. (Cluck Cluck Klams was the kids’ club.) Down the decades, the series continued to fuel, and flout, fantasies and anxieties as Americans wrestled with integration, multiculturalism, and post-racial hopes. But for kids, fun was always high on the agenda. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. appreciates in his foreword, Lee (a childhood fan herself) never forgets that.