Friday, December 25, 2009
Hole in the Soul--The Tragic Lives of African American Actors in A Christmas Story Part 1: Percy Jones' Story
In keeping with our interviews with such notables as Jesse Jackson, Pat Buchanan, and the irrepressible Brother X-Squared, the We Are Respectable Negroes News Network (WARNNN) is proud to bring you the newest installment in our hard hitting special investigative series.
The movie A Christmas Story has become a new classic. Based upon a collection of short stories by Jean Shephard, what was once a niche movie has become a staple of the holiday season. A Christmas Story is genius in its simplicity: a young boy who only wants a Red Ryder BB gun, the machinations necessary to make this dream come true, and the adventures of an "all American" family as a date with Santa Claus approaches. It is of no small coincidence that A Christmas Story saw a rise in popularity during the Culture Wars of the 1980s--a moment of increasingly toxic and fractured politics. In many ways A Christmas Story is a salve for those heated debates about what America is--and what America is to become in the future. No doubt encouraged by this appeal to a simpler age of Norman Rockwellesque 1940s America (the film itself is set in nondescript Hammond, Indiana)--as well as 24 hour marathons on TNT and TBS--A Christmas Story has generated a huge following that has given birth to conventions, tours of the home featured in the film, and a cottage industry based upon A Christmas Story related memorabilia.
Every holiday season A Christmas Story brings so much joy to so many. What became of its actors? We know that some have been able to parlay their childhood success into some amount of fame as adults. We must ask: What happened to A Christmas Story's African-American actors and actresses? Seemingly lost to history, WARNNN has conducted an expansive search to bring the struggles of these actors to light. While these brave actors and actresses of color are forever linked to what is now an indispensable fixture in American popular culture, as is so often the case they have been denied the success, fame, and wealth earned by their white peers.
WARNNN brings you their story.
Almost invisible, the black characters in A Christmas Story are conspicuous by their absence as central characters. Present on the margins, muted both literally and figuratively, the African-American characters carry a heavy weight on their shoulders as embodiments of the role played by people of color in the American imagination: black Americans are rendered forever present through the fact of their exclusion from the master narrative.
A Christmas Story is set in pre-World War 2, 1940s Indiana, a time when legal segregation and white supremacy were still very much the rule of the land. Thus, A Christmas Story's exclusion of people of color in its vision of American suburban life is to be expected. Not to be denied, several black Americans responded to the casting call for A Christmas Story. They were determined that the presence of black Americans in this nostalgic vision of America's past be acknowledged. These pioneers would not be white washed out of history! However, what these actors would find would be no small amount of struggle...and experiences that would forever impact their lives in the decades to follow.
WARNNN had an extremely difficult time locating the black actors of A Christmas Story. They have seemingly been erased from any record of the film's production and distribution. It was only through a series of interviews with the film's cast, and a poignant confessional by Director Bob Clark (during which he expressed great sorrow at the treatment of African Americans in the film) that WARNNN was able to rediscover these heretofore lost tales of personal tragedy and triumph. There were four black actors in A Christmas Story. What follows is the first of 3 installments on their post A Christmas Story lives.
Percy Jones was the first actor that we were able to locate. Sadly, our ability to find Mr. Jones was made easier by his new identity--inmate number 203157 in Attica State Correctional Facility. While A Christmas Story is Americana come to life, Percy's life story is that of urban America gone wrong. Like so many young men of color caught up in the system, Mr. Jones (the oldest black actor in A Christmas Story) could not escape the sad mix of Hollywood fame, drugs, and the trauma he suffered while filming A Christmas Story.
We scheduled a meeting with Percy during a lazy after Sunday afternoon in November of 2009. Mr. Jones awaited us in the visitor's center. Since his arrest in 1989, he has been a model prisoner. Because of his exemplary status, the guards afforded him some degree of privacy as we were seated in a semi-private area in the corner of the main visitor's room. A tall man, now in his 50s, Percy has a hard earned dignity to his features. Sharply intelligent, yet understated and modest, Percy greets us warmly and with an exhalation of relief, "You came to talk about A Christmas Story? Do I have a story to tell you..."
We began by asking a simple question: How did you end up in Attica?
Percy looked down, "It was a random series of events that were simultaneously unavoidable. A Christmas Story gave me so much, but it also took much more than it gave. I simply couldn't avoid its clutches." He began to spin a story that was at one time utterly predictable, yet imminently fascinating. Percy continued, "I was a hustler, always was. I grew up in Cleveland in the late 1960s, I came of age in the 1970s after the riots. I was running with different gangs, you know all the Black Power groups that fell out with each other and lost the politics and picked up the guns. I got arrested a few times and had an epiphany. I had to get off the streets. I hooked up with my first high school girlfriend and started taking acting classes at the local community college."
At this point, Percy looked nervous and a bit saddened. He looked down to the shoulder of his orange jumpsuit and wiped a tear away from his eye. Percy continued, "the directors of the film were scouting local schools and colleges. They found me. It was immediate. They said they were making this Christmas movie and that I was perfect for a pivotal role. I immediately said yes. I didn't have a SAG card so I had to get one...the film subsidized it. I also got an advance. 1,000 dollars for my appearance. Man, I was so happy. I took my girl out, lord it was nice, we conceived Nichelle that night...she is my daughter. I got my mom a new tv. I brought my lady a necklace and I got a record player cassette player combo for my car. We were living large."
I asked the obvious question, one that often hints at the trouble awaiting Hollywood's newest stars, "did you sign a contract? What about residuals? What about back end money?" Percy looked up at me with heavy eyes, "come on brother, of course not! I didn't know about any of that stuff. So, I got to the set. It was supposed to be 3 days of filming. I thought this was my chance to break out, you know? To bring some dignity to the role I was playing. The wardrobe people walked up to me and sat me down for a fitting. Something wasn't right. I looked at the costumes and they had a black mask, and a striped shirt and some tight pants. I was like come on now, who the hell dresses like this!"
As viewers of A Christmas Story know, Percy is one of the members of the Black Bart gang that attacks Ralphie's home during the pivotal Red Rider BB gun fantasy. This is a key scene in the film that helps to set the stage for the near fetishistic power that Ralphie's Red Ryder BB gun holds over him that holiday season.
"I accepted the role as criminal as par for the course. You see I had a plan, I wasn't some lame who would get played. I was gonna make the role something special. I was gonna be James Cagney in Scarface. The world is mine! The director approached me and said that he wanted me to method act, to go to that dark place I lived in when I was on the streets. To really impute the role is what he called it. That was the beginning, that energy was always there, but I had suppressed it."
This is the moment where Percy's troubles began and A Christmas Story would exact a heavy toll on his well-being and life. Like a junkie remembering his first hit and retelling how he would relapse over and over again...from sobriety to and fro addiction...Percy's relationship with A Christmas Story was that of an unhealthy relationship, toxic, painful, and with an unavoidable ending.
"You see, the role didn't involve any speaking. Nothing at all. I was supposed to jump over this fence and get shot. Man it hurt so bad. They were slave drivers on the set. 3 days became 10 days became 15 days, on and on and on. I didn't know that the contract said they could do this. Of course, they threw me a little more money. But, I was internalizing the pain, you know what I mean? That little white kid kept shooting me with that BB gun. I kept dying over and over again. To add to the humiliation I was the first member of the gang shot. How humiliating. It hurt my soul."
I leaned forward and comforted Percy. His pain was so evident. I was curious, how did his costars feel about this treatment? Did he suffer alone? I carefully extended my hand to his shoulder and asked. "Chauncey, me and the other members of the gang...that is what we were called...were kept separated from the child actors on set. The directors wanted to create a sense of tension and menace about us. We were almost like real criminals. So, we would drink, use drugs...you had to use painkillers to keep doing those damned stunts, and would sleep with the prostitutes and groupies on the set."
Inevitably, the movie shoot would end and Percy Jones returned to the "real world." He would go from job to job. Percy even cut a rap album, "Rapping with A Christmas Story." Sadly, it never sold more than 1,000 units. He was unable to get consistent work in Hollywood on his own. Percy secured an agent but the relationship was not fruitful. Mr. Jones had long spent the 1,000 dollars he earned from his role in A Christmas Story. Nevertheless, A Christmas Story still beckoned to him.
"I would watch the movie every year as it became more and more popular. Each year, I would become more and more enraged. So full of anger. I hoped a check would come, something. Never. I did a little research. Did you know that I was never even in the Screen Actor's Guild? Nope. Those crooks gave me a fake id card so they could exploit me! All that I had was the costume from the movie. I tried to sell it at a pawn shop, but got no takers. This was before Ebay and the Internets. It started to beckon to me, almost talking to me at night. I would lay there in bed next to the wife and that costume would call me. Quite literally it would whisper to me, telling me to man up and get mine."
I knew the ending of the story, but had to ask the inevitable question.
"Brother Chauncey, I did it! They wanted me to be a thug, a criminal again. And I couldn't resist. I put on that damn outfit and mask and got me a gun. Sure as hell did. I went on a rampage. I robbed everybody I could find. I became like a real life version of Omar on the show The Wire. Hell, in Cleveland I was The Ghost of Christmas Past. I was the king and I was putting some coal in your damn stocking!"
In a sad end, Percy Jones explained how he was arrested on Christmas Day, some six months after his crime spree began. High on crack, exhausted, and sleeping on a dirty mattress in a cheap motel, Percy (still in costume) was taken down by the Cleveland police department's SWAT team. Percy Jones, the Black Bart stickup man, became an urban legend. I heard the rumors, the poetic irony of his story had long been on the tongues of folks in Cleveland, so I had to know if the details were true.
"Yup, the rumors were true. I never had a real gun. I used a Red Ryder BB gun--I sawed off the barrel--and robbed folks. They were so scared...my victims had no idea I was playing them. I got 50 years, can you imagine that? I would have actually been better off if I had been using a real burner, at least I could have fought off the cops."
Our time together had come to an end. The prison guard politely motioned towards us that we should end the interview. Percy leaned in, happy to have made a new friend. Yet, his countenance was heavy with thought and reflection..."Tell the people that I am not the only one. Go out and find the other brothers and sisters from A Christmas Story. Trust, I had it comparatively easy. Find the others, what they have gone through will blow your mind! We were struggling, trying to do the right thing for all of the black folk out there. But that damn movie just got us caught in its clutches! Maybe, just maybe, justice will be done if the truth is known."
In our next installment we bring you the story of Little Red Ryder, once an innocent young school child, now a fallen woman...