Is 'The Great Gatsby's' Great Secret That He's Actually A Black Man?
Photo Credit: S & A

Is 'The Great Gatsby's' Great Secret That He's Actually A Black Man?


Next month the fourth film version to date of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby comes out with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead, directed

by Baz Luhrmann. And if it’s

anything like Luhrmann’s previous films, such as Moulin Rouge and Australia, and judging from the trailers for his new film, then his Gatsby is going to be

simplistic, way over-the-top and insanely manic with not one shot lasting over

5 seconds. It’s going to be a Great Gatsby for 14 year olds with extreme attention

deficit disorder.

And also since Luhrmann’s version is going to be all CGI’d and in 3D as

well, it’s going to be even more unbearable.

But if you still intend on seeing the film when it comes

out, I, at least, have something for you to keep in mind while you’re watching it that might keep it interesting.

In Fitzgerald’s novel we’re purposely not told a lot

about Gatsby. He’s a cipher (something that was pretty well conveyed in the 1974

film version with Robert Redford written by Francis Ford Coppola). He’s fabulously wealthy and claims he inherited his money from his deceased

parents. Though, late in the book, towards the end, his still alive father is introduced

who turns out to be a simple, poor man from the Midwest. 

Perhaps he’s a bootlegger and a gambler involved in fixing sports events, but it’s never exactly clear what he’s

involved in. One thing for sure is that he’s a World War I hero and was decorated by several countries for his actions.

But still there’s a central mystery to who Gatsby really is and that has intrigued literary and Fitzgerald scholars, as well as readers, since the book first came out in 1925

But what if that mystery was

that he’s really a black man?

I’m not saying that just for

controversy’s sake. Seriously, Gatsby is black. Well at least, that’s what one

literature professor claims.

I recalled that, some years ago (in 2000 it turns out) a professor shook up the literary and academic worlds when he proposed,

according to clues he interpreted in the book, that Gatsby’s great secret was

that he’s a black man passing for white.

Back then Carlyle Thompson, who is professor of African American and American literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, presented a scholarly paper at an academic

conference on diversity, claiming that Fitzgerald’s creation was actually a brother

hiding incogNegro.

Among the clues in the book that led his to this conclusion, is that Gatsby is described as “brown…with tanned skin and close

cropped hair and this Long Island West Egg Hampton estate is described

as “40

acres and a mansion”. Sounds like 40 acres and mule doesn’t it?

And as Thompson said “all slaves were supposed to get

there 40 acres and mule.

Also the fact that Gatsby is a bootlegger is significant since, for Thompson, “Bootleg means counterfeit and Gatsby is racially counterfeit… And

racial passing was at a peak when the book was published.

Thompson also says that the fact that Gatsby was awarded a

medal for heroism, which he makes a big deal about, from the then country of Montenegro is important since the name of the country “means

black mountain. Was Fitzgerald calling Gatsby a black mountain?

Thompson went on further, saying that “Every time we see black

individuals in the book such as ‘the three modish negroes, two bucks and a

girl’ in the limousine, or the ‘pale well-dressed negro’ who describes the

yellow car that hit Myrtle Wilson (i.e. the mistress of Tom Buchannan, the husband

of Daisy, Gatsby’s lover) we see Gatsby or Gatsby has just left. And yellow

always suggests high yellow, which is a signifier for people who pass.

To go along further with Thompson’s theory with something

which he doesn’t mention, Buchannan, in the book, and in the 1974 film version,

is a blatant white supremacist, obsessed with the idea that whites will

be taken over by the “colored empire. Could Fitzgerald have been playing a sly on joke on Buchannan with his wife having an affair with a black man? Just speculation here folks.

Thompson says that Fitzgerald had “deep-seated apprehensions about

miscegenation between blacks and whites, which was probably the basis

for making Gatsby black. And, in fact,  I do recall reading years ago that Fitzgerald

was constantly obsessed with the idea of having sex with black women. (Honest I did read that once. I read all kinds

of stuff.)

Naturally, of course, it shouldn’t at all be surprising that

Thompson’s theory was met with extreme derision by scholars. It was called “absurd

and one Fitzgerald expert said: Saying

that Gatsby is black is utterly implausible. It turns the teaching of

literature into a silly game.

And, yes, it’s all fun and intriguing to think about this. But then again, instead of squinting

your eyes and trying to pretend that Leonardo (or Redford) is black, you can always

go for the real thing and watch G, Christopher Scott Cherot’s 2002 updated black version of Gatsby.

Unfortunately the film didn’t get much of a theatrical release at

all which is a shame. But, despite a different ending from Fitzgerald’s book

which doesn’t work, G is a much better film than the few who saw it said it was and definitely

worth a second look.

And also the great thing about Cherot’s version is that G’s

(Gatsby) lover called Sky in his film, is a mature adult woman and not the obnoxious,

flighty, dingbat that Daisy is in Fitzgerald’s book.

Here’s the trailer for G:

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