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Let's Get Tough (1942)



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Let's Get Tough is one of the better episodes in the East Side Kids series, but one thing prevented me from enjoying it. The film is set when it was made, in the early days of World War II. Japan had just bombed Pearl Harbor, and in this episode of the series, the East Side Kids try to enlist, are refused because of their young age, and later end up breaking a Japanese spy ring.

What bothered me was this: early in the film, the boys run across a Japanese shop owner, and they take it upon themselves to fight the enemy by harassing him and ransacking his store. Later they realize that what they did was wrong -- not because they were persecuting an innocent on the basis of his race but because they discover that the man was Chinese, not Japanese.

Ordinarily, I accept in older movies social attitudes we would find repugnant today. Movies are signs of their times and always important as social history no matter what. But in this case I could not accept the film as entertainment. Because of attitudes like this, far too many innocent and even patriotic Japanese Americans were persecuted after Pearl Harbor. Times have improved since then, but not so much that innocent Arab-Americans were not persecuted in the days following the 9/11 attacks.

What makes this different than passive racism in other movies of the time are two factors: one, there is no compensating artistic vision in the film (these East Side Kids movies are nothing more than low budget entertainments); two, the racism is an active part of the movie's message, which is a step below a passively ignorant acceptance of the social values of the day. It's possible that this film was also made in ignorance rather than hatred, but of course ignorance is an explanation, not an excuse, and does not make the film's message any more palatable.

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