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

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by Sergio
April 15, 2013 11:32 AM
19 Comments
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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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19 Comments

  • becka | March 11, 2014 11:43 PMReply

    the comment about luhrmann's gatsby being for "fourteen-year-olds with attention deficit disorder" is a bit unnecessarily ableist.

    but this is fascinating and i like the interpretation much better than that from my 11AP english class~

  • SterlingCooper | July 3, 2013 12:44 AMReply

    Interesting theory. But, your opinion of Baz Luhrman's work is simplistic & bone headed. That is all.

  • Ad | June 29, 2013 10:10 PMReply

    Fact - original draft of the book was called Trimalchio.
    This is the same name as an a lot older book about a Slave in Rome who made it rich and held massive parties. Could be true!!

  • Camara | May 14, 2013 3:08 PMReply

    I read the book in high school and was not impressed, but now I'm going to reread it. I'm ROFL at the "incogNegro" reference.

  • ALM | April 17, 2013 10:40 PMReply

    I saw "G" when it was in limited release in the theater. It was great in concept, but the execution fell flat.

  • Nia boyd | July 2, 2013 11:29 AM

    I agree. I was very excited about G, but utterly disappointed with the too flat characterizations, and the limited portrayals. I am aware of the "incogNegro'" theory, and while it is an interesting one, there just isn't sufficient textual evidence, or author notes, for that matter, to support it. I read Thompson's evidence differently. Gatsby's choices (clothing, cars, opulence) reveal more class than race issues, and I think Fitz was more interested in pointing out the gradual inclusion (welcome or not) of blacks (specifically those of the lightest hues) than speaking on passing. Daisy's husband, an 'insider" representing the privileged classes, would be opposed to that , while Gatsby, the working class imposter, might be more tolerant. Just one humble lit professor's take on it.

  • K | April 16, 2013 10:25 PMReply

    I never even heard of G. I hated The Great Gatsby book, and both of its movies. But I am desperate to watch Leo's version and now Blair's version. Oh my gosh! A renewed interest. Maybe one day I'll reread the book and see if I see any semblance of Gatsby being a black man.

  • R.J. | April 16, 2013 6:55 PMReply

    Very interesting read! It gave me a lot to think about that I had never considered before (I wish I had seen this when I was in high school, it really would've shaken up the discussions of the book).

    As for your Luhrmann criticisms, I realize those are common criticisms among his detractors, but I've found something to admire in all of his features (except Strictly Ballroom, which I haven't seen). Moulin Rouge is a modern masterpiece in my opinion so, needless to say, I'm very excited for Gatsby.

  • Videoal | April 17, 2013 12:04 AM

    At least he didn't turn it into a musical!

  • HarveyDent322 | April 15, 2013 6:35 PMReply

    Gatsby a brother? I knew there was a reason that's one of my favorite books.

  • Alex | April 15, 2013 4:59 PMReply

    "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."

    What a peice of BS un-constructive journalism. Before you harp on with the petty argument of "don't read it if you don't like it" I seek to know more beyond rubbish generalisations of films; was wrong in this instance.

  • Flat Top | April 16, 2013 6:06 PM

    Sergio, is just looking for a fight. Usually the trolls are in the comments but this dude wrote an entire article trolling the commenters. You want me to support a half researched outlandish claim by first insulting the latest iteration of the material.

    This article is garbage.

  • Sergio | April 15, 2013 5:07 PM

    Gee maybe because I've seen all of Luhrmann's films (and even his damn Chanel No. 5 commercials) that I can make such a "shocking" statement perhaps? You have such a hard on for them, you enjoy them.

  • ao | April 15, 2013 3:58 PMReply

    Intriguing theory. Maybe I'll finally read the book. Di Caprio could definitely play a "passe blanche" as we call them in New Orleans". He could definitely "passe noir".

    I agree with your comments on "G". It was a well done and a very entertaining film that definitely did not receive its proper "props". If you haven't seen it order it on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu or where it is available. It holds up. You'll enjoy it.

  • urbanauteur | April 15, 2013 3:55 PMReply

    Besides trying to sift through Baz Lurhmann's quicksilver editing his MOULIN ROUGE(i almost had a elliptic fit) i cant think of another plausible reason why that theory is NOT so far-fetch.

  • CareyCarey | April 15, 2013 3:27 PMReply

    SERGIO STIKES AGAIN!

    "I read all kinds of stuff and I know all kinds of stuff" ~ Sergio Mims

    You sho do... and I love that in ya. Just yesterday (at the birthday party) I tipped my hat to you for keeping it live, interesting and very entertaining. Now, right on cue, you came out of the gate firing on all cylinders. This post had me right from the door.

    When you opened with your discription of Baz Luhrmann's work, I knew I was in for a good one... "It's going to be a Great Gatsby for 14 year olds with extreme attention deficit disorder"

    Only you Sergio, only you could think of something like that. :-)

    But man, when you broke out Carlyle Thompson's scholarly paper I KNEW it was going to be one... and it was. I sat here with my mouth gaped open, thinking "no he didn't, this can't be true, can it?". Now I have big black booty lips so I had to stand up to keep from slobbering on my computer, but the story had me.

    Now check this, I leaning toward believing Thompson's scenario (for various reasons) but something in particular caught my eye: "Gatsby is described as brown…with tanned skin and close cropped hair"

    I don't know about y'all, but to me that sounds eerily similar to another black man who some insist is a white man. Well, I don't want S&A's atheist squad and blog police all mad at me so I won't quote scripture, but it seems like I remember hearing something about a man whose hair was like wool and his feet were like burnished bronze. But nowadays he appears as a blue-eyed blond. Anyway, I believe Carlyle & Sergio are sniffing up the right tree... and that's all I'm gonna say about that.

    But in true Sergio fashion, he ended with a bit of old school. And in my opinion, it's a goodie. No, this time he didn't bring Sammy, Sydney, Carmen Jones nor Grace Bumbry, this time he slid in Christopher Scott Cherot's 2002 updated black version of Gatsby, "G". I know, it's not THAT old but it's seldom mentioned and the actors did the damn thang, which made it very entertaining.

    So Sergio has done it again. He brought the good stuff.

  • Maurice Emel | April 15, 2013 1:00 PMReply

    Wow, i'm floored, I've never read the book, but im familiar with the story, I've seen the Redford version, but now im purchasing the book, TODAY!

  • Gigi Young | April 15, 2013 12:25 PMReply

    Hm, I was under the impression that Gatsby was Jewish--which in the 1920s was just as "bad" as being black. But this is a provocative theory, especially when the Luhrmann version is so hip-hop based.

  • Yvonne | April 15, 2013 12:04 PMReply

    You had me at mature, adult woman re: Christopher Scott Cherot's Gatsby remake G. Even back in junior high I had nothing but side eye for Daisy Buchanan. (And Fitzgerald's alleged lust for black women, if that's true.) And yes, I went there too re: Gatsby's secretive past. It read soooo much like the "tragic mulatto/passing" tales of the time. But if you want to get a scholar's panties in a bunch, suggest that even a fictional white character is not as "pure" as he or she seems. Carlyle Thompson was lighting a match!

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