81 minutes / Ages 13+ / 1934 / United States of America / Average:
Mellow as a mint julep and twice as refreshing.
Watching "Judge Priest" is like peering into a crystal globe that contains within it a happy little scene of comfort and joy. As an idyllic view of the post-Civil War South, it shows us the ideal post-racial world we still haven’t achieved today. Set in 1890 Kentucky, where everyone—including African Americans—looks back in fondness at the antebellum past.
As sci-fi/ alternate-universe as this sounds, that’s not at all how it’s presented: there’s still a clear division of place between blacks and whites as indicated by how each person appears to earn their living. Hattie McDaniel, who would go on to be the first African American to win an Oscar for her role in the far less idyllic "Gone With the Wind", plays Aunt Dilsey, the maid to Will Roger’s "Judge Priest". Stepin Fetchit plays Jeff Poindexter, his butler and—here’s the thing—apparent best friend.
(A note about Stepin Fetchit (né Lincoln Perry): though his stereotype-schtick has always been controversial, among black audiences as well as white, it’s worth noting that his appearance in any scene, in any movie, easily commands the audience’s attention, and that he was the first black actor to become a millionaire.)
Through the courtroom scenes of Judge Priest, and the subplots involving young romance and soldierly honor, what shines through most strongly in the film is a poetic feeling of small-town community, with the friendship of Judge Priest and Jeff at its heart.