From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures

By Daniel J. Leab | Go to book overview

8
A PALE BLACK IMITATION

HOLLYWOOD HAS PRODUCED its share of stinkers over the years, but in terms of sheer dreadfulness few can match the ghetto-oriented films made by both black and white filmmakers from the late 1930s until well into the 1950s. The indigestible, though, is not necessarily the forgettable: there is something more to these films than the superficial trivia of who made them and who played in them. They are noteworthy not only because of what they have to say about blacks in the years before the civil-rights revolution -- but also because of what blacks had to say about themselves and their continuing hunger after a white American dream.

Both technically and artistically these cheaply produced, quickly made all-black movies remained true to their recent silent ancestors. During that earlier period, it is true, some effort had been made in "race productions" to deal with issues such as passing for white or intermarriage and to offset demeaning racist images. But despite all the rhetoric of the sound era about "better moving pictures of the Negro" and "giving colored actors and actresses a fighting chance," most makers of films for ghetto audiences were interested only in exploiting the desire of black moviegoers to see blacks on the screen. In large part this attitude can be traced to white control of distribution and of most productions, but no matter what the race of the filmmakers was, commercial considerations always won out. The films were invariably imitations of the standard Hollywood fare. Moreover, the bias in favor of light-skinned blacks which had been so much a feature of the silent films made for ghetto audiences now found expression

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