From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures

By Daniel J. Leab | Go to book overview
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3
THE FREEZING OF AN IMAGE

THOMAS EDISON invested about $25,000 in the development of the Kinetoscope. In 1926 the total investment in the American film industry was in excess of $1 billion. By 1922 there were over 16,000 movie theaters in the United States, many of them new and luxurious. Three years earlier a report prepared for the investment banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb had indicated that "the gross annual return" from a somewhat smaller number of theaters would be over $750 million. Movies were no longer just "a poor man's show": by the beginning of the 1920's over fifty million paid admissions a week were recorded. The cost of making movies also went up substantially. The movie historian Benjamin Hampton has noted that between 1914 and 1924 the cost of "representative program offerings had advanced from an average cost of $20,000 each to $300,000." 1

Those in the movie studio who were responsible for meeting increased costs wished to avoid any controversy that might cut into profits; they stayed away from the image of the threatening black -- unless he were found in an exotic location such as the jungle. The leaders of the film industry also claimed that Southern audiences would not pay to see a movie in which a black was presented as other than a caricature. One director told a reporter from the black press that the film "that turns Manhattan mad with praise would meet with failure in the South . . ." These are arguments that the historian Thomas Cripps has called "the myth of the Southern box office." He points out that movie receipts in the South were acknowledged by the industry to be notoriously

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