From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures

By Daniel J. Leab | Go to book overview
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7
GLIMMERS OF CHANGE

By THE 1950s the film industry had considerably muted the coarser, more unattractive image of the black. True, the same old demeaning caricatures still did turn up. Take the 1957 Twentieth Century-Fox production The Enemy Below, which dealt with a duel between an American destroyer and a U-boat. A black is shown only once: coming out of the galley to dump garbage overboard, he sees a torpedo passing the ship. His eyes grow large; he makes some strange noises, and, flinging the garbage into the air, runs back into the galley. But on the whole, the industry, which was increasingly concerned with maintaining its audience in the face of competition from television, responded to the mounting pressure from outspoken individuals and from such organizations as the NAACP.

One manifestation of this changing attitude -- it could almost be called a milestone -- was a cycle of "racially aware" pictures made in 1949 and 1950, which at least touched on the problem of being black in the United States. These movies, however, presented no real solutions to the questions that they somewhat artificially raised. Nor did the industry produce them out of any genuine sympathy with the civil-rights movement then gaining strength -- it was in 1948, after all, that the inclusion of a civil- rights plank in the Democratic platform split the party in a Presidential election year and that the Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive covenants violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Rather, the studios were attempting to capitalize

Birth of a superstar: In 1950 Sidney Poitier made his debut as a young intern in No Way Out. (National Film Archive/ Courtesy Twentieth Century-Fox. © 1950 Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation)

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