The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview
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The Black Presence in American Cinema



Images of black people have featured prominently throughout the history of American cinema. They go back to the earliest days of the filmic process itself, when Thomas A. Edison utilized black subjects in a number of his peep-show Kinetoscope movies, including The Pickaninnies Doing a Dance ( 1894), Three Man Dance (c. 1894), Negro Dancers ( 1895), which W. K. L. Dickson, Edison's associate, made for the Edison Company, and A West Indian Woman Bathing a Baby (c. 1895). This pseudo-ethnographic imagery continued through the embryonic years of American cinema, as movie presentation evolved from the peepshow format to the large screen, with such characteristic titles as Dancing Darkey Boy ( Edison, 1897), Dancing Darkies ( American Mutoscope Company, 1897), West Indian Girls in Native Dance ( Edison, 1903), and Jamaica Negroes Doing a Two- Step ( Edison, 1907).

Although these early movies were technically crude and lacked the iconic power of later, more developed modes of cinematic representation, they were none the less instrumental in setting the cultural tone of black racial representation in the newly emerging mass-entertainment medium of motion pictures. The racial (and racist) thrust of this cinematic cultural imagery was especially pronounced in comic motifs, which tended to stress grotesque stereotypes of blacks based on Southern plantation lore. The repertoire of black-related characters and situations was therefore extremely narrow and centred mainly on 'plantation' spectacles, such as watermelon-eating contests and fish fries, buck-dancing and cake-walking, and so on.

Edison's Chicken Thieves ( 1897), Watermelon Contest ( 1899), and The Pickaninnies ( 1905) were among the first of the so-called ethnic comedy shorts which helped to establish the cinematic image of blacks as figures of comic relief. Many of the themes and conventions employed in these early film comedies were, in fact, carried over from the theatrical black-face minstrelsy and vaudeville traditions. Hence the common practice during the silent film period of using white actors with burnt cork or black-face to play 'black' or 'Negro' parts. Needless to say, the story situations in which these pseudo-blacks appeared were often ludicrous, if not downright condescending.

In The Gator and the Pickaninny ( Edison, 1903), for example, a black man (white actor in black-face) chops open an alligator with an axe and rescues a black child who has been swallowed by the alligator. This story is indicative of the way black children were invariably depicted as hapless imps, in the 'Little Black Sambo'vein, in early movies. The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon ( 1905) was promoted as 'a genuine Ethiopian comedy' though, in fact, it was a typical minstrel farce which caricatured the courtship of a 'Negro' couple. Interrupted Crap Game (Selig, 1905), another seemingly innocuous example in this early cycle of racial comedies, crudely mixed racist metaphors with its depiction of a group of black-face minstrel characters abandoning a dice game in order to chase a chicken!

Sigmund Lubin, another early film pioneer of considerable note, also made a fairly successful career out of exploiting racial comic motifs, notably with his popular 'Rastus'comedy shorts -- How Rastus Got his Pork Chop ( 1905), How Rastus Got his Turkey ( 1910), and Rastus in Zululand ( 1910) -- and his 'ethnic' satire Coon Town Suffragettes ( 1914), which ridiculed the contemporary women's movement with a story about a group of black charwomen who organize themselves in order to control their wayward husbands.

These early racial motifs were usually set in socially and racially segregated situations, in which the black-face characters played out a variety of exaggerated comic set pieces for white audiences' amusement. There was no dramatic interaction of any significance between black and white characters in the story situations; indeed, the emphasis was on self-contained 'ethnic' vignettes which were designed to work in their own right as visual novelties. Sometimes a film was promoted with a lot of hype about it being ethnically authentic, as in the case of The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon mentioned above. Production companies employed this tactic presumably to distinguish their product from other similar minstrel farces which were being made at the time and which were undoubtedly popular with fascinated white audiences.

Another strand of film comedy which was popular


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