Cinema Civil Rights: Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era

Cinema Civil Rights: Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era

Cinema Civil Rights: Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era

Cinema Civil Rights: Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era

Synopsis

From Al Jolson in blackface to Song of the South, there is a long history of racism in Hollywood film. Yet as early as the 1930s, movie studios carefully vetted their releases, removing racially offensive language like the "N-word." This censorship did not stem from purely humanitarian concerns, but rather from worries about boycotts from civil rights groups and loss of revenue from African American filmgoers.
Cinema Civil Rights presents the untold history of how Black audiences, activists, and lobbyists influenced the representation of race in Hollywood in the decades before the 1960s civil rights era. Employing a nuanced analysis of power, Ellen C. Scott reveals how these representations were shaped by a complex set of negotiations between various individuals and organizations. Rather than simply recounting the perspective of film studios, she calls our attention to a variety of other influential institutions, from protest groups to state censorship boards.
Scott demonstrates not only how civil rights debates helped shaped the movies, but also how the movies themselves provided a vital public forum for addressing taboo subjects like interracial sexuality, segregation, and lynching. Emotionally gripping, theoretically sophisticated, and meticulously researched, Cinema Civil Rights presents us with an in-depth look at the film industry's role in both articulating and censoring the national conversation on race.

Excerpt

The idea of American freedom has in practice consistently relied upon a pathological denial of the rights of African Americans to equal citizenship— and a simultaneous denial that these rights are being withheld. Accordingly, classical Hollywood, in its role as America’s dream factory, largely maintained the myth of Black inferiority while minimizing America’s long history of racial injustice. Countless films reinforced Black stereotypes, normalized economic and social segregation, and systematically avoided admitting the unjustness of racial inequality, often through the dissemination of the mammy, mulatto, buck, and Uncle Tom characters. As Donald Bogle has compellingly argued, the tradition of stereotypy, one that transcended the plantation chronotope and infiltrated various urban locales, became a direct expression of Hollywood racism. Studies of exceptions to Hollywood’s patterned racial mythology have predominantly focused on how African American talent, either directorial or onscreen, exceeded the imposed limitations. However, the structure of limitation itself requires investigation.

Alongside stereotyping in classical Hollywood cinema lies a quizzical pattern of images both strange and attenuated from the actual, lived narratives of civil rights, distanced and alienated from their roots in history and Black experience. Take, for instance, Storm Warning, a 1950 Warner Bros. film about the Ku Klux Klan with no Black people in major roles; the Klan’s victims are played by Ginger Rogers and Doris Day, both platinum blondes. Another example is The Foxes of Harrow (1948), where an enslaved woman’s attempt to kill her newborn child to save him from slavery is a brutal footnote in a white plantation story.

Another film exemplifies this pattern of repressed civil rights representations. The Ox-Bow Incident, an anti-lynching film made in 1943, does not feature a Black protagonist (although Black actor Leigh Whipper appears as a bystander who condemns the mob action). It is set in the Old West rather than the contemporary South, where lynching was still practiced during the Second World War. Lynching, while discussed obsessively in the drama, is shown at a distance and expressionistically—as hanging bodies casting a shadow. Lost in the film’s chiaroscuro white guilt is any feeling of the racial brutality of lynching. Despite these . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.