Hollywood's African American Films: The Transition to Sound

Hollywood's African American Films: The Transition to Sound

Hollywood's African American Films: The Transition to Sound

Hollywood's African American Films: The Transition to Sound

Synopsis

In 1929 and 1930, during the Hollywood studios' conversion to synchronized-sound film production, white-controlled trade magazines and African American newspapers celebrated a "vogue" for "Negro films." "Hollywood's African American Films" argues that the movie business turned to black musical performance to both resolve technological and aesthetic problems introduced by the medium of "talking pictures" and, at the same time, to appeal to the white "Broadway" audience that patronized their most lucrative first-run theaters. Capitalizing on highbrow associations with white "slumming" in African American cabarets and on the cultural linkage between popular black musical styles and "natural" acoustics, studios produced a series of African American-cast and white-cast films featuring African American sequences. Ryan Jay Friedman asserts that these transitional films reflect contradictions within prevailing racial ideologies--arising most clearly in the movies' treatment of African American characters' decisions to migrate. Regardless of how the films represent these choices, they all prompt elaborate visual and narrative structures of containment that tend to highlight rather than suppress historical tensions surrounding African American social mobility, Jim Crow codes, and white exploitation of black labor.

Excerpt

Speaking outside the Lafayette Theater on 20 August 1929, Congressman Oscar DePriest announced: “We are standing on the threshold of civil and cultural emancipation in America. Tonight we have seen how far our race has progressed culturally and artistically since the Emancipation Proclamation.” With these remarks, DePriest bore witness to an unprecedented event: the premier screening of Hallelujah, an African American–cast feature film by a Hollywood studio (MGM), at a race theater in Harlem. Representing the First Congressional District of Illinois, which covered Chicago’s predominantly African American South Side, DePriest himself had recently achieved the unprecedented. in March 1929, DePriest became the first African American politician from a northern state to serve in the national legislature and the first African American politician from any state to do so in the twentieth century.

Placing the Hallelujah premier in a typological framework of emancipation events, DePriest used a strategy of historical interpretation that had shaped discussions of the most significant event in the preceding fifteen years of African American social history, the Great Migration. To call the Great Migration, the movement of roughly one and a half million African Americans from the South to northern cities between 1916 and 1929, a “second emancipation” was to view this mass movement “within a historical context anchored by the first emancipation and as a similarly transforming event.” a migrant himself in the late nineteenth century, DePriest had moved with his family from Florence, Alabama, to Salina, Kansas, to Dayton, Ohio, and on his own to Chicago. DePriest became the first African American alderman in Chicago in 1915, and his career in politics unfolded in tandem with the transformation of the South Side by the first wave of the Great Migration. the South Side’s emergence as a major African American metropolis rivaling Harlem occasioned DePriest’s involvement with the production and promotion of Hallelujah. As a piece in . . .

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