In 1943, a number of prominent black film actors including Hattie McDaniel, Mantan Moreland, and Ben Carter participated in a roundtable discussion on the role of black Americans in the motion picture industry. The Baltimore Afro-American sponsored the event, declaring that these men and women had an enormous impact in promoting social change. “You [black actors] are challenged because the motion picture is the greatest propagandizing force for good and evil in the world today,” the AfroAmerican editorialist insisted. “The motion picture, more than either the press or radio … has a more indelible effect upon the consciousness of people … than any other medium of expression.”1 By the time the public read these words, the struggle for more positive representations of black Americans in film was being waged in full force, facilitated by interests in the government, black political organizations, and Hollywood. While racial stereotypes would not be eradicated, their existence would be firmly and very publicly challenged. Important questions would unfold: How did these calls for more positive cultural representations interact with escalating black demands for civil rights? How would both black and white audiences reconcile cultural depictions of military integration and interracial goodwill amid the reality of segregation and race riots?
The issue of black characterizations in motion pictures became critical during the 1940s because government administrators understood that film was central to any propagation of American democracy. In the summer 1942, the Office of War Information’s (OWI) Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) warned Hollywood, “Unless the public adequately understands the war program, a few military reverses can shatter the high morale of the American people.”2 During the war years, the BMP read approximately 1,652