Hollywood and the Politics of Representation: Women, Workers, and African Americans in World War II Movies
Clayton R. Koppes
In 1941, the United States went to war under the banner of "the people's war." 1 The Roosevelt government's rhetoric and imagery invoked a democratic inclusiveness in contrast to the Axis' exclusivity and domination. The byword for the war effort became "unity"--a cohesive country evolving toward equality for all. In the construction of unity, however, propaganda officials faced a difficult contradiction--the persistent inequalities suffered by women, workers, and African Americans. Crafting representations of these unequal groups that were credible and yet managed to project a vision of unity and equality became one of the principal challenges. In the sometimes contentious, sometimes collaborative relationship between the arbiters of propaganda and popular culture, the representations of unity reflected the political battle lines of wartime America.
Government propaganda efforts focused on the movies, the era's most important medium of popular culture. Hollywood studios were eager to make movies about the war. The moguls seconded the government's view that films had a major role to play in maintaining morale and promoting patriotism. They also rang up record profits as audiences, flush with good-paying war jobs, crowded the theaters. Unlike some industries that were virtually commandeered for the war, Hollywood continued to enjoy relative freedom--so long as it cooperated with the government on sensitive political issues.
Throughout the war the studios' output was monitored and negotiated with the Office of War Information (OWI), the government propaganda agency. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the "great communicator" of his era, created OWI by executive order in June 1942. Heading OWI was the popular radio commentator Elmer Davis, who insisted that his agency's only goal was to "tell the truth." 2 But he also believed, as he confided to his staff, that "the easiest way to propagandize people is to let a propaganda theme go in through an entertainment picture when people do not realize they are being propagandized." OWI's Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) was run from Washington by Lowell Mellett,