African-American Writers and Pre-1950 Cinema

By Regester, Charlene | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

African-American Writers and Pre-1950 Cinema


Regester, Charlene, Literature/Film Quarterly


Compelled to articulate their positions, render themselves visible, and resist the decentering that they endured in a hegemonic discourse that sought to contain its racial Other, African-American writers found self-expression-a vital and necessary precursor to liberation-through the use of the pen. Writing propelled them into a realm that allowed for the previously denied development of artistic, creative, oppositional and expressionistic voice. Captivating readers with literary works evolving from marginalized discourses, these African-Americans managed to pique attention, offer unique positions rarely disclosed, and excite the unimaginable through their Otherness, thus creating a desire of the self for the Other.

African-American writers increasingly found their way into American literary circles, and by the twentieth century, as they made their mark on American literature, they similarly gained the attention of motion picture producers. Eager to provide a glimpse of black life, African-Americans applied their writing skills to novels that could reproduce the power and impact of their world. Their stories that captured an aura unique to the African-American experience would obviously lend themselves to transformation on film, and the industry saw the chance to exploit "African-Americanism" as a valuable commodity in the cinema, particularly in view of the undeniable acting talent prevalent among African-Americans. But in the first half of the twentieth century, America was not yet ready to obliterate the barriers that stood between the races.

While the cinematic contributions I of post- 1950 literary figures are well known, cinema history cries out for an examination of the cinematic contributions of those of the earlier period who paved the way.

The African-American writer in the pre- 1950 era of cinema can best be read according to the following paradigm: (1) writers whose works independent filmmakers transformed on the screen; (2) writers Hollywood actually employed or considered for employment, or writers whose works Hollywood considered for production, but did not transform on the screen; and (3) writers whose novels Hollywood transformed on the screen but whose works either promoted a non-racial theme, experienced a reduction in quality, distortion in content, or alteration in narrative structure. This paradigm should demonstrate how AfricanAmerican writers struggled to become active recruits in the cinema industry and how Hollywood accepted or rejected them and their works, using and abusing them, exploiting the African-Americans' desperation to promote their works and obtain access to a wider market.

While acknowledging that Hollywood's history, particularly in the pre-1950 period, is one of exploitation with all its writers, black and white, this essay contends that the relationship between black writers and the cinema industry, in the transformation of novel to film, was an especially disturbing one, positioning African-American writers so as virtually to deny them control over their own work and destiny. The dilemma of determining how much of their artistic talent the artists should compromise in an effort to have their novels accepted for film production was incredibly more problematic for the African-American writer than for the white writer. African-American writers' works have often grown out of a fragile historical existence, resistant discourse, and an agency that has sought to contain its black Other. By having to contend with the addition of a threat of further control onto the hegemonic discourse that shaped the development of their works, the African-American literary figure in the cinema world become even more vulnerable to the whims of the industry, the economic forces that propel the industry, and the demands imposed by the industry to produce works rendered palatable to a mainstream audience. However, despite the tenuous plight of the black writer in the cinema industry, these writers did succeed in contributing to American cinema in the pre-1950 period. …

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