The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview


The Black Presence in American Cinema



Images of black people have featured prominently throughout the history of American cinema. They go back to the earliest days of the filmic process itself, when Thomas A. Edison utilized black subjects in a number of his peep-show Kinetoscope movies, including The Pickaninnies Doing a Dance ( 1894), Three Man Dance (c. 1894), Negro Dancers ( 1895), which W. K. L. Dickson, Edison's associate, made for the Edison Company, and A West Indian Woman Bathing a Baby (c. 1895). This pseudo-ethnographic imagery continued through the embryonic years of American cinema, as movie presentation evolved from the peepshow format to the large screen, with such characteristic titles as Dancing Darkey Boy ( Edison, 1897), Dancing Darkies ( American Mutoscope Company, 1897), West Indian Girls in Native Dance ( Edison, 1903), and Jamaica Negroes Doing a Two- Step ( Edison, 1907).

Although these early movies were technically crude and lacked the iconic power of later, more developed modes of cinematic representation, they were none the less instrumental in setting the cultural tone of black racial representation in the newly emerging mass-entertainment medium of motion pictures. The racial (and racist) thrust of this cinematic cultural imagery was especially pronounced in comic motifs, which tended to stress grotesque stereotypes of blacks based on Southern plantation lore. The repertoire of black-related characters and situations was therefore extremely narrow and centred mainly on 'plantation' spectacles, such as watermelon-eating contests and fish fries, buck-dancing and cake-walking, and so on.

Edison's Chicken Thieves ( 1897), Watermelon Contest ( 1899), and The Pickaninnies ( 1905) were among the first of the so-called ethnic comedy shorts which helped to establish the cinematic image of blacks as figures of comic relief. Many of the themes and conventions employed in these early film comedies were, in fact, carried over from the theatrical black-face minstrelsy and vaudeville traditions. Hence the common practice during the silent film period of using white actors with burnt cork or black-face to play 'black' or 'Negro' parts. Needless to say, the story situations in which these pseudo-blacks appeared were often ludicrous, if not downright condescending.

In The Gator and the Pickaninny ( Edison, 1903), for example, a black man (white actor in black-face) chops open an alligator with an axe and rescues a black child who has been swallowed by the alligator. This story is indicative of the way black children were invariably depicted as hapless imps, in the 'Little Black Sambo'vein, in early movies. The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon ( 1905) was promoted as 'a genuine Ethiopian comedy' though, in fact, it was a typical minstrel farce which caricatured the courtship of a 'Negro' couple. Interrupted Crap Game (Selig, 1905), another seemingly innocuous example in this early cycle of racial comedies, crudely mixed racist metaphors with its depiction of a group of black-face minstrel characters abandoning a dice game in order to chase a chicken!

Sigmund Lubin, another early film pioneer of considerable note, also made a fairly successful career out of exploiting racial comic motifs, notably with his popular 'Rastus'comedy shorts -- How Rastus Got his Pork Chop ( 1905), How Rastus Got his Turkey ( 1910), and Rastus in Zululand ( 1910) -- and his 'ethnic' satire Coon Town Suffragettes ( 1914), which ridiculed the contemporary women's movement with a story about a group of black charwomen who organize themselves in order to control their wayward husbands.

These early racial motifs were usually set in socially and racially segregated situations, in which the black-face characters played out a variety of exaggerated comic set pieces for white audiences' amusement. There was no dramatic interaction of any significance between black and white characters in the story situations; indeed, the emphasis was on self-contained 'ethnic' vignettes which were designed to work in their own right as visual novelties. Sometimes a film was promoted with a lot of hype about it being ethnically authentic, as in the case of The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon mentioned above. Production companies employed this tactic presumably to distinguish their product from other similar minstrel farces which were being made at the time and which were undoubtedly popular with fascinated white audiences.

Another strand of film comedy which was popular


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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • Cinéma-Vérité and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823


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