Cinematic Codes
When tackling messages in American film, it is necessary to have a working knowledge of the codes in use. For the purposes of understanding the portrayal of African-Americans in mainstream American cinema, James Snead's account of "extra-cinematic coding" at the beginning of white screens/black images, a posthumous collection of insightful essays about the depiction of blacks in film, serves as an exceptional resource.

Snead bases his notion of "code" on Umberto Eco's A Theory of Semiotics ("roughly, a set of conventions defining perception in limited and predictable ways within any given culture" (1)) and Roland Barthes' "allied concept of codes, one related to the social and artistic conventions and rituals of everyday life."(2) By grounding the argument within this literary theory, Snead contextualizes the depiction of African-Americans in cultural terms:

Onscreen and off, the history that Western culture has made typically denies blacks and black skin of historical reference, except as former slaves or savages.
One of the prime codes surrounding blacks onscreen then--one much at variance with the narrative codes that mandate potential mobility for other screen characters--is an almost metaphysical stasis. The black--particularly the black woman--is seen as eternal, unchanging, unchangeable. (Recall Faulkner's appendix to The Sound and the Fury: "They endured.") (p. 2-3)(3)

The roles of slave or savage are socially acceptable to whites and so, they are reflected in the art that the majority produces. From Faulkner's depiction of the servant Dilsey as the only constant (and mentally stable) character in The Sound and the Fury to the comedy act of Burt Williams and George Walker billing themselves as "The Two Real Coons(4)," African-Americans were relegated to a limited number of roles in the culture of the early twentieth century. These depictions are not only representative of the social limitations of the minority but their adherance to such depictions actually enforces them.

Snead believes the social acceptance of these African-American mythologies establish the nature of these roles and make them that much more difficult to change later: "The problem is that, especially in film, stereotypes and codes insulate themselves from historical change, or actual counter-examples in the real world. Caricatures breed more caricatures, or metamorphose into others, but remain in place." (p. 3).

Snead attributes the establishment and success of these caricatures to three types of codes occurring in the depiction of African-Americans in mainstream American cinema: omission, marking, and mythification. Omission, or the "exclusion by reversal, distortion, or some other form of censorship"(5) to enforce stereotypes through the absence of other feasible alternatives, and marking, the repetition of the color black and its relationship to white imagery when used to demonstrate inferiority such as the wearing of a white apron by a black maid (6), are important to understanding how black characters appear in film. The key to recognizing how the mammy stereotype functions, however, comes in Snead's discussion of mythification, the emphasis of the interrelationship between screen images as a filmic code unto itself:
Louise Beavers

American films do not merely feature this or that debased black image or this or that glorified white image in isolation, but rather, they correlate these images in a larger scheme of semiotic valuations. For the viewer, the pleasure of recognizing this ranking displaces the necessity of verifying its moral or actual validity. . . . This device engages audiences on the level of their racial allegiance, social background, and self-image. Film translates the personal into the communal so quickly that elevation of the dominant and degradation of the subordinate are simultaneous and corporate. When we consider The Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind, for example, the mechanisms of racial mythification are clear--the dominant "I" needs the coded "other" to function: white female stars (themselves coded as subordinate to white males) employ black maids to make them seem more authoritatively womanly....Soon, by mythification and repetition, white and black filmed images become large-scale models, positive or negative, for behavior, describing . . . structures, limits, and an overall repertoire from which both white and black viewers in the real world select possibilities of action and thought. (p. 4)

The repetition of these characters and their subordinate positions in life--enforced by familiar symbols of servility and a lack of other possible roles to play--makes stock characters easy to recognize and almost impossible to refute. This is the case of the mammy figure which appears in The Birth of a Nation, is more fully developed by Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind, and is later epitomized by McDaniel when she appears in such roles as "Aunt Tempy" in Song of the South.

Hattie McDaniel In this final case, the mythification of the mammy is reinforced by the mythification of McDaniel herself, who appeared in over 300 different films in her career and usually played the part of a domestic servant.(7) While the number of times this talented actress appeared as a servant demonstrates the limited opportunities available to African-Americans in Hollywood during the first half of the twentieth century, that should not mean McDaniel's appearance in Gone With the Wind, "perhaps the supreme example of the popular image," (8) and her subsequent celebrity status should simply be attributed to her playing the same role time and again.

Instead, she might be understood in the same terms as white actors such as John Wayne or Jack Nicholson whose early performances strike a chord with movie-going audiences so that they become typecast in almost every subsequent role. The difference between McDaniel and someone like Wayne, however, lies in the fact that until her appearance in 1947 as the lead in the CBS radio program Beulah(9), the color of McDaniel's skin required her to always play supporting roles.

On the other hand, however, McDaniel's celebrity was strengthened by the audience's belief in the mammy figure she often portrayed. Patricia Turner notes in Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies, McDaniel's Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Gone With the Wind--the first Academy Award to go to an African-American--was earned "for playing a truly fictional character, a character shaped and molded by nostalgia merchants eager to create a past that never was."(10) As we shall see, the beliefs surrounding the mammy figure in popular culture and the historical realities lend to Snead's sense of mythification.