Race in Early American Films

Bergman’s argument about the strength of traditional American values in Depression-era film is by and large true. It fails, however, to address the ever-present problem of race in film. The drama of classlessness and the equality of the American social ladder only works in the favor of the economically disadvantaged in the 1930s; disadvantaged African Americans are another story entirely, and some critics such as Karen Ross argue that “blackness” in film has been perhaps permanently damaged by stereotyping in the early 20th century. Even today, in entertainment ranging from inner city drama to sitcoms featuring a “token” black actor, Ross does not find African American characters telling stories or exploring emotional states, but rather defining their servile “place” in American culture for the reassurance of white audiences. Such a claim, and in fact much of Ross’ book, is very much a matter of opinion as well as fact, but the point that cannot be disputed is that the image of black Americans was done a grievous wrong in early film. Racist imagery that today shocks and appalls even the most insensitive viewers was the order of the day from film’s beginnings up through the Depression.

Part of the problem lies in the image of the South in American film, for postbellum America’s hatred of the old rebel region had just begun to abate when the movie industry made its debut. Ironically, the corrupt debacle that was postwar Reconstruction (in particular the Grant administration) was instrumental in resurrecting and affirming as never before the dusty old myths of the noble South instead of humiliating the enemy as was intended. Retro-interest in what Americans of the day should have considered a region of traitors sounds bizarre, but Faulkner got it exactly right when he wrote that the American people had an “almost helpless capacity and eagerness to believe anything about the South, not even provided it be derogatory, but merely bizarre enough and strange enough.” At least in terms of cultural conceptions, the Bloody Shirt simply wasn’t as interesting as the days when the last great American aristocracy behaved according to almost foreign codes of honor and etiquette. There was something mesmerizing about this supposed region of heat, history, and grace under pressure.

Klan justice in Birth of a Nation.
Birth of a Nation, based on a novel tellingly titled The Clansman, is arguably the first great film ever made. It is also the starting point for any critique of cinema racism, for all the popular ethnic stereotypes from the 19th century manifest themselves in a spectacular screen debut. The storyline is not as important as are the film’s implications and assumptions about Southern society: the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed in a sympathetic light as it defends chaste Southern ladies from marauding and raping black freemen. Birth of a Nation seems exaggerated and impossible for modern audiences to believe, but Ross points out that this stretching of the truth was common in early film and that the practice had specific purposes, but not just by displaying black characters as violent. Birth is a rare film, for black characters in cinema tended to be buffoons, not realistic threats. “The differentness of black people,” she writes, “was deliberately exaggerated to demonstrate their essential dissimilarity with white people, their lack of sophistication exemplified by their enjoyment of singing and dancing which further reinforced assumptions about their primitive and uncivilized natures” (8).

In a bizarre sense, blacks were somewhat empowered in Birth of a Nation, for at least they had been portrayed as being a worthy foe of the white man. Most other early films, however, were far more insulting and demeaning, depicting the “child-man Negro.” Ross’ observation that musicianship indicated a “primitive nature” is perfectly on target, and more often than not African Americans served as silly butts of jokes, half-human fools with no dignity. Ross speculates that these roles were designed to soothe white fears during a time of social change: by depicting African Americans as incapable of comprehending issues of any complexity, whites could both retain old feelings of superiority and justify their lack of involvement in any movements of social change. Seeing these silly types, even though audiences probably didn’t think they were entirely real, provided comfort and familiarity: in film, a black character became a classic laugh, a sure-fire successful convention to keep an audience engaged.

The "amiable blacks" of popular memory.
Depression era films made the lot of African Americans even more demeaning, for the popular romantic vision of the Old South made for an excellent fantasy in the midst of economic hardship. As Jack Kirby writes in Media-Made Dixie, “the most successful genres of the times diverted attention from reality: westerns, monster films... and the magnolia-scented Old Southerners. Another explanation for the Dixie fad is sheer public ignorance of history-- black history and slavery in particular” (65). While these were not the films that best embodied the public’s hope and search for solutions, they did show a happier place, a world where simplicity and security were unfortunately too lovely to have survived. Such nostalgia is obviously shallow, but in terms of race films such as Gone with the Wind were actually damaging. Although the portrayals of happy, grinning servants who knew their places were less blatantly false than Birth of a Nation’s half-human freemen, they were nonetheless assurances to white audiences that a more stable social order had once existed. By admiring an Old South movie, audiences weren’t just comforted by riches and big houses: they also saw a dependable and working racial hierarchy that both kept society running and left everyone happy.

What made racial stereotyping in early films (and Depression-era movies in particular) so powerful was its roots in minstrelsy, an African American-demeaning comedy act with a history over a hundred years old. These throwback films reminded audiences of an earlier time, one that appeared considerably rosier when viewed through nostalgic eyes during economic chaos. That such stereotypes could exist seventy years after the Emancipation Proclamation speaks to their tenacity, but nothing proves their power as much as the manner in which the most well-known African American celebrity in history was taken prisoner: even the larger-than-life Louis Armstrong fell victim to Jim Crow in film.

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