Ever since its inception, the cinema has influenced the way moviegoers view life. This was an especially powerful reality in early Hollywood films, which depicted their own interpretation of social mores and moral proclivities to mesmerized, largely naive audiences who accepted what they saw on the screen as truth.
Hollywood began to become a force around or after 1910. During this era, racism and prejudicial concepts of African-Americans was the status quo in much of the United States. It was of no surprise, then, that these stilted viewpoints would be transferred over into the films produced by movie studios.
Three examples of how African-Americans were portrayed in early Hollywood cinema are:
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
D.W. Griffith was one of the most important filmmakers in early cinema. He was also an “old school” Southerner, who idealized the past history of the South, which inspired him to make a motion picture based on The Clansman, a book by Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr.. The “clansmen” in question happened to be the Ku Klux Klan, which was depicted as being heroic in Dixon’s novel.
Griffith’s 3 hour and 7 minute movie was called The Birth of a Nation. Its plot revolved around two families, the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South, and what happens to them during the course of and after the Civil War.
African-Americans are portrayed miserably in this film, as docile, childlike domestics or brutal rapists or buffoonish politicians. The only way to “rescue” the South from the clutches of these despots, according to Griffith’s film, was to have the white heroes form an organization to combat the spoiling of their beloved land. The Ku Klux Klan is then introduced as the answer, as the white-sheeted lads put everything and everyone back into their “rightful” place at the victorious conclusion of this movie. To add more insult to injury, the black characters were not even played by black actors, but by white actors in blackface, meaning that there was no possible way to attempt to humanize them.
As one of the first epic films, The Birth of a Nation was a technical work of genius. It introduced to the medium of film to such unheard of innovations as jump-cut, deep focus and facial closeups. As a social statement, however, it was irresponsible, bigoted and disastrous for the image of African-Americans. Watching a print of this movie today will make you visibly wince at the caricatures of people of color.
All the same, it became a huge success for Griffith and even received the sanctioning of President Woodrow Wilson, who declared, upon viewing a showing of The Birth of a Nation in the White House, that it was “like writing history with lightning”. A Southerner himself, he, too, romanticized the images of the Old South depicted, as did the majority of white moviegoers who saw it.
The positive reaction was not shared in the African-American community, which was appalled at the manner in which they were portrayed in the movie. A clueless D.W. Griffith actually couldn’t understand why the NAACP and other black organizations and newspapers denounced his film.
Despite the controversy, The Birth of a Nation became the highest grossing film of its time and did extensive harm to the way African-Americans were perceived historically and socially.
In Old Kentucky (1927)
Jump forward 12 years later. While it’s true that African-American characters were now being played by African-American actors, the same kinds of stereotypes prevailed.
In Old Kentucky has the distinction of being one of the first films starring Stepin Fetchit.
The story for this film has to do with a son of the South, played by James Murray, who attempts to rescue his beloved father, an ex Confederate major, from alcoholism and to also ready “Daddy’s” horse to make a successful run in the Kentucky Derby.
Fetchit played the role of Highpockets and set the standard for demeaning portrayals of African-American males presented by Hollywood for decades to come. His comedy consisted of mumbling slowly and in dialect, acting slow-witted and coming across as lazy and shiftless. He was one-dimensional and non-threatening, which made him an immediate hit with white audiences and an embarrassment to his own community. He practically shuffles his way through In Old Kentucky. but, sadly any black actor who wanted to work steadily in Hollywood during that era was pretty much relegated to taking such roles.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
I am somewhat conflicted regarding Gone With the Wind, in terms of its greatness as a motion picture. It is every bit as epic as Birth of a Nation and probably just as guilty as its predecessor of sentimentalizing racial stereotypes. Still, the story line draws you in, as well as the fact that it is a finely-crafted movie.
Everyone knows the plot, about the vain Scarlett O’Hara, the quintessential steel magnolia, and her loves, deception, triumphs and losses. Of course, this movie is also well-stocked with a multitude of typical “slave” characters, such as an overweight, overbearing mammy, an imbecilic maidservant, a docile male servant and, of course, the ever present rapist. Their haughty mistress is allowed to talk down to them, threaten them and even, in one case, slap them silly, while they quietly submit to such indignity.
Ironically, it was Gone With the Wind that produced the first African-American actress to ever receive an Oscar.
Hattie McDaniel won a Best Supporting Actress award for her role as Mammy. While it’s difficult to see her performance now without thinking it to be solely stereotypical, it was, in fact, a bit of a breakthrough, in that McDaniel’s character dared to talk back, something African-Americans were just not “supposed” to do at that time. Some Southern audiences were offended by the audacity of McDaniel’s portrayal, so, in that sense, her character was a step forward for that time.
McDaniel’s hopes that an Academy Award would validate her career to the point that she and other black actresses would now be offered more choice, diverse parts were dashed and she went on to basically play the same kind of role for the remainder of her professional life.
Certainly, Gone With the Wind is an engaging film and, I will admit, is very easy to get caught up in. However, once you see it in terms of how it really presents African-Americans, it is just as damaging as The Birth of a Nation.