Part Two: Pre Civil Rights Hollywood Cinema
‘One of the greatest disappointments at this end of the 20th century has been the regression of the human race into ethnic factions. It is as if we have learnt nothing from the vast bloodied landscape of human history…instead of moving towards a greater global sense of humanity, we are moving back to our secure little units, our ethnic suspicions, our nationalist legends of superiority over others and eternal difference from others’
-Ben Okri, Guardian, 1995
Part Two aims to examine the way in which African Americans were represented in pre-civil rights Hollywood, with particular emphasis on the five main African American stereotypes, as identified by Donald Bogle (see Part One).
Popular cinema existed in silent form only for the first few decades of the 20th century – the so-called ‘Silent Era’. During this era, it was commonplace to use whites in African American roles, a tradition carried over from the stage and sustained through the early days of the Silent Era .
Then, in 1915, came D.W Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation. Griffith created a film unlike anything that had gone before: it was the first to feature the full spectrum of African-American stereotypes, and promoted them with such strength that it was denounced by many as the most repugnant example of anti-black representation in cinema. In short, the film promotes the idea that African-Americans are renegades attempting to overpower the white Southern folk, who are presented as entirely good willed, and pure hearted; crime and depravity are portrayed to be an integral part of the African-American way of life, and the principle goal of these lesser men is sexual dominance over white women. The finale sees the white men of the ‘invisible empire’ (read: Ku Klux Klan) saving the day, and restoring white supremacy to the south. Griffith was somewhat surprised at the strong criticism of The Birth of a Nation, and would attempt to redeem himself with his next major project, the film Intolerance, although most saw this as too little, too late.
Several authors have attempted to categorize the African-American stereotypes from the Silent era of cinema. For example, Pines categorizes black roles as the Uncle Tom derivative, the Faithful Servant type, the Slapstick Buffoon type and the Knife-Carrying Savage type . Bogle, on the other hand, sorts African-American representations into five categories: the Tom, the Coon, the Mammy, the Tragic Mulatto and the Brutal Black Buck . The categorizations from Bogle are perhaps more complete and, therefore, it is his categories that will be focused on.
The Tom is an essentially pure and good character. His faith never falters despite being tested by his masters. Indeed, even flogging, beating, insults and enslavement are insufficient to incite outright revolt against his clearly superior white masters.
‘Tom’s presence, and the appearance of the four Negro archetypes which were to follow, served the same purpose: “to entertain by stressing Negro inferiority.”’.
The audience is told that, much like the obedience of a dog to his human master, blind and faithful obedience brings its own rewards.
‘Porter’s tom was the first in a long line of socially acceptable Good Negro characters. Always as toms are chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n’er turn against their massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind.’
The Coon however was presented as an object of amusement; a buffoon to be mocked and ridiculed by an audience composed predominantly of whites. The Coon was perhaps the most common African-American stereotype.
’Generally, he was a harmless, little screwball creation whose eyes popped, whose hair stood on end with the least excitement, and whose antics were pleasant and diverting.’
The Mulatto evokes sympathy for the reason that he or she is presented as somebody who could have been productive and happy, had not they been born on the wrong side of the racial divide. Audiences and producers alike were most comfortable with this particular African-American stereotype.
The Mammy is closely related to the coon. She is, however, distinguished by being the only stereotype to be female. She is also of strong will and fierce independence; always willing to criticise but never over stepping the mark with her white masters. The Mammy character has had a long and distinguished career in American cinema, and her longevity was reinforced by the powerful iconography of her physical characteristics and easily recognisable traits. She embodies two very deep myths of black womanhood: the faithful servant and the earth-mother. To take care of white children at the expense of her own, for whom she was usually sole parent, was part of the Mammy’s personality well into the 1950s.
The character played by Hattie Mcdaniel in Gone With The Wind (1939) is one of the most memorable examples in cinema of the Mammy. Indeed, Mcdaniel won an Oscar for her this role.
‘After the success of Gone with the Wind, Hollywood, prone to replicate success, eagerly wrapped a bandana around the head of every African-American actress faster than you can say ‘Ah’s a comin.’
Finally, the Brutal Black Buck tended to be an unintelligent, well-built male character whose main activity was the rape white women. This stereotype exposes the links that exists between sex and racism in America; in particular, it reveals the fear some white men apparently have (or had) of losing their ‘pure’ women to ‘savages’.
The Birth of a Nation has the honour, or rather dishonour, of featuring all five of Bogle’s categories. This film in particular was ground-breaking for more than just its fervent articulation of an especially racist text – it clearly defined, for the first time in the history of cinema, the manner in which Hollywood would represent African-Americans. The Independent African-American Filmmakers attempted to counter-attack by releasing The Birth of a Race: funded by African Americans in order to propagate positive portrayals of African-Americans, this film was unable to draw movie goers as the producers had hoped.
In summary, African Americans could be categorised into five main stereotypes; these five stereotypes will form the frame of reference for the examination of African American representation through key periods of Hollywood history.