Part Three: Pre Civil Rights Hollywood Cinema
‘“We, the people.” It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document [the Preamble to the US Constitution] was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in “We, the people.’ Barbara Jordan
After World War Two, ‘a new social conscience emerged in Hollywood which began to explore the dynamics of black-white relations within a liberal humanist framework’ . It is the films of this era that developed the groundwork to better representations of African Americans in Hollywood cinema. Filmmakers were beginning to recognise the changes in the social clime of America. They saw that desegregation was becoming more popular and that groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee were being founded. One of the main starting points of this change came when president Harry S. Truman integrated the armed forces by executive order in 1948. One of the main films that showed this change was Intruder In The Dust .
Set in the South, this film centres on Lucas Beauchamp, an African American unjustly accused of the murder of a local white man. Lucas is aided in his defence when a boy (Chick) that he rescued from drowning repays the debt by convincing his lawyer uncle to defend Lucas. However, Lucas is stubborn and uncooperative, only proclaiming his innocence. It is then up to Chick, and an old woman, to help solve the case and keep the accused from being lynched. There is only one negative representation in the film. The white characters are doing the job of an African American because he is unable & unwilling to do it; Essentially, the African American is shown as being unable to stand up for himself and needs the help of people who are in a better social position then him. Lucas features strong elements of the tragic Mullato; Essentially a good and moral man, who simply by being born African American is unable to rise to any great degree of intelligence. In doing so he cannot engage effectively with those who hold him to account, and so needs the help of those who can, i.e Charitable and coherent white folk.
However, despite this misrepresentation, a positive representation shines through. The fact that white people are shown doing something positive for an African American shows that it is possible for the two races to live together harmoniously. This is the new ideology that is disseminated within American society and this is one of the first films to contain this ideology. Essentially, the ruling class is attempting to appeal to the new demographics that are becoming apparent (those audiences that are both African American and those that sympathise) whilst also trying to keep the equilibrium stable. However, this ideology was not to be accepted immediately. It is easy to put the ideas of harmony across to the audience but it is a lot harder for those audience members to accept this ideology and act with accordance to it. This is especially true in the South, where audiences were catered for before World War 2 and now were not.
A prime example of this is the film In The Heat Of The Night . This film featured the then-renowned actor Sidney Poitier as a homicide detective (Virgil Tibbs) from the North who is wrongfully arrested for murder as he waits for a train in a Southern town. It is the conflict between Tibbs and Rod Steiger’s character (Gillespie) that this film is centred upon. It is Gillespie’s preconceptions and belief structure that are disestablished by both the confidence of Tibbs and the support offered from the more lenient North for Tibbs (in the form of the support from Tibbs’ boss). Tibbs is shown to be a very confident and intelligent man, especially when compared with the police officers he works with. During one major scene, Tibbs goes to investigate the corpse of the man he was accused of killing. When he makes a request for equipment with which to perform a rudimentary autopsy, the Caucasian morgue staff are baffled for two reasons. The first is about the equipment he asks for and the second is the fact that an African American is demanding this equipment. This scene highlights the still dominant ideology in the American South, i.e. African Americans are expected by White Americans to be of a lower status than themselves, not of an equal or higher status as Tibbs is. Yet, it is this positive depiction that also gives a negative representation further on in the film. Tibbs’ overconfidence with himself, compared to Gillespie and his police force, leads to him accusing the wrong person for the murder. Tibbs’ stubbornness to adjust his convictions to those of Gillespie’s results in his embarrassment. This gives the audience the representation of an African American, whatever status they have achieved, as not being capable of making the correct and true decisions (and thus not being able to live their life fully) without the guidance from a white person. A further negative representation of an African American is that of the family that Tibbs stays with. Compared to the other inhabitants of the town, this African American family are living in near poverty (the children play amongst the detritus around the family home) and are seemingly willingly subservient. The man of this family is shown as willing and happy to please Gillespie, so much so he takes a stranger into his house.
The stark comparison between Tibbs and the family is shown in the way they dress and the way they speak, yet they are seen as the same by Gillespie, hence him homing Tibbs with the family. Gillespie assumes that Tibbs will feel comfortable with the family because they are of the same skin colour, yet the family take no offence from this assumption. This shows African Americans from the South as still comfortable in the slave roles of their ancestors. Again the scene in which Tibbs and Gillespie drive through the cotton fields, in which not one white person is seen picking the cotton, highlights this. However, the positive representations of African Americans through the character of Tibbs are not as positive as they first appear. Tibbs acts like a white American in the way he dresses and the way he speaks. He wears suits throughout the film and speaks with high tone, low frequency lexis. This fits Tibbs in with the ideology of the white middle class male. Thus it can be seen that Tibbs is only shown in a positive light because he mimics the ways of the people who produced the film.
The 50’s and 60’s brought social unrest and the Civil Rights Movement brought a need for films with a stronger message. The archetypes of the 20’s and thirties were no longer acceptable, and the few Hollywood “race films” (which usually starred Sidney Poitier), were no longer adequate. “Hollywood was still unable to discern or depict the full spectrum of Black American life and culture.” Therefore it is evident that the films that came from the major Hollywood studios still negatively represented African Americans. Although some representations had been positive, especially with Poitier in In The Heat Of The Night, the depictions were based upon African Americans assuming the white culture in favour of their own. The initial negative representations had now been adapted to make African Americans suitable for use in a film as one of the main characters, and it was this adaptation that led to the rise of the largest and most important genres in this subject. That genre is Blaxploitation. To summarize this chapter, Intruder in the Dust’s Lucas Beauchamp features strong elements of the Uncle Tom derivative; essentially a good and moral man who, simply by being born African American, is unable to rise to any great degree of intelligence. In doing so he cannot engage effectively with those who hold him to account, and so needs the help of those who can, i.e. charitable and coherent white folk.
Poitier’s character (Tibbs) in In The Heat Of The Night is shown, at least on first impressions, to be as capable as any white man. He has the intelligence, the capability and the ambition to succeed in a white dominated world. However, to do so means adopting the white man’s characteristics and persona, essentially appearing less black, and appealing to a white demographic. Nevertheless, as shown in the latter stages of the film, no matter how successful Tibbs will ever be, he will always have the disadvantage of being African American. Therefore, Bogle’s Mullatto and Uncle Tom stereotypes certainly seem to have survived on into this era of filmmaking. Indeed it can be seen that derivatives of the Mammy and Buck also survived into this era (e.g. Hurry Sundown and The Dirty Dozen, respectively). Upon analysis it seems that the coon caricature (easily the most repugnant of Bogle’s stereotypes) had become unacceptable to audiences post war and certainly extinct by the civil rights era.