Consistent with the dominant stereotyped image of African Americans in other films, movies produced between 1930 and 1960 depicted African Americans as hyper-sexualized, colored, incompetent, criminal, and child-like characters whose best roles in the society were only limited to being a servant, butler, or even house helps. The negative portrayal of African American characters in the US films of early 20th century “reinforced a belief that the proper social position for the black people was that of a servant who was unswervingly devoted to his/her white masters and to upholding the current social order” (Frost 37).
Although some of the film companies were owned by the black folk, they emerged to dispute this position in 1930s and 1940s by including diversified roles of African Americans in movies, which contrasted their prevailing negatively stereotyped portrayal. This paper discusses the changing portrayal of African Americans in 1930-1960s films with reference to Negro Soldier, Gone with the Wind, and Double Indemnity. However, it opens up with a brief background to the evolution of the depiction of African Americans in the early 1930s to late 1960s and beyond in the US film industry.
Background to the Portrayal of African Americans in Films
Films that were produced between 1930 and 1960 portrayed African Americans differently. Themes such as racism and negative representation of African Americans as an inferior race were prevalent in movies dating back from 1909. For instance, the movie Birth of a Nation (1915) by D.W Griffith portrayed not only the dominant racist views of experts in filmmakers, but also reflected racial attitudes among the audience (Lyman 51).
Since the audience praised the theme of racism in movies, filmmakers got more enthusiastic to portray African Americans negatively since the goal of filmmaking is to attract mass appeal. While Birth of a Nation has nothing for African Americans to celebrate, other films sought to tell the dark history of their struggles with racism and servitude (Lyman 49). This suggests that film, as an important media for criticizing and ridiculing dominant perception of the society, served the function of conveying various historical lessons and experiences of African Americans. Indeed, the movie Gone with the Wind, which was released in 1939, shed light on the history of the African Americans.
Although Gone with the Wind was an important masterpiece commentating on the inappropriateness of stigmatization and consideration of African Americans as inferior, it portrayed them as struggling to fight for recognition of their race citing that it was as equally superior as that of whites. This suggests that African Americans were evolving to acquire equality with American dominant white class of people.
Scar of Shame, which is a Hollywood production of 1927, further highlights and reinforces the racial differences between whites and African Americans (Frost 43). Negative portrayal of African Americans, especially with regard to their capabilities, was also reflected in the film industry awards. As an inferior class of people, African Americans were not given major roles in films. This observation perhaps reveals why few, if any African Americans, have ever won film industry awards such as Oscar award between 1930 and 1960.
In the early 1940s, the need for change of portrayal of African Americans in the film images emerged. The need arose from the necessity to develop and build national unity along racial boundaries. The Negro Soldier (1944) was created for this purpose. Casablanca (1942) also served as an important example of altering the US film industry views and perceptions of racial matters (Frost 43). These developments closely relate to various developments made between 1940s and 1950s in the Hollywood liberalist conscience. During the period of the development of the US film industry, gradual change took place, thus prompting the involvement of African Americans in the US film business mainstream culture. The liberal mind in the US film industry is perhaps well explained by the film titled Pinky, which was produced and released in 1949. Liberal expectations in the film industry reached a climax in 1967 with the production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
With the achievements of the late 1960s in the portrayal of African Americans notwithstanding, the issue of their negative portrayal in film re-emerged in the beginning of 1970 to 1990s. Melvin Van Peebles’ movie Sweet Sweetback Baadaas, which was produced in 1971, redefined the 1930s to 1960s image of African Americans in movie screens. It redefined the masculinity of African Americans previously defined in the Sidney Poitier’s movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Lyman 53). With the production of Disney films such as Aladdin in 1992, questions arise on whether the position and negative portrayal of African Americans in the US film mainstream has changed from that of the early 1920s to 1930s.
Further detailed discussions of the portrayal of African Americans in films warrant the consideration of a detailed analysis of the manner in which they were portrayed in the US film mainstream with reference to specific examples and particular historic period. In the next section, this portrayal is discussed with reference to Negro Soldier, Gone with the Wind, and Double Indemnity. These movies were produced and released between 1930 and 1960.
Portrayal of African Americans in Negro Soldier, Gone with the Wind, and Double Indemnity
The US film motion picture industry has had sophisticated history for African Americans in their manner of portrayal. The earliest portrayal of this group of people was mainly restricted to their demeaning and stereotyped depiction as ‘people of color’. “During the first decades of the 20th century, many films depicted a nostalgic and idealized vision of life in the antebellum south” (Frost 39). In this time, civil war experiences were very fresh in the memories of African Americans and the entire American society.
The films produced in 1930-1960 served the principal function of unleashing the wound of bad experiences of African Americans in the civil war. This was perhaps necessary to foster reconciliation through glorification of southerners’ lost causes. Negro Soldier, Gone with the Wind, and Double Indemnity represent the changing moments in the portrayal of African Americans in films.
The Negro Soldier
The Negro Soldier is US military’s documentary portraying African Americans as equally able to participate in war as their white counterparts. It is perhaps best interpreted as an attempt to spread propaganda aimed at soliciting African Americans to enlist in participation in the WWII. Since the founding of the United States, African Americans were segregated and oppressed. However, war created the necessity for their inclusion in not only the public sector employment, but also their inclusion in the military. Nevertheless, segregation in military rankings and allocation of roles were prevalent even in 1940s and beyond. For instance, “Segregation into white and black units remained throughout the war with most African Americans being assigned less prestigious non-combatant support roles” (Nickel 28).
The application of racial thinking in the military unit depicted African Americans as a group of people who are void of education, courage, and skills that are necessary for playing successful roles in military. In the Negro Soldier, this thinking is interrogated.
The Negro Soldier reflects a young preacher among a black congregation persuading people from all races to engage in the fight against the enemy. Members of the congregation, who include African Americans, are well dressed implying that they live a comfortable life unlike that of the stereotyped blacks or African Americans. The preacher identifies various people in the congregation. One of the people in attendance of the church mass is “Private Parks First Class, an attractive light-skinned member of the Women’s Army Corps” (Nickel 37). This observation suggests that apart from demystifying the perception of the inability of male African Americans to participate in military, even female African Americans were also portrayed as having equal ability to carry out military roles such as the male whites. Thus, African Americans do not only fit in house workers’ roles in the society as portrayed by some early 1930s US mainstream films.
Gone with the Wind
While the Negro Soldier instills the perception that African Americans have equal capabilities with whites, Gone with the Wind sharply criticizes this position. It portrays African Americans as slaves and having the inability to face new challenges such as new tasks, which they have not been comfortable with in the past. In the movie, African Americans are depicted as loyal to benevolent masters. For this reason, Big Sam can only leave Tara under instructions. The slaves are portrayed as comfortable with their life at the Scarlett. Those who consider looking for their freedom are treated as gullible, unscrupulous, and as political party puppets. In this extent, Gone with the Wind supports the prevalent racial stereotypes in the US film mainstream culture of the early 1930s such as in Birth of a Nation.
A more serious negative portrayal of African Americans than their treatment as slaves encompasses their treatment as childish and stupid inferior class of people. While Mammy comes out of the film having her uncompromised dignity, Pork appears in the movie scene a confused character. Confusion is evidenced by his glazed expression and wide open eyes. This confusion arises from allocation of new duties in relation to what he is accustomed. Big Sam has his language rules reduced to a point that is less worth in relation to that of an illiterate house worker. The worst of all negative portrayal of African Americans is the depiction of Prissy. She lies, behaves stupidly, squeamish, and becomes overly hysterical over little matters. This negative portrayal confirms the old perception that African Americans needed to work as slaves as they lacked the capacity to make their own work decisions.
Considering the achievements of African Americans such as those portrayed in the Negro Soldier, it is a shame to see McQueen act as Prissy in the Gone with the Wind. The level of stupidly portrayed by Prissy only measures up to that of an inhuman character. It is a pity that African Americans, just like Prissy, can lie over obviously outright issues in the effort to evade the wrath of a master.
Directed by Billy Wilder, the movie Double Indemnity bases its story on James M. Cain’s 1943 novel, which was developed in early 1930s. The film reflects characters such as Fred McMurray (insurance salesperson), Barbara Stanwyck (homemaker longing for her husband’s death), and Edward G. Robinson (claims adjuster). The title of the movie refers to an insurance clause, which doubles the amounts of money paid to persons whose deaths can be attributed to certain accidents. Double Indemnity belongs to a group of Hollywood movies referred as noir
The movie is told in flashbacks involving Neff. In 1940, “many whites had migrated from cities to suburbs, thus leaving the cities filled with minorities who in turn attracted stereotypes and racism in that time” (Lott 548). Double Indemnity is composed in an urban setting perhaps to best portray the place of the African Americans who are classified as minorities.
In the movie, corrupt and morally degraded whites are depicted alongside black folk who are service workers. The best that African Americans can do in the society of morally corrupt whites is functioning as slaves who must work hard to help the white master in amassing wealth. Neff exemplifies the portrayal of the negative minorities including African Americans in the movie. Due to contempt and racism, Neff’s excessive interaction with blacks disproves the inappropriateness of negative stereotyping for African Americans and blacks in general. Indeed, the interaction of Neff with blacks helps in depicting African Americans as compassionate people.
In 1930s and 1940s, blacks and other races that were considered racially inferior such as African Americans were stereotyped as criminals. Surprisingly, Double Indemnity uses dark lighting to portray corruptness and immorality in the society, which is a direct abuse to African Americans. Contrasting of whites and blacks in the movie highlights and/or creates emotions on the roles of the African Americans in the society even though the movie may have been developed to ridicule the prevalent stereotyping of African Americans and blacks in general as inhumane. Whites do not share similar roles with African Americans. All Whites belong to the middle class. They have more than what they need for a comfortable living. The only instance that African Americans appear in the movie is when a White’s car needs washing when there are office-cleaning tasks and/or when suitcases need to be carried from one location to another. In this sense, poverty that is associated with minorities subjects them into servitude.
Nonwhite individuals in the Double Indemnity serve as images for misdemeanor, figurative scapegoats, and/or induced immoral acts such as bribery. Double Indemnity “compares whites who capitulated to villainous desire with racial and ethnic stereotypes; yet retaining the idea of respectable morality” (Lott 552). This way, even if the role of African Americans in the contemporary American society is depicted as inferior to those of whites, the dominance of whites is incredibly ridiculed. The association of whites with immorality such as corruption, which also amount to crime, demystifies the US film industry mainstream culture of 1930s by associating minorities with crime.
The US films, which were produced between 1930 and 1960, described African Americans in different ways. Some films such as Gone with the Wind emphasized the dominance of the white master over the slave, childish, and hysterical African Americans. Perhaps to suit its intentions of persuading African Americans to join the US army and/or support World War II, Negro Soldier contrasted this portrayal by depicting African Americans as having equal ability with white soldiers. Double Indemnity portrayed white masters possessing negative characters such as corruption. However, they interacted with the blacks. This portrayal demystified the perception of the superiority of white masters over the less human African Americans. The view was acerbated through the US film mainstream as reflected in films like Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation.
Frost, Jean. “Hedda Hopper, Hollywood Gossip, and the Politics of Racial Representation in Film, 1946-1948.” Journal of African American History 93.1(2008): 36-63. Print.
Lott, Eric. “The Whiteness of Film Noir.” American Literary History 9.3(1997): 542-566. Print.
Lyman, Stanford. “Race, Sex, And Servitude: Images of Blacks in American Cinema.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 4.1(1990): 49-77. Print.
Nickel, John. “Disabling African American Men: Liberalism and Race Message Films.” Cinema Journal 44.1(2004): 25-48. Print.