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Hollywood Be Thy Name

Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929–1949

Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 355
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  • Book Info
    Hollywood Be Thy Name
    Book Description:

    From the earliest years of sound film in America, Hollywood studios and independent producers of "race films" for black audiences created stories featuring African American religious practices. In the first book to examine how the movies constructed images of African American religion, Judith Weisenfeld explores these cinematic representations and how they reflected and contributed to complicated discourses about race, the social and moral requirements of American citizenship, and the very nature of American identity. Drawing on such textual sources as studio production files, censorship records, and discussions and debates about religion and film in the black press, as well as providing close readings of films, this richly illustrated and meticulously researched book brings religious studies and film history together in innovative ways.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94066-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    In November and December of 1928,The King of Kings, Cecil B. DeMille ’s silent film about the life of Christ, played at the Royal Theatre in Baltimore, one of eleven theaters in the city that catered exclusively to black audiences. The movie proved so popular that the theater booked it for a return engagement and enhanced the show by adding “special religious music by a choir of trained voices as well as special orchestral effects by the Royal Symphonic Orchestra.”¹ In addition to announcing that the film had been held over, Baltimore ’s black weekly, theAfro-American, published an...

  6. ONE “’Taint What You Was, It’s What You Is Today”: Hallelujah and the Politics of Racial Authenticity
    (pp. 19-51)

    In 1928 King Vidor, one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s most successful directors, finding himself between projects, decided to spend some time in Europe. Having directed a number of important and successful silent films for the studio—most notablyThe Big Parade(1925), a tremendously popular World War I epic, andThe Crowd(1928), a study of the life of an average man in the large urban environment of New York City—Vidor returned home when the studio asked him to direct his first sound film. Despite his initial predictions that “sound pictures [would] do away entirely with the art of motion pictures,”...

  7. TWO “‘De Lawd’ a Natchel Man”: The Green Pastures in the American Cultural Imagination
    (pp. 52-87)

    The stage and screen page headlines of the March 14, 1936, issues of both theNew York Amsterdam Newsand theChicago Defendertrumpeted scandal in the life of Rex Ingram, the actor who had been selected after a long search and much deliberation to play the part of “De Lawd,” the God character in Warner Bros.’ film version of Marc Connelly’s playThe Green Pastures.¹ TheChicago Defender’s report conjectured that the studio might fire Ingram from the film, then in production, as a result of the negative publicity arising from lawsuits that had recently been filed against him....

  8. THREE “A Mighty Epic of Modern Morals”: Black-Audience Religious Films
    (pp. 88-129)

    By 1929, the same year that MGM releasedHallelujah, thirty-five-year-old Spencer Williams had already begun to make a name for himself in Hollywood and had come to the attention of the black press for his work both as a writer and actor within the white studio system and as an independent director of films for black audiences.¹ The previous year had seen the release of his first film,Tenderfeet, and he had begun to work as a sound technician and writer at the white-owned Christie Studios while also beginning work on a second film of his own.² In addition, he...

  9. FOUR “Saturday Sinners and Sunday Saints”: Urban Commercial Culture and the Reconstruction of Black Religious Leadership
    (pp. 130-162)

    The identification of urban entertainment culture—particularly the nightclub—as the principal marker of the various dangers that modern life presents to the faith of individuals is the most striking commonality among the extant black-audience religious films of the 1930s and 1940s. In a most literal presentation of this dynamic in Spencer Williams’sThe Blood of Jesus(1941), Martha’s soul must pass through the city to return to her body, and it is primarily the lure of a nightclub and its attendant vices that places her soul in jeopardy. Similarly, in the Royal Gospel Productions filmGoing to Glory, Come...

  10. FIVE “A Long, Long Way”: Religion and African American Wartime Morale
    (pp. 163-203)

    In the winter of 1942, Truman K. Gibson, assistant to the civilian aide to the Secretary of War, enlisted the aid of Clark M. Davis in reviewing the coverage by the major newsreels of issues related to African American soldiers.¹ Davis was responsible for booking films for Abe Lichtman, the white owner of a movie theater chain that catered to black audiences.² In March of that year, Davis forwarded to Gibson the continuity sheets provided by the studios for a news item about the Army’s 41st Engineering Regiment at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. MGM’s “News of the Day” advertised the...

  11. SIX “Why Didn’t They Tell Me I’m a Negro?”: Lost Boundaries and the Moral Landscape of Race
    (pp. 204-234)

    In the December 1947 issue ofReader’s Digestamong the usual condensed books, readers found journalist William L. White’s account of the experiences of Albert Johnston Jr., who had learned at age sixteen that he was “colored,” that the family had been “passing” as white, and that his father “had had to do it, not because he was ashamed of being colored, but only to make their living.”¹ White’s portrait of the family explained that Albert C. Johnston Sr., a graduate of Rush Medical School in Chicago, had felt forced to pass as white in order to obtain an internship...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 235-238)

    I have been concerned in the course of this book with the contexts in which and processes through which filmmakers produced images and discourses about African American religion in the first decades of sound film. As becomes readily apparent from even a cursory survey of the Hollywood films produced in this period that featured black casts and in which African American stories were central, the white writers, producers, and directors of these films saw representations of religious behavior, community, institutions, and leaders as natural and important elements of their work. Religion, many of them understood, was a prominent feature of...

    (pp. 239-240)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 241-318)
    (pp. 319-330)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 331-341)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 342-342)