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Cinema Civil Rights

Cinema Civil Rights: Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era

Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 268
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  • Book Info
    Cinema Civil Rights
    Book Description:

    From Al Jolson in blackface to Song of the South, there is a long history of racism in Hollywood film. Yet as early as the 1930s, movie studios carefully vetted their releases, removing racially offensive language like the "N-word." This censorship did not stem from purely humanitarian concerns, but rather from worries about boycotts from civil rights groups and loss of revenue from African American filmgoers.

    Cinema Civil Rightspresents the untold history of how Black audiences, activists, and lobbyists influenced the representation of race in Hollywood in the decades before the 1960s civil rights era. Employing a nuanced analysis of power, Ellen C. Scott reveals how these representations were shaped by a complex set of negotiations between various individuals and organizations. Rather than simply recounting the perspective of film studios, she calls our attention to a variety of other influential institutions, from protest groups to state censorship boards.

    Scott demonstrates not only how civil rights debates helped shaped the movies, but also how the movies themselves provided a vital public forum for addressing taboo subjects like interracial sexuality, segregation, and lynching. Emotionally gripping, theoretically sophisticated, and meticulously researched,Cinema Civil Rightspresents us with an in-depth look at the film industry's role in both articulating and censoring the national conversation on race.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-7137-9
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-10)

    The idea of American freedom has in practice consistently relied upon a pathological denial of the rights of African Americans to equal citizenship—and a simultaneous denial that these rights are being withheld. Accordingly, classical Hollywood, in its role as America’s dream factory, largely maintained the myth of Black inferiority while minimizing America’s long history of racial injustice. Countless films reinforced Black stereotypes, normalized economic and social segregation, and systematically avoided admitting the unjustness of racial inequality, often through the dissemination of the mammy, mulatto, buck, and Uncle Tom characters. As Donald Bogle has compellingly argued, the tradition of stereotypy,...

  5. 1 REGULATING RACE, STRUCTURING ABSENCE: Industry Self-Censorship and African American Representability
    (pp. 11-67)

    The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was the most consistent and powerful censor of American films in the classical era.¹ Headed initially by Will Hays, former postmaster general and a representative of the Midwestern sensibilities key to securing the industry’s moral image, the MPPDA worked for the common interests of the major Hollywood studios. Its role, from the late 1920s until 1968, was to suggest changes to Hollywood film scripts to avoid outside censure and censorship by local, state, and international boards. From 1934 to 1968, it seriously undertook the task of reviewing all the major studios’...

    (pp. 68-107)

    The Production Code gave rise to film texts in which emblems of racial controversy were legible but deniable—repressed but still palpable. State censors went beyond the PCA in their repression, cutting films to conform to their state’s de jure or de facto racial politics and vitally shaping America’s system of film vetting. They created a regionally accented cinema, often controlling images throughout their entire distribution area. State censorship also influenced the SRC and PCA.¹ The PCA kept careful records of states’ decisions on all studio films as well as many independent, exploitation, and foreign films, and they made sure...

  7. (pp. 108-146)

    We have explored the impact of industry and state censorship on cinematic images invoking key civil rights questions. Up to this point, producers such as Universal’s Carl Laemmle—who tried to producedLulu Belle,broughtImitation of Lifeto the screen, and broughtStevedoreto Joseph Breen—have appeared relatively valiant in their attempts to address racial politics. But whether—and how—producers consistently pressed for representation of civil rights issues deserves greater scrutiny. What was the role of the individual Hollywood studios in representing and censoring civil rights issues? Although this story could be told in many ways, an...

  8. 4 SHADOWBOXING: Black Interpretive Activism in the Classical Hollywood Era
    (pp. 147-186)

    Black activists looking to the screen for some meaningful representation of their experiences in a segregated America faced a wall of repression. As I have shown, not only did the PCA censor civil rights issues, but studios and state censors also repressed the interracial imagination. Even the “liberal” films of Darryl F. Zanuck muted Black struggle and avoided crisply and clearly addressing the civil rights issues at stake. But Black audiences did not accept the limits Hollywood imposed on the screen figuration of lynching, miscegenation, and integration. As Anna Everett, Jacqueline Stewart, Manthia Diawara, and others have shown, Black audiences...

    (pp. 187-196)

    My focus in these chapters has been on the policies and textual patterns that restrained the cinematic envisioning of issues pertinent to Black civil rights. In the years before the full-fledged mass movement for civil rights, there was significant struggle over not only how to define this agenda but also how to represent it. Various institutions, ranging from the Hollywood studios to the Black press, were engaged in negotiating these representations and in marshaling their meanings. The cinema became an important site of inscription for both filmmakers and Black activists, who often differed in their understanding and interpretations of the...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 197-242)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 243-254)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 255-256)