African Americans on film

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Del McCoury.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Del McCoury.

If it’s a film class, why is there a picture of a bunch of musicians? Well, this week we’re talking about race in Hollywood and focusing specifically on African Americans in film. This week, the students in the class read a chapter about how the Civil Rights Movement impacted American society and popular culture in the 1960s.

The representations of blacks in Hollywood films was historically full of stereotypes (the domestic, the fool, the threat) or, just as troubling, notable for a complete absence from the screen. We’ll get to those ideas in a few minutes.

Now about that photo. It’s not the one I would like to have at the top of this post. The one I would like to have hasn’t been taken. See the man with the clarinet and the man with the guitar in the center of the photo? They are Charlie Gabriel and Del McCoury. Gabriel is one of the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and McCoury leads the bluegrass ensemble that bears his name. The two bands recorded an album, American Legacies, in 2011 and occasionally do performances together.

The two bands recently did a concert at the university and there was a moment before the show started that I would have captured had I been able to photograph the performance: before the stage lights went up, Charlie and Del walked out on stage together holding hands. Two men so full of talent and love for their music supporting each other as they took the stage–the gesture was a small, human, and completely beautiful moment. With Charlie being 80 and Del in his 70s, I kept thinking about how unlikely that gesture would have been at the start of their careers–even if they had no personal qualms about race, the society around them and the audiences in the 50s and 60s would have.

A sampling of how the two groups’ styles blend well together, bringing together two uniquely American sounds:

Now, let’s look at the movies.

African Americans & the Film Industry

The early American film industry operated similarly to the music and theater fields—often, there were separate productions for black and white audiences. From about 1915-1950, more than 500 race films were produced for black audiences. While most of these films were financed and scripted by whites, a handful were made by black filmmakers. Unfortunately, many of the films have been lost and only about 100 remain.

Filmmaking pioneer and author Oscar Micheaux

Filmmaking pioneer and author Oscar Micheaux

An early pioneer of cinema, Oscar Micheaux, worked for Lincoln Motion Picture Company and advertised that the company’s films were scripted and produced entirely by African Americans. The 1920 film Within Our Gates, written and directed by Micheaux is the oldest surviving film made by an African American director. The film tells the story of a black woman who travels north to raise funds for a school in the South. Along the way, she discovers secrets about her family history, which sets the stage for racial violence that culminates with the lynching of a black man. Micheaux’s films and books often depicted the accomplishments of blacks in the face of adversity. Some critics complain about the overwrought acting and limited production values in Micheaux’s work, but his films were often more concern about the message than the delivery, and are worth viewing to see his ideas about politics and societal roles.

After Micheaux, there were very few black filmmakers in America until the late 20th century and the rise of the Blaxploitation movies. From the 1930s to the late 1950s, the African American presence in Hollywood films is limited to secondary roles. One thing I ask students to consider when they’re thinking about this era is how it would feel to never see reflections of your “self” on screen. What message would it send to continually see only white people in leading roles and portrayed as successful? For nearly 40 years, black audiences did not see their lives reflected back through popular movies. (Other minority groups have a similar treatment in Hollywood films; often those representations don’t show up on screen until an independent filmmaker has success with a film that shows the world his or her community; once larger studios see that there is an audience for the material, more films with a bigger budget follow.)

Sidney Poitier helped both black and white audiences envision African Americans in dignified positions.

Sidney Poitier helped both black and white audiences envision African Americans in dignified positions.

In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Sidney Poitier broke through the American color barrier and delivered performances that helped Americans begin to envision blacks and whites as equals. The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, Blackboard Jungle, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and A Patch of Blue allowed Poitier to play a wide range of roles from the comedic to the romantic and the dramatic. At the height of his career Poitier placed an emphasis on dignity, delivering his performances with measured emotion that emphasized wit and intellect. He gave white audiences a different vision of African Americans and their potential.

By the 1970s, though, the reserved performances of Poitier gave way to films that bubbled with anger and frustration at unjust situations and a racist society. In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles hit big with his independent film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as did Gordon Parks with Shaft (Note: These trailers are graphic and contain adult language). These films, with an emphasis on the gritty urban scenes, the drug trade, violence, revenge, and stylistic editing and funky soundtracks opened the doors to a new generations of black filmmakers as well as opportunistic low-budget imitations by studios trying to cash in.

Charles Burnett’s films of the 1970s and 1980s were often attempts to show realistic images of black life in America; his films do not rely on the flashy color and creative editing of the Blaxploitation era movies. Instead, they have a stark, quiet realism Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding, and To Sleep With Anger are some of his best known films.

From the 1980s to now, filmmakers like Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, John Singleton, Allen and Albert Hughes, and Julie Dash, etc., have been directing movies that depict black life in contemporary America. Critics and the film industry started noticing Spike Lee with his short films and the 1986 feature She’s Gotta Have It, but his 1989 film Do The Right Thing caught all of  America’s attention for its fresh camera work, inventive dialogue, and the mix of humor, anger, and sadness that show the events that unfold in a racially mixed neighborhood on the hottest day of the year.

This week, the class watched Something New, which focuses on an interracial relationship. Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) is a successful business woman who finds herself set up on a blind date with Brian (Simon Baker). As the film opens, the audience sees she is under pressure at work to prove herself and in her personal life to find a mate. Her girlfriends try to get her to lower her high expectations—she wants a man who is educated, has a job, has good teeth, and “isn’t crazy,” which seems reasonable, but then she keeps listing requirements further narrowing the possibile candidates. When a friend sets her up on a blind date with a single landscape architect, it sounds like an good match until she sees he is white.

The film offers a glimpse into the life of an upper-class black woman; even with her accomplishments and background (coming from a family of “academics” and graduating from top schools), Kenya still has to work harder than her white colleagues to prove her worth to the firm where she is employed. The film does a frank exploration of race in America and shows both black and white views with honest, if not very subtle, scenes where Kenya and Brian explore their own expectations and values while also dealing with the opinions of family and friends.

An interesting thing about film is that it can be reflective of current societal attitudes or it can project an ideal for people to strive for. For example, many of the War films during World War II show a racially integrated military while the armed forces were still segregated in real life—desegregation of the armed forces took place in 1948. Showing a fictional unity on screen reinforced the idea of all Americans working together for the cause.

American films and TV shows featuring black characters often make a point of explaining the difference between black culture and the rest of America. On the TV show House, Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) often makes exaggerated comments about Dr. Foreman’s (Omar Epps) experiences with crime and life in a ghetto. An interesting contrast can be seen in British television shows where multiracial casts often do not discuss their backgrounds. In the crime drama Luther, lead detective John Luther’s (Idris Elba) experiences as a black man in England are not mentioned by him or other characters. Racism exists in the UK, but it is focused differently than it is the U.S. The history of slavery in the U.S. and legislative language that ignored the basic human rights of significant portions of the population still reverberate today; other issues such as economic anxieties and fears over security impact how immigrants and people of other religions are treated.

NPR did a piece on African American stereotypes in the movies that is worth listening to. Click here to listen. Professor Anna Everett makes the observation that many of the stereotypical black characters in films are not “contextualized” within a family or community; they come out of nowhere and are attached to nothing. The white characters around them impart significance and meaning to their existence within the world of the film. Actor/director Bill Duke talks about the limited roles for African Americans in Hollywood and the dilemma many face as they are torn between paying the bills and holding out for roles that go beyond stereotypical representations.

Love and romance in American comedy

Myrna Loy and William Powell; the pair made several films together including the Thin Man series and Love Crazy.

Myrna Loy and William Powell; the pair made several films together including the Thin Man series and Love Crazy.

Note: This blog is a virtual lecture that accompanies a film studies class, so there are references to specific readings and films the students have access to, but the casual reader might not. However, there are also general ideas about film studies and Hollywood history that don’t rely upon the texts and films.

British writer/comic Stephen Fry suggests that the difference between American and British humor comes down to self-confidence. He claims American comics’ routines hinge on a sense of optimism, while British comics celebrate their failures. Fry’s observation is interesting for the insight an outsider brings to our humor; also, he seems to be onto something.

When looking at American movies, the main character is often an underdog who has the pluck to get out of a sticky situation through wit, a little fast talk, and action. It is kind of ironic that one of the iconic comedians from Hollywood’s early days, Charlie Chaplin, was British; his Little Tramp character was the embodiment of the American myth of the everyman who can pull himself up by his bootstraps and make a name for himself. Another American comedic icon, Cary Grant, was also British; he came to the U.S. when he was 16, reinventing himself and helping Americans imagine an American man who could be urbane, witty, and sophisticated. While Grant played several types of roles throughout his career, he first hit big in screwball comedies—our genre this week.

Slapstick and anarchy

From the earliest silent movies through to today, slapstick has been a big part of American comedy.

The Marx Brothers had a special mix of wordplay and physical humor that reflected the wisecracking urban sensibilities of an evolving America where even the sons of Jewish immigrants could become world famous movie stars. The Marxes simultaneously lived the American dream and destroyed all attempts at creating any sort of institution. The brothers started out life in a poor section of New York’s upper East Side and worked the family vaudeville act into a film career that afforded them fame and wealth beyond their expectations. In their films, the Marxes poked fun at anyone or anything that attempted to impose order or assign value–higher education, socialites, government, etc., were trampled on with glee by the Marx Brothers.

The desire to destroy the institution—physical or more often, social—is a hallmark of American comedy. This brand of humor ties in with our idea of ourselves as iconoclasts and individualists. However, even with the destruction, there is usually a resolution where the institution is restored, but changed somehow and improved upon before the restoration is complete.

Movies such as Big Daddy (starring Adam Sandler) take on the institution of marriage and family. Sandler’s character, Sonny, is first presented as an overgrown kid who is selfish and destructive, belittling his friend Kevin for getting engaged. When a child (Julian, played by Dylan and Cole Sprouse) lands in his care, Sonny is forced to grow up, but he does it on his own terms—there are experiments with letting Julian dress himself and go by the name Frankenstein. He encourages the boy to urinate in public in attempt to keep him from constantly wetting his pants, but Sonny also uses a similar creative approach to get Julian to take a bath–dressing up as the father of the boy’s favorite superhero, Scuba Steve, and asking Julian to keep Scuba Steve company in the bathtub. A threat to the newly formed bond between Sonny and the boy by the court system forces Sonny to reevaluate not only his child-rearing strategy, but also his own views on marriage and family. By the film’s end, Sonny has become “normalized” into a marriage with a newborn of his own; his “improvement” to the system is introducing the ideas that each person involved in the child’s life has an impact and that men can raise well-adjusted children if given the opportunity.

Love and laughter

The battle between the sexes provides much fodder for American comedy. While the Romantic Comedy is often thought of as a genre that appeals more to female moviegoers, its foundations are in the Screwball Comedy, which had more general appeal. See the overview of the genre on Green Cine for more in-depth information about specific films, performers, and directors.

Screwball Comedies often pitted men and women against each other in conflicts that were substitutions for sexual expression. The term “screwball” was first used in the 1930s to describe the unpredictable pitches thrown by baseball players like Carl Hubbell. Movie critics adopted the term to describe the comedy films that came about in the early 1930s that revolved around unpredictable plots and zany antics between seemingly mismatched romantic partners.

Many films of the 1930s and 1940s have been labeled Screwball Comedies, including the film we are focusing on this week, Love Crazy. However, the label is often thrown at movies that simply have an element of madcap antics thrown into the mix.

For our purposes, a Screwball Comedy usually has the following elements:

  • A couple that is mismatched socially (one is usually from the upper class while the other is middle class), but a good match intellectually
  • Absurd situations or characters with secrets
  • Physical comedy that stands in for sex or physical affection
  • Rapid-fire dialogue that includes one-liners and innuendo from both parties
  • A series of misunderstandings that complicate the plot and prevent the couple from uniting until the end of the film
  • Neither party is idealized—the pair find each other irritating at the start of the film; interest often develops as the result of a challenge (there is no “love at first sight/stars-in-the-eyes” scene)
  • The resolution includes marriage or remarriage
  • Often, the middle class is idealized as virtuous in Screwball Comedies while the rich are viewed as being in need of reform (this is due in part to the original Screwball Comedies being produced during the Great Depression when audiences sought escapism and enjoyed seeing the rich get a comeuppance)

If you have done this week’s reading, you’ll note that Screwball Comedies reached their peak during the Production Code era. During this time in Hollywood’s history, the industry engaged in self-imposed censorship and graphic depictions of sex and violence (among other things) were banned. The 1931 film Scarface is considered the catalyst for the Production Code; read more details here.

Screenwriters had to develop films that would have mass-generational appeal. Keep in mind that during the 1930s and early 1940s, going to the movies was often an all-day affair where the audience saw a newsreel, comedy shorts and cartoons, the feature presentation, and possibly, a second feature as well. The movies had to appeal to everyone and offend no one.

With the Screwball Comedies, the screenwriters found ways to push the envelope and write dialogue and situations that adults would understand as intimate in nature and younger viewers would simply find funny or entertaining.

Jane M. Greene, in “A Proper Dash of Spice: Screwball Comedy and the Production Code,”* makes the case that antagonistic relationships stood in for sex during this era. She also argues that Love Crazy is not a true Screwball Comedy.

While we do see signs of the Production Code at work in Love Crazy—the Irelands have separate beds in their bedroom, for example—and Greene points to examples of how the dialogue was edited to conform to the Production Code, many elements of a classic Screwball Comedy are missing: Steve and Susan are already married when the film opens and even during the separation scenes, they do not have a physically antagonistic relationship. Their dialogue may be a bit suggestive on the night of their anniversary, but otherwise, the pair rarely exchange one-liners that hint at the sexual tension between them. Finally, the Irelands are both solidly middle class, so no tension exists over perceived social status.

Some elements of Screwball that appear in the film: There are outside forces that work to keep the pair apart (Susan’s mother, Ward Willoughby the archer, and Steve’s former girlfriend Isobel); the misunderstandings about Ward Willoughby and Pinky Grayson, as well as Steve’s masquerade as his “sister”; and the scenes where Steve is institutionalized.

If you haven’t watched Love Crazy yet, or plan to revisit it, here are some things to look for:

  • The performances of William Powell and Myrna Loy: the duo was paired up in several films in the 1930s and 40s, including the Thin Man series. They play off of each other well and have a natural chemistry on screen that makes them believable as a married couple. While Powell isn’t as familiar to today’s audiences as other comedic actors of his generation (Cary Grant, for example), he had a natural grace and accessibility that made him an audience favorite. Likewise, Myrna Loy had good comedic timing and sass that made her more than just another pretty face.
  • The use of lighting and sound to underline the lighter comedic fare: unlike in heavy drama, the lighting in the film tends to be pretty even from scene to scene. Few dramatic close-ups are used; instead, there are many medium shots which allow the audience to focus on the entire scene unfolding rather than on the emotional impact for only one character at a time.
  • The reinforcing of middle class values: from the set design to the etiquette in place around meal times and standards of dress, the Irelands embody 1940s middle class values.
  • Gender roles and expectations: We have different visions of what it meant to be a man or woman in America at the time the film was made. How are the various characters presented? What does the film tell us about how men and women were expected to behave during this period?
  • Somewhat related—stereotypes: We see a nagging mother-in-law in several scenes. There is also a scene where the valet at the party is presented as a wide-eyed fool; the few blacks shown on screen in this era were often cast as domestic servants who also had an air of childishness about them. Listen to an NPR segment about black stereotypes in Hollywood here.

Questions to consider:

Why are relationships such a big source of comedic inspiration?

How has American film comedy evolved over the decades (or has it)?

What do you think of Stephen Fry’s assessment of the difference between British and American humor?

Until the Production Code was replaced with the ratings system in 1968, films were regularly edited or censored to conform to the standards of the code. Have you ever watched a film that you found offensive or thought should have been edited to some degree?

Film terminology for the week:

Classical cinema–mainstream narrative cinema, roughly from the mid-1910s to the 1960s. These movies are characterized by a strong story, star, and high production values. These movies usually have a clear conflict, complications that rise to a narrative climax, and a resolution that provides closure.

high key lighting–Bright, even illumination with few conspicuous shadows; this style of lighting is associated with comedies, musicals, and other “light entertainment” genres.

medium shot--A medium shot usually shows the performer from the knees or waist up; the shot is relatively close up and includes some details of the surrounding scenery.

A medium shot from Sherlock Holmes. Director Guy Ritchie places Robert Downey Jr. in front of the crowd where he is filmed from a slightly low angle.

A medium shot from Sherlock Holmes. Director Guy Ritchie places Robert Downey Jr. in front of the crowd where he is filmed from a slightly low angle.

mise en scène–how the various elements in a frame are arranged–this includes settings, decor, props, actors, costumes, makeup, lighting, performances, and character movements and positioning. Cinematic mise en scène is both the way the action is staged and how it is photographed. Also long, un-cut, unedited and uninterrupted sequences shot in real-time are often referred to as mise en scène.

Greene, Jane M. “A Proper Dash of Spice: Screwball Comedy and the Production Code,” Journal of Film and Video 63.3, Fall 2011.