Sunday, March 3, 2013

Book Review: Slow Fade to Black

Thomas Cripps. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

The American film industry offered little relief for African Americans amid an oppressive society in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet Thomas Cripps argues that African Americans subtly swayed American film during this period and gradually gained influence despite their marginalization. He traces the work of African Americans from the earliest moving pictures to the 1942 agreement between studio heads and the NAACP in which the major studios promised to enhance the roles of African Americans and diminish the use of old stereotypes. Though much more remained to be done, Cripps contends that this achievement was the culmination of a period in which a casually racist Hollywood was increasingly unable to ignore the demands of black audiences and black performers.

Cripps begins his narrative in the earliest days of filmmaking, a time that was more favorable for African Americans than subsequent decades. In their primitive state without editing technology, early films sometimes allowed the humanity of black Americans to come through, perhaps in spite of directorial intentions. As filmmaking became more sophisticated, white-owned studios asserted more control, consigning blacks to stereotyped roles informed by the southern literary tradition. By 1915 D.W. Griffith’s racist epic The Birth of a Nation decisively asserted the worst racist tropes of white Americans and, partly for that reason, became enormously popular. Black Americans picketed the film and in several cities succeeded in getting some of the worst scenes censored, but these were tactical victories in a strategic rout.

The Birth of a Nation epitomized the tensions African Americans faced as they sought to influence American films. Should blacks accommodate the racist film industry, protecting the meager roles they had in the hope of gradual improvement, or should they build their own film industry? There was no easy answer. Disunity and lack of capital meant that African American films made by and starring black performers remained largely marginalized and inferior products. Yet by the depression years, old-style racism was increasingly hard for the white studios to sell. Black Americans boycotted films and the black press angrily denounced retrograde propaganda, while many white liberals also began to share their concerns. The studios began to make films that dropped the hard-edged racism of earlier fare.

Cripps provides an exhaustive and at times exhausting overview of African Americans in film. The narrative frequently devolves into a series of plot summaries and a catalogue of often demeaning roles at the margins of white movies. Yet Cripps sees his book as a hopeful portrayal of black progress in the face of significant odds. 1939’s blockbuster Gone with the Wind epitomized the gains African Americans had made since The Birth of a Nation. Yet it also revealed the limitations of progress. Though Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her role as a “mammy” figure, the film embraced the Lost Cause ethos, trivialized slavery, and portrayed white southerners as victims. Cripps is remarkably sanguine about these problems, contenting himself with the film’s sympathetic portrayal of McDaniel’s character.

It is here that the book's publication date most clearly comes into view. Racism was certainly frowned upon in 1977, but it seems that the overall white southern perspective on the civil war era was not as thoroughly discredited, as a factual matter, as it is now. So though the author is anti-racist in his orientation, he seems relatively unconcerned about what appears to us as racist historical propaganda. Nevertheless, Cripps is right in noting that as a more equal black presence on screen fitfully emerged in subsequent decades, it owed a debt to this earlier generation of actors and activists for whom the barest humanization in film represented a step forward.

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