Black Images in Classical Hollywood Cinema until the advent of the Civil Rights Era
The word “Hollywood” must not be confused with the place in Los Angeles, where the movie industry was established around 1920, but it can be understood as a state of mind, regarding production techniques, themes and its sociology. As we know there was a movie industry set in New Jersey’s Fort Lee well before the companies moved over to Hollywood, with its better movie-making conditions regarding weather and backdrop. Since then there was a kind of ethnic code that was used and not violated in order to produce movies. The code was either adopted by the theatre as the first movies were more a kind of stage-play documentary which simply filmed the action on stage, or simply being used as it was following the success of other film productions. Therefore, even at the beginnings, movie-making was based on long traditions, despite its novelty for the audience. As a new mass medium it was not to present innovative themes but rather rely upon well established traditions right from the start, because the movies were a moneymaking business. Consequently, with successfully including old traditions, came the movie industry’s rise. One of such tradition was minstrelsy. Minstrelsy became the standard procedure in how to depict the black men on screen. It was well established especially within the classical Hollywood period, from the first days of movie industries during the silent era, to the advent of the sound period.
2.1. America’s Blackface tradition
According to Eileen Southern blackface minstrelsy emerged as a form of theatrical performance during the 1820s and became for much of the 19th century “the most popular form of theatrical entertainment in the United States and, to the rest of the world, America's unique contribution to the stage.” (Southern, p. 7) Blackface arose during the days of slavery, so the songs, dances and jokes performed by white entertainers who blackened their faces with burnt cork, were based loosely on the lives of black slaves. They coloured their faces and used makeup to give the impression of big lips and large eyes. While it was entertainment, the main attraction for white audiences was that it was a declaration of white superiority. The popularity of blackface minstrel performance was partly due to the emergence of a class system. Minstrel entertainment was able to provide a common thread for the lower, middle, and upper class. All whites could feel superior and unified while at the same time stereotyping African Americans. (Internet source a) Most white commentary on minstrelsy assumed its accuracy, its essentially faithful imitation of African-American speech, singing and dancing while Thomas Dartmouth Rice popularized the minstrel show in 1828 with his performance that became known as “Jim Crow”. This character was a crippled plantation slave who sang and danced. Through the popularization of this kind of performance one could tend to accuse Rice and other performers for their common response to anti-slavery movements with proslavery renditions about an all happy-go-lucky slave-image which was certainly a construct of white naïveté. As Grupenhoff points out, “the minstrel show depiction of the black man’s experience in antebellum American was an exaggerated and stereotypical version of black behaviour from a white man’s point of view.” (Grupenhoff, p. 33) In 1865, when the years of Civil War were over, also Black performers formed into troupes driven by their rise in popularity. They soon learned their lesson well for despite its racist stereotypes, even some good came out of minstrelsy tradition. It provided a foundation for black performers to learn from and many that emerged after the decline of minstrelsy were able to use the experience they had gained as minstrel entertainers. “W.C. Handy, Bert Williams, Ma Rainey, Dizzy Gillespie, and Jelly Roll Morton were just a few of the performers who started out in...
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