Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942
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Set against the backdrop of the black struggle in society, Slow Fade to Black is the definitive history of African-American accomplishment in film--both before and behind the camera--from the earliest movies through World War II. As he records the changing attitudes toward African-Americans both in Hollywood and the nation at large, Cripps explores the growth of discrimination as filmmakers became more and more intrigued with myths of the Old South: the "lost cause" aspect of the Civil War, the stately mansions and gracious ladies of the antebellum South, the "happy" slaves singing in the fields. Cripps shows how these characterizations culminated in the blatantly racist attitudes of Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and how this film inspired the N.A.A.C.P. to campaign vigorously--and successfully--for change. While the period of the 1920s to 1940s was one replete with Hollywood stereotypes (blacks most often appeared as domestics or "natives," or were portrayed in shiftless, cowardly "Stepin Fetchit" roles), there was also an attempt at independent black production--on the whole unsuccessful. But with the coming of World War II, increasing pressures for a wider use of blacks in films, and calls for more equitable treatment, African-Americans did begin to receive more sympathetic roles, such as that of Sam, the piano player in the 1942 classic Casablanca.
A lively, thorough history of African-Americans in the movies, Slow Fade to Black is also a perceptive social commentary on evolving racial attitudes in this country during the first four decades of the twentieth century.
that the new Negro of the cities was drowned in the martial vision of Griffith's Southland. Five of his last Biograph films were set on plantations, and only two, The Honor of His Family and The House with the Closed Shutters, in 1910, hinted that Southern legend and reality conflicted. This metaphor of Southern tragedy which he developed and with which he infused his epic, The Birth of a Nation, helped to firmly etch the outlines of Negro character in film long after its fidelity to American
before the broken doll who has taught her that love cannot cross racial lines. The ending became a cliche in Indian movies: it was they who must die to prove a point.50 Griffith did not invent the model, but his rendering of it clearly revealed the artistic dead end of the genre. Cross-cultural conflict merely provided an excuse for a ritual reenactment of Indian defeat. Assimilationism, because it was socially unlikely, was an excuse for death but not tragedy, like the death of a devoted dog.
vestigial racism could not help but survive in the closed Hollywood air. Not necessarily calculated or conspiratorial, it was simply normal intellectual baggage, a casual manner of whites toward blacks. Social relations, humor, jobs rested on it. When Edgar "Blue" Washington acted in Tim McCoy's silent westerns it was expected that his title would be "handyman" and that whites would play pranks on him. On one location they placed snakes in his bedding and laughed at "the blue streak as Blue
who took a company to Louisiana in order to match locations with earlier shots taken in Brazil. Even though they exhausted their cash and lost their hero to the U.S. Army, they completed the film using Otto Linkenhelt—Elmo Lincoln—a yeoman actor in Griffith's troupe. Again, Burroughs brooded over violations of his ideas, but the result soared above his expectations. The savior of the picture was Harry Reichenbach, the first of the flamboyant press agents. His campaign caught the attention of
office failure. Culture conflicts appeared as struggles between Indians and white renegades, halfbreeds, or crooked trading post agents rather than true clashes of cultures, and they usually ended in empty rituals of false conciliation. By 1927 Variety noticed that "the Indian, once the partner of the film cowboy, has largely disappeared."35 Predictably, European immigrant groups remained closest to white assimilationist ideals. Because of this, the sentimental movies of immigrant life celebrated