Ellen C. Scott, Cinema Civil Rights: Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era (Rutgers University Press, 2015)
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Over the past two decades, scholars have produced a small library of books that explore the myriad ways studio and government censorship shaped classical Hollywood cinema. While many of these works touch on how censors approached cinematic representations of race and racial injustice, very few of them give this topic the extended, careful attention it deserves. That is what makes Ellen C. Scott’s Cinema Civil Rights: Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era (Rutgers University Press, 2015) such a welcome addition to the literature on both African American representation in cinema and the history of film censorship.
Drawing on meticulous research using archival sources, Scott argues that a “system of vetting” combining formal and informal forms of censorship created the “warped image of Black life we often associate with classical Hollywood.” She claims that three regulatory institutions were most responsible for defining the limits of cinematic “representability” in the classical Hollywood era: industry self-censorship administered by the Production Code Administration, state censorship boards (which continued to operate into the 1960s) and the studios themselves. Yet she suggests that civil rights activists sometimes exerted influence over Hollywood representations of race despite the limits imposed by these institutions.
The first chapter of the book investigates the impact of self-censorship on racial representation from the late 1920s through 1968. Scott points out that from its inception the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America attempted to render Hollywood films palatable to segregated Southern audiences by suggesting script changes to producers designed to remove depictions of lynching, interracial desire and “race mixing.” This tendency became more pronounced after the MPPDA’s 1930 adoption of the Production Code – which explicitly prohibited portrayals of “sex relationships between black and white races”—and the appointment of Joseph Breen as head of the PCA, charged with enforcing the Code, in 1934. Breen was vigilant about policing films dealing even tangentially with miscegenation. At Breen’s insistence, “[b]lack men – the biggest threat with regards to miscegenation—were entirely written out” of John Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934).
Scott documents how MPPDA policy on racial issues changed during World War II at the urging of the U.S. Office of War Information, which “sought to eradicate misinformation about various racial groups, national and international.” As a result of this shift, the PCA passed Bataan (1943) and Crash Dive (1943), films featuring the sort of “social equality” between African Americans and whites that Breen had previously warned would offend the South. The MPPDA’s stance on depictions of minorities shifted again in the postwar era with the revision of the Production Code to emphasize “fairness” in representation for “all nations.”
In her second chapter, Scott traces the racial politics of the ten state-level film censor boards that were empowered to license films shown in their states. Sometimes these boards would ban films outright for violating racial taboos. For instance, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland banned Senza Pieta (1948), an Italian neorealist film about a romance between an Italian prostitute and a Black soldier. More frequently, state-level censors would insist that distributors cut particular shots, bits of dialogue or entire scenes as a condition of licensure. Scott documents that state boards repeatedly insisted that scenes of African American women dancing provocatively be excised from films they licensed. State censors also attempted to suppress scenes depicting racial strife, fearing that they might incite real world unrest. Thus, Ohio ordered that the brutality of the interracial violence in the anti-Klan film The Burning Cross (1947) be “softened” and demanded that scenes of a race riot be eliminated from No Way Out (1950). Thanks to the state boards’ stringent censorship, the already ambiguous treatment of race in PCA-approved films was “rendered...even more remote and elliptical.”
The book’s third chapter interrogates the role of individual Hollywood studios in distorting and minimizing injustice towards African Americans using Twentieth Century Fox under the leadership of legendary executive Darryl F. Zanuck as a case study. Pointing to evidence discovered in studio papers, Scott shows that despite the fact that he helped produce several films dealing with the horrors of slavery, “Zanuck’s racial fantasies interfered with the effective showcasing of civil rights issues.”
Perhaps the book’s strongest chapter is the final one on pre-1960s African American activism around cinematic racial representation. Civil rights advocates did not passively accept the slanted treatment of racial issues produced by Hollywood’s “system of vetting” but rather engaged in various forms of collective action to combat it. While the case of the NAACP’s protests against The Birth of a Nation (1915) is well known, Scott contends that smaller scale activism “gradually defined the relationship between the screen and rights.” Activists picketed screenings of Gone with the Wind (1939) brandishing signs denouncing the film for inciting “race hatred.” Similar pickets greeted Disney’s nostalgic paean to the antebellum South, Song of the South (1946). Critiques published in African American newspapers and letter writing campaigns directed at Hollywood studios skewered racist caricatures in cartoons and demanded the removal of the “N-word” from movie dialogue. Indeed, in the case of a proposed 1944 remake of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the outcry from Black organizations and African American journalists led to the film being shelved.
Ultimately, Ellen C. Scott’s Cinema Civil Rights is an original and insightful contribution to the scholarly literature on the history of Hollywood representations of African Americans, one that rightly highlights the role of economic and political controls in shaping screen content. Its only real weakness is its failure to discuss more thoroughly the activity of municipal film censor boards, as local censors tended to be even more conservative on racial matters than state-level ones.
Steve Macek is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at North Central College. He is the author of Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right and the Moral Panic over the City (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) and is currently writing a cultural history of film censorship in Chicago.