’s From V. J. Jerome’s "The Negro In Hollywood Films" (1950) Essay, Research Paper About the Author text of this booklet is an expansion of a lecture, "The Negro in Hollywood
’s From V. J. Jerome’s "The Negro In Hollywood Films" (1950) Essay, Research Paper
About the Author
text of this booklet is an expansion of a lecture, "The Negro in Hollywood
Films," delivered at a public forum held under the auspices of the Marxist cultural
magazine, Masses & Mainstream, at the Hotel Capitol, New York, on February 3,
The lecture, which dealt with fundamental and theoretical aspects of the film medium
and the Negro question, and which projected a rounded program for uniting Negro and white
Americans in the fight against chauvinism in the film and other cultural areas, was
received with enthusiasm by the audience, and its publication urged upon the sponsors of
The author, V. J. Jerome, is editor of Political Affairs, leading journal of
Marxist thought and opinion in the United States, and also chairman of the Communist
Party’s National Cultural Commission. He is the author of several books and pamphlets,
including Social-Democracy and the War, War and the Intellectuals, The Treatment of
Defeated Germany, and, most recently, Culture In a Changing World, which has
been translated in a number of European countries.
The Underlying Strategy
The treatment of Negro themes and characters by Hollywood during the past fifty years
has borne a clear relationship to the concrete political program of monopoly capital in
each successive period. Each phase of Hollywood policy in this regard must be considered
in the frame of reference of the particular stage of the Negro people’s movement, and of
its alliance with the American working class.
While making certain concessions on the screen, designed to "adjust" to the
Negro people’s forward movement, the controlling interests have sought tenaciously to
retain the clich?s and discriminations of the past in one form or another. These
concessions, being tactical in character, have always been utilized by monopoly capital
with a view to furthering and strengthening its basic strategy. The objective
of that strategy is to perpetuate the odious myth of "white supremacy" in order
to hold back the developing labor-Negro alliance for the common struggle against fascism
and imperialist war; to weaken the fight of the trade unions and white progressives for a
Fair Employment Practices Commission bill, for the abolition of the poll tax, and for the
outlawry of lynching; to prevent the organization and the full integration of the Negro
workers into the trade unions, in order to hamper the unification of the white and Negro
workers in a powerful American labor movement. It is the objective of that strategy, at
all times, to undermine the movement of the Negro people and to prevent it from developing
its full force, and to keep the Negro people from understanding the true basis and nature
of their oppression. The objective is to keep them from understanding that the lynch-law
and Jim-Crow discrimination and segregation are inspired by Wall Street and Southern
The objective is, furthermore, to keep from the Negro people the scientific teaching of
the Communist Party that their oppression is national in essence, and that their struggle
is fundamentally a struggle for national liberation.
Finally, it is the objective of that strategy to weaken the ties of the Negro people
with the white workers and other popular allies and thereby to retard the general
working-class struggle for emancipation from capitalism. It is the aim of that strategy to
isolate the Negro people’s movement and rob it of self-confidence, thus to prevent the
Negro people from taking the anti-imperialist road to national liberation.
Roots of Hollywood’s Racism
The fact is that the imperialist credo of chauvinist nationalism and "white
supremacy" dates back to the very origin of commercial film making in the United
States. It is no mere chance that the very first dramatic film, which was shown in 1898,
the year in which American imperialism, fully emerging, announced its "Manifest
Destiny" with the launching of the robber war to wrest colonies from Spain, bore the
title Tearing Down the Spanish Flag. Not less significant is the fact that in
1901–barely two years after announcement of the "Open Door" policy for the
spoliation of China–the public was subjected to the racist film The Boxer Massacres in
Pekin, designed to "prove" that the anti-imperialist struggle of the Chinese
people constituted a "yellow peril" to "white civilization." Street
Scene in Pekin, released the same year, portrayed British police in front of their
Legation breaking up a demonstration of Chinese "unruly citizens" (Edison
The imperialist mythology of the Anglo-Saxon super-type was methodically
cultivated in a variety of motion pictures, of which Fights of Nations, released in
1905, was perhaps the most viciously chauvinist. In that picture the Negro was caricatured
as a "razor-thrower," the Jew as a "briber," the Mexican as a
"treacherous" fellow, the Spaniard as a "foppish lover," the Irishman
as a "drunkard," while in the final tableau the United States was presented as
the bringer of peace to all the nations. As a contemporary trade publication described it:
"The scene is magnificently decorated with emblems of all nations, the American eagle
surmounting them. In harmony, peace and good will the characters of the different nations
appear, making it an allegorical representation of "Peace," with the United
States presiding at a congress of Powers" (The Moving Picture World March 9,
1907, as quoted by Louis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film, New York, 1939, p.
75). How prophetic of the day when this imperial eagle would seek to commandeer the United
Nations into line for atomic "Peace"!
The policy of setting native against foreign-born, white against Negro, non-Jew against
Jew, of dividing all in order to conquer all, but with the special, racist design to keep
the Negro people upon the bottom rung of the ladder–that has been the studied policy of
the rulers of this land. In this service they have methodically used the film medium.
The economics and politics of "white supremacy" were reflected in film after
film that maligned, ridiculed, and disparaged the Negro people. Not only was Negro life
ignored, not only were the struggles and aspirations of the Negro people undocumented, but
such characterizations of Negroes as were given were the vilest caricatures, the most
hideous stereotypes, designed to portray the Negro as moronic, clownish, menial, and
sub-human. One need only bear in mind such characteristic titles as Rastus in Zululand
and How Rastus Got His Turkey, which were made about 1910; the equally insulting Sambo
series, which were turned out between 1909 and 1911; and the above-described Fights of
Nations. To that high level of capitalist culture belonged also the series of shameful
racist screen "comedies of errors," typified by The Masher (1907) and The
Dark Romance of a Tobacco Can (1911), in which a man in romantic pursuit of a woman
discovers the object of his quest to be a Negro woman. With such impudence was the
chauvinist "morality" presented!
The ruling class, be it remembered, had long before the advent of the cinema betrayed
the Negro people in the South to the counter-revolutionary plantation oligarchy. The
Hayes-Tilden perfidy of 1876 had sealed the restoration to power of the Bourbons in the
post-Reconstruction state governments of the South. In the opening years of the century,
with the newly emerged epoch of imperialism marked by "reaction all along the
line," the completion of the systematic disfranchisement and segregation of the Negro
in the South was carried out in flagrant violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth
Amendments to the Constitution. Colossal fraud, terror, lynch-law, and the Ku Klux Klan
ruled the South to keep the Negro in "his place." The "white
supremacy" stratagem served the Southern plantation feudalists and the controlling
finance capitalists of Wall Street as an ideological mainstay of their white ruling-class
oppression. Wall Street’s Manifest Destiny ideology, first projected to rationalize the
brutal oppression of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Cuba, and in its latter-day
form of the "American Century" serving to conceal designs for global conquest,
found expression at home in the white chauvinist ideology used as a weapon to oppress the
Negro people. This ideology increasingly permeated the bourgeois cultural field in all
areas. The "white superiority" cult enforced the misshaping of American history
and social science as a whole to a Bourbon bias.
Toward the opening of the second decade of the century–roughly from 1910 until the
outbreak of World War I–a new trend came into evidence in the treatment of the Negro on
the screen, side by side with the continued slap-stick, low comedy films of the past. The
new trend was the Uncle Tom ideology.
To understand this turn, we need to see the political and social background of the
United States during the years immediately preceding World War I.
It was a period of "popular distemper" and mass stirrings, brought to a head
by the severe economic crisis of 1907. It was a time of strong anti-trust currents among
all sections of the people, of agarian discontent, of mass wrath against the spoils system
and against corruption in administration, Anti-militarist sentiments pervaded the country;
everywhere demands rose for the outlawing of war. The woman suffrage movement was gaining
momentum, together with the struggle for equal rights for working women.
It was a decade of significant advances in trade-union organization and of bitter
strike struggles. Those were the years, too, of the growth of the Socialist Party and of
mass socialist sentiment, which was registered, in the Presidential elections of 1912, in
a vote of 900,000 for Eugene Debs. Within the Socialist Party a tide of struggle had set
in, marking the rising challenge of the Left-moving proletarian rank and file to the
petty-bourgeois opportunist leadership. The great defense movement of 1906-07 in behalf of
the framed-up leaders of the Western Federation of Miners, Moyer, Haywood, and Pettibone,
which forced their acquittal, further evidenced the temper of the workers. Thus, President
Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1906 to a leading senator: "The labor men are very ugly
and no one can tell how far such discontent will spread."
To stay "this rising tide of discontent," the bourgeoisie, by a division of
labor, both intensified its exploitation of the masses and assumed the reformist mask.
This was evidenced especially, during the 1912 election, in Roosevelt’s demagogic attempt
to capture the popular vote with his "Bull Moose" offshoot of the Republican
Party. As in the simple binary fission of the one-celled amoeba, science could reveal no
basic organic difference between the "Grand" Old Party and the Rough-Riding
"Progressives." Capital trotted out its most consummate hypocrite in the
Messiah-tongued Woodrow Wilson, whose "New Freedom" purporting to blow taps over
the trusts, proved to be a proclamation of unlimited license for corporate plunder.
These developments found their reflections in the film–basically and predominantly
carrying the message of reaction, but also expressing to a very minor degree the militancy
of the people’s struggles.
In those years immediately preceding World War I, there emerged a series of anti-trust
films, and a number more or less sympathetic to labor. The Power of Labor (1908)
showed industrial workers on strike carrying their struggle to victory. The Egg Trust (1910)
served to expose profiteering in food. Tim Mahoney, the Scab (1911) dealt
with the shame of a worker who betrayed his union brothers. Another film with
working-class sympathies was Locked Out (1911). Notable in this series was the
screen version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1914).
The period of mass ferment before World War I involved also the continuing struggles of
the Negro people, marking the beginnings of the present-day Negro liberation movement.
These struggles inspired to action a section of Negro middle-class intellectuals, advanced
in thinking and fired with zeal for the freedom of their people. Under the leadership of
W. E. B. Du Bois, then a young professor at Atlanta University, there sprang into being in
1905 the militant Niagara movement. Its birth was a Declaration of Independence
challenging the dominance of the Booker T. Washington ideology of accommodation and
acquiescence to the white ruling class, of dependence on the good graces of the white
bourgeoisie for "improvement" of the Negro people’s "lot." The Niagara
organization made clear its stand, in the ringing declaration of its spokesmen: "We
claim for ourselves every right that belongs to a free-born American, civil and social,
and until we get these rights we shall never cease to protest and assail the ears of
America with the stories of its shameful deeds towards us."
Although the Niagara movement was short-lived, its effect on the white ruling class was
unmistakable. Recognizing the growing ferment among the Negro intellectuals, the
capitalist masters of America worked assiduously to "take over" the leadership
of the emerging movement of the Negro people. To this end, they sought to impose on the
movement a deadening "patronage," which could only have the effect of retarding
a militant movement of the Negro people, led by Negroes and consciously, directed toward
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People appeared in 1910 and
reflected in its origins both that militancy and that patronage. The former was shown in
the fact that nearly the entire membership of the Niagara Movement merged with the
N.A.A.C.P.; the latter in the fact that the new organization’s entire official leadership,
with the lone exception of Dr. Du Bois, was composed of whites. As Harry Haywood remarks
in his Negro Liberation, ". . . with the launching of the N.A.A.C.P., a new
pattern in ‘race’ leadership was set. It was the pattern of white ruling-class paternalism
which, as time went on, was to cast an ever-deepening shadow over the developing Negro
liberation movement, throttling its self-assertiveness and its independent imitative,
placing before it limited objectives and dulling the sharp edge of the sword of Negro
protest" (Harry Haywood, Negro Liberation, New York, 1948, p. 181.).
In the face of these developments in the political sphere, the screen portrayal of the
Negro could not continue solely on the buffoon level of the Rastus and Sambo films.
Hollywood continued, and even extended, its depiction of the Negro as mentally
"inferior," continued his relegation to slap-stick roles. Yet, simultaneously,
the times compelled something of a tactical departure from the old stereotype. Thus, there
emerged in a number of films of that period a "sympathetic" Negro type–the
classic Uncle Tom.
The Uncle Tom theme found expression in such films as For Massa’s Sake (1911),
The Debt (1912), and In Slavery Days (1913). The first of these shows a
"faithful" slave who tries self-sacrificingly to discharge his white master’s
gambling debts by offering himself for sale.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin itself appeared during these years in three film versions, with
distorted emphasis upon the theme of Uncle Tom’s devotion to little Eva, thus eliminating
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s central indictment of slavery.
It was also in this period, during 1911, that The Battle was directed by D. W.
Griffith, who, four years later, was to make The Birth of a Nation. The Battle set
a precedent for all future Hollywood pictures dealing with the Civil War. It romanticized
the Old South and the "sweet slavery, days." It crystallized for film audiences
all the high-flown, hypocritical legends of the slavocracy–the "generous"
colonels, the fine, indulgent masters, the "happy, carefree state" of the
plantation slaves portrayed side by side with their "brutishness."
What was the significance of all these pictures? Essentially, they represented a shift
in tactic to counteract the new liberation movement of the Negro people, as well as to
hold back Negro and white unity. The main stereotypes of the
Negro–"primitiveness," "childishness," and
"buffoonery"–could no longer serve as sole rationalizations of "white
supremacy." Uncle Tom was needed.
The tactic was designed to erect a barrier against the rising mood of struggle for
Negro rights. Servile acceptance of inequality, collaboration with imperialism, nostalgic
beatification of slavery–this has been the thesis of films dealing with the slave South
and the Civil War during the forty years since. It implies also a slanderous belittlement
of the North’s role in the Civil War, which itself has come to be treated as a
"mistake" and its result as an "illegitimate" victory.
During that time, too, to make the tactic more effective, Hollywood began to release
its series of "white supremacy" films dealing with the "curse of
mixed-blood." Those racist melodramas, typified by The Octoroon (1913),
clearly were designed to stamp the Negro people as "social pariahs" for whom
there was no liberation and with whom there was no association. The "mission" of
such films was to accomplish, under new conditions, in the "serious" and
"tragic" way, what the utterly slap-stick, low-comedy pictures had been
manufactured to do in their way.
But as the war drums began to beat, this tactic was found wanting. Hollywood made a
decisive turn with the outbreak of imperialist World War I.
Woodrow Wilson’s call in August, 1914, upon Americans to be "impartial in thought
as well as in action" was but the opening note in that ascending scale of monstrous
demagogy which served the re-election of He-kept-us-out-of-war Wilson–five months before
he plunged us into war.
Involvement of the United States in the war was plotted from the first by the dominant
circles of Wall Street imperialism. The ominous signs were present in the increasing
direction of United States trade to the side of the Allied Powers, beginning with 1915; in
the functioning of the House of Morgan since mid-1915 as central purchasing agent for the
Allies; and in Washington’s "benevolent neutrality" toward Britain’s illegal
blockade of United States shipping, in contrast to the stern notes addressed to Germany
against her blockade.
War preparations demanded charging the atmosphere with the ideologies of jingoism,
chauvinism, racism, and brutality. Wall Street’s plans for empire demanded the
glorification of the white American "super-race." On the home scene this meant
intensified attacks upon the Negro people. The flames of hatred were kindled against the
Negro people in line with the policy of visiting the war burden upon the Negro and white
toiling masses as a whole. To cope with the mass antiwar sentiment which prevailed over
the land, it was necessary to undermine the markedly developing Negro and white alliance.
The anticipated war production, which would necessarily absorb many Negro workers into
industries, had to be guaranteed against the solidarity of Negro workers with white
workers. With the cessation of the influx of cheap foreign labor consequent upon the
outbreak of the war in Europe, Northern manufacturers had begun to stimulate the Northward
migration of Negroes from the South. Even before the incentive of jobs in the North, that
migration had started, as an escape from the unbearable conditions in the South.
"Justifications" had to be prepared for residential segregation of Negroes, for
the Jim-Crowing of Negro soldiers in the impending war, for the shameless overwork imposed
upon uniformed Negro "labor battalions" in European ports and supply centers,
and in general for the increased national oppression of the Negro people.
Thus, we read in Du Bois’ autobiographical account of that period:
With the accession of Woodrow Wilson to the presidency in 1913 there opened for the
American Negro a period lasting through and long after the World War and culminating in
1919, which was an extraordinary test for their courage and a time of cruelty,
discrimination and wholesale murder. ( W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, New York,
1940, p. 235.)
It was in 1915 that Hollywood, in keeping with its main strategy, produced The Birth
of a Nation, which Wilson praised in the words: "It is like writing
history with lightning."
It is highly significant that Hollywood’s first "superspectacle," the
longest and costliest film produced to that date, should have been a lying extravaganza
glorifying slavery and vilifying the Negro people!
If, prior to that, the Negro had been stereotyped as clown or Uncle Tom, he was now
disfigured as "beast." The foulness of capitalist "culture" has never
been more glaringly revealed. By viciously falsifying the Negro’s role in the
Reconstruction period following the Civil War, by monstrously contriving scenes like that
of the Negro legislators in session "lounging back in their chairs with their bare
feet up on their desks, a bottle of whiskey in one band and a leg of chicken in the other
… the while intimidating white girls in the gallery with nods, winks and lewd
suggestions" (Peter Noble, The Negro in Films London, p. 37), this picture set
the style for all future slanders of the Negro people and distortions of the
Reconstruction period. The film, concretely, aimed to "justify" the denial of
civil rights and equal opportunities to Negroes, and to rationalize frame-ups, terror, and
lynchings, as both "necessary" and "romantic"!
A storm of protest arose when the film was released. Many theatres exhibiting it were
picketed. Foremost in this campaign against the picture were the Negro people themselves.
The protest actions of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
encouraged other sections of the population, including prominent individuals, to engage in
the fight. As a result, the film was banned for a time in a number of states.
The picture has been revived repeatedly since then, even during World War II, at which
time vigorous protest from the Negro newspapers, as well as from the Communist press,
particularly the Daily Worker, forced its withdrawal. The pledge of the Chief of
the Bureau of Motion Pictures of the Office of War Information that the film would not be
shown again has, like many such bourgeois promises, been broken. Today this foul and
vicious spectacle is again on display in various parts of the country.
No doubt, The Birth of a Nation contributed to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan,
which it glorified–an organization which by 1924 counted five million members.
From that time on, all Hollywood pictures dealing with the south or the Civil War have
had a pro-Confederate bias. In not one is the North shown to have waged the just side of
the war, or to have legitimately won the war against the slaveowners. Such pictures have
proved an ideological support for the alliance of Wall Street and the Southern plantation
system in all its racist, pro-fascist, imperialist policies.
In the thirty-five years of capitalist film-making since The Birth of a
Nation, that picture stands out as the classic example of Hollywood’s ruthless basic
strategy with regard to the Negro people, not yet masked by such tactical adjustments and
maneuvers as became unavoidable in after times.
It is unnecessary to detail the course of those minor changes in the intermediate
period, from film to film and from type to type. The operation of a constant strategy,
despite variations of tactic, that we have traced in the course of the first seventeen
years of commercial film-making in the United States, could be shown as equally dominant
through the subsequent period–from the "prosperity decade" following the First
World War, through the "depression years" and the "New Deal era," to
the Second World War and the "peace" years since.
The "Negro Interest" Films
It is against this historical background that we must examine the new series of
Hollywood "Negro interest" films so far represented by Home of the Brave,
Lost Boundaries, Pinky, and Intruder in the Dust. (Hollywood has since added The
Jackie Robinson Story and No Way Out. These films continue the pattern analyzed
in this study.)
One key question can lead us to a keener understanding of these films, and their role
in monopoly capital’s blueprint for dividing and conquering. It demands the fullest
analysis and the clearest answer. For with these films Hollywood has forged a new
ideological weapon. It now assumes the appearance of a crusading sword, raised in defense
of the Negro people. But what hand holds the hilt? Is it aimed accurately at the deep
roots of oppression–or is it aimed and wielded, after all, against the Negro people? Let
us watch the sword in action.
Our key question, then, is: Does this new film cycle signify a real advance in
Hollywood’s treatment of the Negro?
It cannot be disputed that, in a formal sense, these films seem to leave behind the
traditional Hollywood clich? Negro. Their central themes and characters do not seem to
bear the mark of the Uncle Tom stereotype; or the viciously libellous sub-human brute
type; or the "comic relief" calumny ? la Stepin Fetchit; or the bucolic myth of
laughing, singing, romping, happy-all-the-day field hands possessed of the mentality of
children and blessed with a natural contentment that makes the idea of freedom a rude,
In each of the four motion pictures, we get the formal, outward aspect of a serious and
dignified presentation of the Negro, in a full-drawn, central role. The hero or heroine
moves through unfolding dramatic situations that are calculated to evoke (within the
limitations of the film’s ideology) the sympathetic response of the audience for the Negro
protagonist. The composite Negro protagonist emerges from this film series with qualities
of moral courage, devotion and principled conduct. Not all of these qualities apply
equally to each of the Negro central characters in the films. Nevertheless, we have in
these films what would seem at very long last the Negro come into his own in the screen
So obviously does this represent a sharp departure from Hollywood’s past patterns that,
to those who are content with first impressions, these films constitute nothing short of a
revolutionary change. Regardless of what must be said in criticism–and what must be said
here is fundamental criticism–it would be anything but realistic not to see in this new
screen depiction of the Negro the fact that the advancing movement of the Negro people,
together with their white labor and progressive allies, has forced a new tactical
concession from the enemy. At the same time, it would be even more unrealistic not to see
in this very concession a new mode–more dangerous because more subtle–through which the
racist ruling class of our country is today re-asserting its strategic ideology of
"white supremacy" on the Hollywood screen.
Let us examine the films themselves, matching reality against appearance, in theme and
content, and in mode of presentation; comparing total impression with presumed intent, in
the messages these films convey to the millions.
The New Stereotype
We begin with Pinky. The film deals with a Southern Negro young woman, named
Pinky (a slang term for a light-complexioned Negro who can pass for white). While studying
in Boston to become a registered nurse, Pinky (Jeanne Crain) falls in love with a white
doctor. Unable to tell her suitor of her Negro origin, Pinky runs away from what has
become for her an impossible situation. She returns to the South, home to her washerwoman
grandmother, Aunt Dicey (Ethel Waters). Here, she again encounters the real life of her
people at first hand. The young Northern doctor, who follows her to the South, where he
learns from her that she is a Negro, urges her to marry him, on condition however that she
return North with him, "come away from all this," and keep from the world her
Negro identity. She spurns his request. He leaves. At the insistence of her grandmother,
much against her will, Pinky consents to nurse an aristocratic, cantankerous, old
woman–Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore)–who is dying in her decaying plantation mansion.
From an early revulsion, there comes about a mutual attraction between Pinky and this
hard-shelled woman with the "heart of gold." The change is not too clearly
motivated, although an indicated factor is Miss Em’s detestation of her designing
relatives. The old woman dies and–has bequeathed her estate to Pinky! Pinky, however,
does not find it easy to inherit "white" property. Miss Em’s relatives challenge
the will. Pinky fights courageously for her rights. And–God’s in his heaven: All’s right
with the South–Pinky is awarded the estate! Her new property is converted into a
combination nursery-clinic-training school for Negroes, over which she presides, to five
happily ever after, as the fairy tale ends.
That is the bare narrative. What are this picture’s positive values–values that the
people have forced upon Hollywood? First among this film’s positive aspects, then, are the
indicting scenes of exposure. The wretched facts of discrimination in the South are
memorably etched in several scenes, perhaps the sharpest of this kind in the entire film
There is the scene in which the police arrest two Negroes, a man and a woman. Pinky,
who is with them, is at first mistaken for white. She is gallantly deferred to by the
policemen, who "protect" her from the Negroes at her side. But Pinky defiantly
declares herself to be a Negro. Instantly, there is a change in the conduct of the police
toward her. We see white ruling-class justice, the only Southern justice, suddenly rip off
its mask of chivalry to reveal itself as the racism we know it to be. This is a great,
overpowering moment of film realism.
Later, two joy-riding white youths attempt to rape Pinky in a scene of terrifying,
dramatic impact. White rapists in a Hollywood film! A rare flash of truth on the American
screen. which has the effect of exposing the "rape" libel used to frame-up
Negroes as a bestial falsehood, devised to conceal the notorious actuality of legally
protected white ruling-class rapism.
The indictment of Bourbon bigotry is documented once again in the scene of the town
store, where we are shown dramatically the cruel anti-Negro differential in the upward
pricing of commodities to the customer Pinky, when the white merchant discovers that she
is a Negro. This is reality caught cold–a piercing comment on the "American
way of life."
Finally, on the credit side of the film, there are the positive elements of Pinky’s
character. Let us examine these in relation to a total realistic view of the film.
In the unfolding struggle for Miss Em’s property, there takes place a heavy veiling of
true conditions in the South and a busy sowing of illusions in Bourbon justice. In
Hollywood’s "typical" Southern town, the judge is on the side of justice for the
Negro! The court rules in favor of the Negro, and against the rich white plaintiff. What
is more, no mass pressure is brought to bear on the court. In fact, the masses are shown
as the counter-pressure. The only ones in the entire drama who are really against Pinky
and the Negroes are the poor whites; the class struggle between them and the rich whites
seemingly rages over the issue of justice for Pinky: the poor whites are against her; the
well-to-do whites are for her. Where but on the Hollywood screen can we get such
"insight" into the class alignments of social conflict!
The rose-tinting of bigotry and discrimination, of violence and oppression; the toning
down of everything that might be a little "too stark"; the deliberate evasion of
the fact of existing mounting legal and extra-legal brutality–these emerge as underlying
purposes of the film. In this picture, so high with pretensions of "fairness" to
the Negro, the shame of all this is not only ignored; it is sedulously denied by the
substitution of happenings no Southland ever saw.
The good white fairy of Hollywood and Wall Street has waved her wand: A white
aristocratic woman bequeaths her property to her Negro nurse. The town’s outstanding
attorney, a former judge, takes Pinkey’s case, without retainer. A Southern judge
rebukes the ranting lawyer who seeks to rob Pinky of her legacy. A Southern white
courtroom mob sits and only mutters; even when the court rules in favor of the Negro, the
mob does not act. After the court decision, Pinky is prevented by no one from opening her
nursery center on the inherited estate, presumably with fairy gold. And, final triumph of
the magic wand: The Ku Klux Klan never arrives!
Variety (November 23, 1949) reports that at one sequence, both Negro and white
members of the Atlanta audience applauded. (The audience was separated by segregation, of
course.) That was the scene in which Pinky won the court fight. How should this be
explained? For the Negroes, that scene was the only moment of victory–false and illusory,
contrary to all realities, as it was. While for a section of the whites this scene
undoubtedly expressed their approval of just decisions for Negroes, for many others it
"proved" how nice and how decent Southern white justice "really is,"
Indeed, the point about the Atlanta audience opens up for consideration the calculated
effect of the focal courtroom scene on the varying class and social elements among
Insofar as the film addresses itself to the worker in the audience, the depiction of
the lynch-eager mob, shown to be predominantly made up of poor whites, insults the working
class and makes it out to be the social villain of the piece. By deliberately screening
from view the lynch-law guilt of the "better classes"–the landlords,
industrialists, and bankers–the film aims to break down in the worker his self-confidence
and self-respect, and to retard the development of his class consciousness.
To the white middle classes the film addresses itself through the courtroom scene
somewhat as follows: The workers, clearly, are uncouth and Klux-ish. Your alliance cannot
be with them. The "superior" class forces in the film–all the way from landlord
to lawyer–they are the ones who battle m the cause of justice, against the white workers
and farmers. Here is the road for your alliance!
To the Negro members of the audience the film, through the courtroom scene, seems to
say: Your enemy, you can see, is the camp of the poor whites; your protectors and allies
are the others, the "best" whites. With these you must work out your destiny.
Shun struggle and Negro-white unity. Under the aegis and paternalistic protection of the
plantation rulers and their courts of justice, resign yourselves in permanence to your
Bourbon justice has been flattered. And Pinky’s magnanimous attorney, now that her
victory is achieved, solemnly states: "You’ve got the land, you’ve got the house,
you’ve got justice; but I doubt if any other interests of this community have been
served." This is a dramatic and ideological high point of the film, artistically
underscored. Actually, those are the only memorable lines in terms of idea content. In
other words, the picture raises the question: Is the whole thing worth while? We white
upper-class people have been very decent and courageous in showing the problem. But in the
final analysis, isn’t it perhaps all a mistake? And since these words come from the lips
of Pinky’s white defender, whose "goodness" has been dramatically established,
their calculated impact is indeed cogent.
Who is Pinky?
A key to knowing her is to know the reason for her return home. She has left the North
because of her inability to go on in her ambiguous position of concealing her Negro
identity from her admirer. She is embittered because she has had to run away. She has not
come back to her people. When she walks through the streets, she walks with her head up
past the Negro children, past the Negro houses and people.
Yet her very running away has forced her to see herself as belonging to the Negro
people. This conflict within her explains her declaration in the arrest scene that she is
a Negro. It enters into her refusal to accept her white suitor’s conditions for their
marriage. it is a factor in her sharp emotional outburst against serving Miss Em, who has
for many years exploited her grandmother. Pinky’s initial rebellion against this
arrangement which her grandmother seeks to effect is confusedly motivated. On the one
hand, there is her resentment at being treated as a Negro and even considered as one
despite her light complexion: "I’m as white as you are!" she cries out to Miss
Em. On the other hand, her emerging sense of identification with her people, together with
her newly acquired sense of professional independence, suggests a socially conscious
element in her resistance to the paternalistic summons of the over-bearing old white woman
in the Big House.
Aunt Dicey sees the conflict in Pinky and seeks to mold her granddaughter in her own
image. She is motivated by the desire to survive and to protect her own. But in her
abjectness bred of fear and unconsciousness of any way out, she urges upon Pinky to
resolve the conflict within her by kneeling to white "superiority." When, at the
outset, she reproves Pinky for her "passing," it is not because she holds that
her granddaughter should be conscious of the dignity of her people, but that she should
"know her place" as a Negro.
Pinky is a "white" Negro, a Negro who can "pass." She is presented
in total effect as the "unusual" Negro. She has trained herself in the
mannerisms of the whites. She is always conscious of the fact that she has acquired a
profession, a skill which is denied to the masses of the young Negro men and women. She is
so deliberately contrasted to the other Negro characters as to appear obviously
"superior" to them all, and worthy of doing "uplift" work among her
people. Because of all this, in Hollywood’s alchemized South, a white ruling-class court
could not find it out of keeping with its sense of "justice" even to award a
verdict to her.
To give the finishing touch to Pinky’s "superiority," Hollywood assigned her
role to a white woman. Not a Fredi Washington or any one of a score of unquestionably
qualified Negro actresses of light complexion was chosen for the leading role of Pinky,
but the white actress Jeanne Crain was cast for the part. With all due appreciation for
Miss Crain’s creditable performance, this fact bears significantly on our evaluation of
the film’s central character. For, clearly, it would be going "too far" to
let an actual Negro woman, even in a film pretending to have a Negro heroine, defy, in a
white man’s court, the white supremacist code of robbery of the Negro’s right to
inherit; or to let an actual Negro woman be seen in a white lover’s embrace, even though
that love remains, by the taboo of the Hollywood racist code, unconsummated. If a degree
of concession must be made in a Negro character, let it at least be made to a white
player, says Hollywood. The logic is plain. The logic is cruel.
Pinky is a character capable of resolute decision and sustained, unflinching action.
Hollywood cannot permit her initial rebellion against Miss Em to be a basic rebellion. The
film, in effect, sets down that act of defiance against her white benefactress-to-be as
merely a mistake of impetuous youth. The New York Times adds the touching comment:
"It also presents a tender aspect of the mutual loyalties between Negro servants and
white masters that still exist in the South."
What solution does Pinky offer to the Negro "problem"? It is given by the
reformist Negro doctor, representing the Booker T. Washington ideology of gradualism and
accommodation to the white rulers. Pinky, let us remember, is schooled; she is a graduate
nurse. She cannot be expected to grow into the stereotyped bandanna-wearing
"Mammy." Aunt Dicey needs to be "renovated," cast into a new mold. And
so, through the ghetto path of "cultured" acquiescence and segregated
"uplift" work, Pinky’s potential rebelliousness is channeled away from the
course of significant struggle, away from the Negro people’s movement directed essentially
toward national liberation. She moves "forward" into a segregated existence in
which she administers a segregated school–a nice, well-mannered, trim Negro woman who
"knows her place"–and is liked and helped by the "best" white folk.
Here is the "modern," "streamlined" version of the "Mammy"
clich?. Hollywood reverses the old stereotype to create the New Stereotype.
Yes, Pinky offers a solution. A reformist, segregationist, paternalistic
solution. It is a "solution" which, as in all past Hollywood films, builds on
acceptance of the "superiority" of the whites and ends in endorsement of Jim
Crow–in this case, "liberal," "benevolent," Social-Democratic Jim
Pinky, perhaps for fear that the New Stereotype is as yet imperfect for the
function of Pinky’s role, abounds in hideous stereotypes of the past. Pinky’s
grandmother, Aunt Dicey, who has accepted her oppressed status and moves about with an
Uncle Tom loyalty to the "good" white folk, fulfills the old-style
"Mammy" clich?, notwithstanding Ethel Waters’ brave attempt to invest the part
with some dignity. Another stock-character Negro, Jake, is the "bad’ shiftless type,
the loose loafer and money-loving schemer, with "comic relief." Then there is
Jake’s "woman," who "totes a razor." The arrest scene, in which Nina
Mae McKinney is made to raise her skirt and the white policeman extracts a razor from the
rim of her stocking, is reminiscent of the shameful, vilifying tradition of The Birth
of a Nation and Gone With the Wind.
How true is the insight of Robert Ellis who wrote in the progressive Negro weekly, The
California Eagle, on October 20, 1949:
One really must judge harshly here of Darryl Zanuck and Elia Kazan and Philip Dunne and
Dudley Nichols (the producer, director, and writers respectively). For theirs is the main
responsibility, and although they had good intentions, and are, I’m sure,
"liberals"—yet they appraoched this picture with too much money in their
pockets and too much condescension, patronization, paternalism, in their hearts and minds.
And the same incisive critic puts the question to the film makers responsible for this
Have you ever stepped down from a railroad car and hunted for the colored toilet–gone
hungry because there was no colored seat at the counter–walked along the street and felt
the hatred and coldness in most people’s eyes merely because of color? . . . How can a
studio, how can an industry that doesn’t employ Negroes as writers, producers,
technical directors, cameramen:–how can they write, direct, produce, or film a picture
which has sincere and real sensitivity (shall we say artistry) about Negro people?
Who can challenge this bitter truth?
[. . . .]
Adding Up the Score
Home of the Brave, Lost Boundaries, Pinky, Intruder in the Dust must be labelled
clearly. Taken together, they constitute a new cycle of films that seem to arm, but
actually attempt to disarm, the Negro people’s movement; that seem to promote the
Negro-and-white alliance, but actually attempt to set divisions between Negro and white.
They are films that, in the guise of "dignity," introduce a New Stereotype–a
continuation of the Uncle Tom tradition, in "modern" dress, while retaining the
old stereotypes. They are films that attempt to split the Negro people’s solidarity with
promises of "rewards" from the "best" whites–"justice" and
"positions" for light-skinned, in distinction from dark-skinned, Negroes;
"respectability" and "social station" for Negro middle-class
professionals, in distinction from working-class Negroes. They are films that seek to
prevent the Negro workers from advancing to leadership in the Negro people’s liberation
They are films that through distortion and dramatic misrepresentation of fact attempt
to shift the blame for Negro oppression to the Negro people themselves. They are films
that attempt to inspire in the Negro people trust in their worst enemy–the white ruling
class, by portraying that class as the Negro’s benefactor and legal protector, while
arousing in them mistrust, fear, and hatred against the white working people, who are
depicted as the would-be lynchers, as the camp of the lynchers. They are films that seek
to make the Negro feel beholden to the white free-enterprisers and to be on his best
behavior in expectation of "gradual" emancipation. They are films that attempt
to deprive the Negro people of self-confidence in its capacity to struggle, to divert
Negroes from collective, mass action, from the Negro people’s movement, into individual
grapplings with oppression, into efforts at personal "adjustment." They are
films that attempt to deny the objective existence of the Negro question, by making
lynch-law appear a "moral" problem of the "better class" whites, by
making Negro-baiting appear a matter of the Negro’s "sensitivity" due to
"guilt feeling" and of his baiter’s "unhappiness" and sense of
"insecurity." They are films that seek to weaken the Negro people’s
understanding of the source and nature of their oppression, by means of the
Social-Democratic thesis of "no difference" which leaves the Negro masses
defenseless against their double oppression, class oppression and national oppression.
Apart from positive features already discussed these films aim to undermine the Negro
people’s struggle for national liberation from the "master race" domination of
landlords, industrialists, and bankers, and to blunt any struggle against the monopolists
and their war-and-fascism program.
In terms of the white audiences, similarly, this cycle of films expresses a reactionary
ideology. In their total impact, these films would have the white masses believe that the
ruling class is concerned over the Negro people’s plight, that it seeks to promote their
welfare, is democratically minded toward them, and aims to do away with lynchings and
discrimination. Implicit in such propaganda, insofar as it is directed to white workers
and progressives, is the negation of the mutually vital need for the alliance between the
working class and the Negro people’s liberation movement. It is not surprising, therefore,
that the Social-Democratic, labor-reformist, and liberal publications joined with the open
bourgeois press in acclaiming these films. They said in effect: Leave it to the ruling
class, leave it to the Truman government, leave it to the courts leave it to the churches,
leave it to the moral sense of the "right-thinking," "better-class"
This film cycle in an over-all sense leaves to the white masses the ideological residue
that the Negro must "know his place," and that whatever rights need to be
accorded him must be given within the framework of that idea. The white spectator is
taught to regard the Negro people as "unfortunate" beings, toward whom the
whites should exercise "tolerance" and to whom they should give moral
"hand-outs." By means of this patronizing, white chauvinist
"morality," such films seek to perpetuate the myth of Negro
"inferiority" and to beguile the white masses with the fiction of "white
superiority"–that deliberately- and artificially-fostered ideology from which only
the white rulers profit.
These films, moreover, in presenting the poor white masses as the lynchers, attempt to
make them appear responsible for the Jim-Crow segregation and oppression of the Negro
people, to make them appear the breeders of white chauvinism. Thus, white chauvinism, the
ideological weapon with which imperialism buttresses its national oppression of the Negro
people, is made to appear "inherent" in the white masses, who are victims of the
same ruling class. Of course, the poison of chauvinism infiltrates the ranks of the masses
of the oppressor nation; and to the extent that they fail to join in fighting alliance
with the subject nation, they bear an onus for the national oppression and for the
pernicious chauvinist ideology. But the chauvinism which these white masses manifest is
alien to their interests and to their class morality, and has to be purged from their
midst. Indeed, the very idea that chauvinism is inherent is itself chauvinist. Such films
serve their purpose as brakes on joint mass action of Negroes and whites. They have the
effect of disorienting the white masses from the clear view of their
responsibilities–inseparable from their own interests–to the oppressed Negro people. To
that extent, they retard the development of the broad people’s unity so vitally necessary
in today’s grim struggle against war and fascism, so vitally necessary for the national
liberation of the Negro people and for the achievement of Socialism.
These "Negro interest" films appear at the very time when the Negro people
are being subjected to increasing discrimination and oppression. The falsity of these
films in artistic terms is in measure to their political service to reaction. They distort
the reality of the Negro people’s struggle, which is concerned with jobs, housing,
education, equal rights, and peace.
American imperialism aims with its Truman "New Look" demagogy to convince the
Negro people in upsurge that their fate is safely in the hands of the "best"
white folk, that their social condition is every day in every way getting better and
better, and that therefore they should tolerate "occasional" Georgia lynchings
or Harlem police shootings, and pay no heed to the "trouble-making" Paul
Robesons and Ben Davises. This propaganda tries to conceal the persistent
failure–chargeable to both parties of capitalism–to establish a Fair Employment
Practices Commission, to enact anti-poll tax and anti-lynching legislation, to outlaw Jim
Crow in the armed forces, and to pass a Federal civil rights measure. It puts a veil over
the systematic exclusion of Negro workers from positions in basic industries limitedly
acquired in war time, through wholesale firings, down-grading on the jobs, and restriction
of job openings to the hardest and most menial work. This general condition is reflected
in the sharp rise of Negro unemployment: In New York, as of 1949, Negroes constituted
about 20 per cent of all unemployed, whereas their population percentage (according to
data from the preliminary census of 1950) is 9.5 per cent; in Chicago and Toledo, nearly
half of the registered unemployed were Negroes. (The Economic Crisis and the Cold War, edited
by James C. Allen and Doxey Wilkerson, New Century Publishers, New York, 1949, p. 70). In
city after city, the majority of the unemployed Negro workers have already consumed their
unemployment insurance and are at the mercy of inadequate and precarious relief
Truman’s showy "civil rights" bunting would cover up the shocking living
conditions in Negro ghetto communities–such appalling facts as that rentals in Harlem’s
dilapidated, rat-infested, stifling tenements consume 45 percent of the family income, as
against 20 percent in the rest of Manhattan; that Harlem’s maternal death rate is double
that of the rest of New York City’s and its tuberculosis rate quadruple (See Look magazine’s
article "Harlem … New York’s Tinder Box," December 6, 1949, by its staff
writer, Lewis W. Gillenson).
And in the field of education the President’s "civil rights" demagoguery
would drown out the growing protests against the quota system for Negro students in
colleges, and against the appalling segregation in public schools legally authorized in
twenty-one states and the District of Columbia, and permitted in eleven others. (See the
article, "Civil Rights and Minorities" by Paul Hartman and Morton Puner, New
Republic, January 30, 1950.) In the sphere of the arts and professions the same
demagoguery would silence indignation against the notorious discriminatory practices, as
shockingly exposed in March, 1947, at the conference of the Cultural Division of the
former National Negro Congress. (For some of the facts relating to discrimination against
Negro artists and workers in the cultural media, see Culture in a Changing World,
by V. J. Jerome, New Century Publishers, 1947, pp. 31-33). In the sphere alone of our
present survey, the film industry, we must take sharp note of the fact that Hollywood does
not employ a single Negro writer, director, sound man, cameraman, or other technician.
And, as we have seen in regard to the very films that are offered as an earnest of a
"new approach" to the Negro people, in two of the four pictures in the cycle the
major Negro characters were denied to Negro actors. In the face of these glaring facts,
Mrs. Roosevelt writes:
Things have been improving in the economic field and in education for the colored
people. I would also say in the field of arts that there is an increasing opportunity for
them to gain recognition on an equal basis. But if Mr. Robeson succeeds in labelling his
race as a group as Communists, many of these gains will be lost, I am afraid, in the
future (New York World Telegram, November 3, 1949).
In plain words, the Negro people must be made to under, stand: either you line up on
the political side the "best" white people choose for you, or else–. This is
the same Mrs. Roosevelt, chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Commission which was castigated
in a group petition prepared by the eminent Negro scholar Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois: "We
charge that the Human Rights Commission under Eleanor Roosevelt, its chairman . . . have
consistently and deliberately ignored scientific procedure and just treatment to the hurt
and hounded of the world" (National Guardian, December 5, 1949).
Imperialism draws willing aides for its chauvinist propganda from the reactionary
Social-Democrats and reformist labor leaders, as well as from Negro bourgeois nationalist
leaders. Their role in the mass organizations of the Negro people and among Negro trade
unionists is to undermine the self-confidence and arrest the militant advance of the Negro
people’s movement, and, above all, to thwart the historical alliance of that movement
with the American working class. In the concrete terms of today, their assistance to
imperialism is aimed at "selling" Wall Street’s war program to the Negro masses.
In this light, we can perhaps more readily understand the policy of
"elevating" certain upper-stratum Negro leaders which serves to give the
impression of full integration of the Negro people in American life. American imperialism
cultivates in this period a tissue-thin top layer of Negro aristocracy, while it
intensifies white ruling-class violence and terror, both legal and extra-legal. This new
tactic is designed to reinforce its ideological transmission belt among the Negro people
and to bring false comfort to the angry Negro masses in order to blind them with illusions
and blunt their capacity for struggle, in order to break their resistance to the
despoilers and warmongers.
The sundry misleaders of the Negro people constitute a grave threat to the present
status and future development of its liberation movement. For it should be clear that the
movement of the Negro people cannot go forward today unless it marches shoulder to
shoulder with the world anti-imperialist front of struggle for peace and national freedom.
By the same logic of historical necessity, the peace front in the United States today
cannot advance unless it makes the fight for Negro rights an organic part of its struggle.
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