Rastus in movieland

by Robert Pest

from Jump Cut, no. 18, August 1978, pp. 29-30
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. 447 pages. $19.95 cloth, $5.95 paper.

Slow Fade to Black represents a backward step in the effort to understand the complex and often contradictory role of Blacks in the history of U.S. film. Although far more detailed than two other recent books on the subject, Donald Bogle's Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks (New York: Bantam, 1974) and Daniel Leab's From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), Cripps' work, which covers only the years 1900 to 1942, suffers from an uncritical acceptance of individualistic liberal notions of racial progress. In his eagerness to praise Black performers who managed to survive in the Hollywood system, Cripps fails to recognize that the kinds of film roles given Black performers often reveal more about racial relations within the society than do the simple existence and number of those roles.

More importantly, Cripps mistakes the transformation and updating of racial stereotypes, as chronicled convincingly by Leab, for the elimination of such stereotypes. Thus, while Leab and, to a lesser extent, Bogle acknowledge the fundamental continuity of exploitation in the film industry's treatment of both Black performers and Black audiences, Cripps sees the same relation as one of slow but steady progress by Blacks toward a viable cinema identity and an honest contribution to Hollywood movies.

Cripps builds his view of film history around the unusual contention that 1942 was "a watershed year" in the film industry's dealings with Blacks. Taking his cue from a Variety banner-line which proclaimed BETTER BREAKS FOR NEGROES IN HOLLYWOOD, Cripps argues that an agreement reached that year between Walter White and Wendell Wilkie of the NAACP and David O. Selznick, representing several major film studios, changed the whole tune and nature of Hollywood's response to the Afro-American's role in film and, by extension, in U.S. life as well. In fact, this agreement, which promised "liberalized depiction" of Blacks on the screen and more employment opportunities in technical areas of film production, had little concrete impact on working conditions in Hollywood and even less effect on the quality of Black roles. Ironically, the most significant result of the public-relations-minded pact was a strong protest by a few successful Black performers, such as Hattie McDaniel and Lillian Randolph, who panicked at the unlikely possibility that "upgraded characterizations" would ultimately result in less work.

Cripps' insistence on the significance of the 1942 agreement leads him to set a Procrustean temporal limit to his study. Because his conclusion is not supported by consideration of more than a handful of films made after the "watershed year," the book just seems to stop, not end. More disturbing, however, is Cripps' apologetic view of the history of racial relations in the United States, a view which stresses individual achievement at the expense of collective consciousness, and compromise at the expense of struggle.

In his introduction, Cripps announces four "themes" which he intends to examine:

  1. the survival of Black performers in Hollywood
  2. the growth of Black protest against Hollywood racism
  3. the underground movement to create an independent Black cinema
  4. the movement to make the art of film speak forthrightly to issues generated by the dualistic U.S. racial system.

Unfortunately, however, Cripps fails to make good his promise. He dismisses

"Black protest against such films as THE BIRTH OF A NATION and THE NIGGER as errors in judgment that … wasted an inordinate amount of money and energy."

Failing to recognize the integral relation between politics and art, Cripps maintains that political activity "diverted attention away from the formation of a Black aesthetic." But Cripps' real antagonism toward any sort of organized protest against Hollywood racism stems from the fact that such efforts usually "made things difficult" for Black performers or "led producers to reduce, rather than alter, Black appearances on screen." Cripps neglects the debilitating effects of negative racial roles on Black audiences. He focuses instead on the careers of the actors and actresses who played those roles. In making this apparently deliberate choice, however, he reveals his own acceptance of the values of a film industry responsible for keeping Black performers in vulnerable, fringe positions. Cripps contends that

"the general drift of Hollywood was liberal, and held out a promise of change that blunted Black criticism over the decades."

Given this position, it is not surprising that Cripps refuses to see token Black success on the screen - "a promise of change" - as part of the larger system of perpetrating status quo racial relations. Thus, despite his claims to the contrary, the real subject of Cripps' book is not the relation of films and film images to the Black community, but rather it's the relation of Black performers and entrepreneurs to the Hollywood film community.

Cripps' inability to distinguish racial tokenism from real progress in the depiction of racial relations on the screen leads him to praise any film for which a Black performer garnered any kind of recognition (from establishment sources) or award. GONE WITH THE WIND thus receives high marks because "even white critics" noticed the strong supporting performances by Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen. Cripps goes so far in his enthusiasm for these and other Black supporting players as to contend that GONE WITH THE WIND offered "fully rounded, historically sound portraits of Negroes." And while he records the strong protest against what many felt to be the film's obvious racism, registered by the Amsterdam News, Pittsburgh Courier, and the Daily Worker, Cripps concludes that critics of the film "were betrayed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who gave McDaniel an Oscar."

Cripps offers a similar analysis of Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH, based on Joel Chandler Harris' "Uncle Remus" stories. This extremely patronizing film aroused more Black protest than any film since THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Even conservative Black screenwriter Clarence Muse spoke out against SONG OF THE SOUTH, calling the film "detrimental to the cultural advancement of the Negro people."(1) But Cripps maintains that James Baskette's performance, for which the actor received a special posthumous Academy Award, "overcame every disability of dated sources and white blindness."

Most of the Black actors and actresses who survived in Hollywood did so by "playing the game," by "shufflin' and scrapin'," and by taking any kind of job, often as domestic help in Hollywood mansions, between infrequent roles. While the dedication of these performers to their craft may be commendable, their successes were Pyrrhic victories, won at the expense of Black audiences. In addition, the willingness of most Black performers and film workers to accept the social and artistic limits established by the studios served to increase the resistance encountered by those few performers and critics, most notably Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, who struggled for more broadly-based Black participation in all phases of film production.

Racial roles continued to affirm second-class citizenship for Black Americans long after the "watershed year" of 1942. While characterizations were probably fuller than in the days of Edison's THE PICKAMINNIES or Lubin's HOW RASTUS GOT HIS CHOPS, the economic and social positions of Blacks on the screen remained fairly constant. Black audiences may have delighted, as Cripps maintains, in reading about the exciting private lives of Stepin Fetchit or Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, and the Black community may have taken pride in the professionalism of Hattie McDaniel. But when they went to the movies, in 1942 as in 1922, Blacks still saw their favorite performers as maids, cooks, butlers, grooms, or, worst of all, "natives." The impact of what Black performers did off screen did not, as Cripps claims, "allow them to ignore the impact of what they did on it."

Occasional "large" roles for Blacks did not challenge, or even question, traditional stereotypes. Rather, the exceptions merely indicated how little real progress had been made. Cripps sees Dooley Wilson's "Sam" (in CASABLANCA) as "a classic liberal statement of racial tolerance." But while Sam's role in the film is, by 1942 standards, fairly significant, it is defined only in terms of his relationship to Rick (Humphrey Bogart), also known as "Mister Rick" or "Boss." Thus, although Black roles may have grown larger, they still remained rooted in the antebellum tradition of loyalty and dependence.

Cripps' analysis of the independent Black cinema is dominated by the same individualistic bourgeois values that distort his treatment of the Hollywood film. Black entrepreneurs like Noble Johnson and Oscar Micheaux were hardly the trail blazing culture heroes that Cripps makes them out to be. Rather, they were, if anything, more insulting to Black racial identity than even the standard Hollywood fare. By far the majority of the Black "Indies" were simply cheap remakes of "B" Hollywood films; even the stereotypes remained the same. Films like HARLEM RIDES THE RANGE and HARLEM ON THE PRAIRIE were, unfortunately, as hackneyed and two-dimensional as their titles suggest. Black "cowboys" fainted at the mention of ghosts, rolled their eyes when in danger, and started to dance at the drop of a hat.

Nor were the musicals any better. During the early years of the sound period, Black entrepreneurs and their white silent partners (known as "angels") attempted to capitalize on the myth that "Black voices were ideally suited for recording." The results of this misguided enthusiasm —  films like TAN, TALL, AND TERRIFIC and HARLEM CABARET — were seldom more than loosely structured vehicles for "rhythmic" musical sequences. Little of the texture or flavor of urban Black life was conveyed. The coming of sound provided Black independents with a legitimate opportunity to have an impact on the direction of U.S. film. Cripps fails to consider that it was not only competition from Hollywood, but also their own shortsighted opportunism, that prevented the independent producers from utilizing that opportunity.

In the more "serious" independent productions, extremely light-skinned Blacks acted out the middle-class, assimilationist fantasies of the Black bourgeoisie, while darker-skinned performers continued in traditional servile roles. Cripps devotes a great deal of attention to THE REALIZATION OF A NEGRO'S AMBITION, a typically banal Horatio Alger-type story that preached the virtue of mindless determination and held out the prospect of upward mobility. Yet Cripps claims that the makers of this film, Noble Johnson and his brother George, "carried the notion of a black aesthetic to its limits as a social force." The Black independents failed for many reasons, but clearly a major factor in their inability to capture the loyalty of working class Black audiences was their self-defeating effort to create "highbrow" art. The "prestige" films of the Johnsons and Oscar Micheaux were no different in their racial, social, and economic implications than the Hollywood films they mimicked. Contrary to Cripps' claims, they did not constitute a movement toward a Black aesthetic.

By far the most disturbing weakness in Cripps' work, however, is his anti-Marxist paranoia. Cripps' refusal to consider seriously any project with even vague political overtones leads him to slight or dismiss all foreign-made films which dealt with U.S. racial problems or which featured Black American performers.

"In Europe such American expatriates as Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, and Lewis Douglas appeared in movies that dealt with racism by making Negroes part of an international proletariat nurtured in Marxist dogma. Afro-Americans found little identity in such a role, so these films were rejected by black audiences."

Cripps offers no support for his claim that Blacks rejected such films. More important, he fails to consider the variety of reasons why such films were or were not accepted by audiences. Instead, he naively assumes that so simplistic a factor as attendance can be used in assessing the merit or impact of a film.

Cripps' intense anti-left feelings also lead him to neglect and underrate the accomplishments of Paul Robeson. In discussing Robeson's various European projects, Cripps refers to the actor as "poor Robeson" and suggests that Robeson's career frequently fell victim to Marxist "propaganda." Thus, Cripps chides Robeson for his participation in Eisenstein's ill-fated attempt to make a film based on the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, with Robeson playing the Haitian revolutionary. But Cripps reserves special criticism for Eisenstein himself, who is presented as an impotent and naive idealist and whose complex theory of "typage" is likened to the most banal form of Hollywood typecasting.

On the domestic scene, Cripps fails to mention Frontier Films' 1942 production of NATIVE LAND, which featured songs and narration by Robeson. Although only the sharecroppers' sequence of NATIVE LAND deals explicitly with racial aspects of economic and political oppression, the film's plea for organization and collective political action to combat such oppression did suggest an alternative path toward racial progress. Yet one suspects that it is the film's emphasis on the need for a class-based solidarity that transcends racial lines that leads Cripps, who sees progress primarily in individual and professional terms, to neglect NATIVE LAND.

Similarly, Cripps either ignores or derides left-oriented film criticism. Harry Alan Potamkin, whose essays and reviews marked one of the first serious efforts by a U.S. critic to consider the implications of Hollywood's racial attitudes, is mentioned only twice - and then without any discussion of his seminal essay, "The Aframerican Cinema."(2) Cripps also attacks critics such as Manny Farber who took a stand against degrading racial roles. Unfortunately, Cripps claims, the high standards of leftist critics were at war with the professional hopes of the performers.

Slow Fade to Black fails to fill what continues to be a major gap in film studies. For although both Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks and From Sambo to Superspade are sensitive to the impact of negative racial roles on Black consciousness, neither work begins to place the films in question in the social and historical context from which they emerged. Like Cripps, both Bogle and Leab also fail to assess the role of film in shaping and perpetuating dominant (i.e. white) racial attitudes and the actions supported by those attitudes. In addition, neither Bogle nor Leab considers the relation of racial attitudes to film production or evaluates the complex factors which combined to make degrading racial roles profitable.

The weaknesses of Slow Fade to Black are especially unfortunate given Cripps' extensive research of primary materials, particularly in the long neglected area of Black independents. Cripps' work should thus prove extremely useful in directing future research efforts in this area. Hopefully, film archivists and programmers will also find Slow Fade to Black helpful in planning revivals of many of the surviving independent Black productions. But an adequate study of the role of Blacks in U.S. film history would do far more than chronicle the occasional successes of Black performers or classify films according to prevailing stereotypes. Certainly, such a study would involve a notion of progress which included the impact of Black film roles on both dominant racial attitudes and the Black community. Unfortunately, such a study has yet to be written.


1. Daniel Leab, From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975, p. 136.

2. The Compound Cinema: The Film Writings of Barry Alan Potamkin. New York: Teachers College Press, 1977, pp.179-185.