“Only the colored people themselves can determine their political, social and economic future.”
William Monroe Trotter
This course surveys a hidden canon of African American film while also uncovers the roots of representational injustice in Hollywood and the secret, but cardinal role Woodrow Wilson played in the production and distribution of Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” that led to the rebirth of the KKK. Wilson’s policy of segregation was adapted by Hollywood as a self-censoring industry regulation of representation. Black people could only appear on screen as subservient and marginal characters, never as equals, partners or leaders. This industry code, Wilson’s legacy, has become second nature to Hollywood.
Comparison Video Narration Script:
Tracing the important moments of cinematic history, one can see how D.W. Griffith’s The birth of a Nation is aligned with Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind, an extension of racist cinema in Hollywood.
Both films emphasize the decline of the Confederate South, lamenting a certain way of living that no longer favors the white demographic. Griffiths cites more directly the fact of black people having access to power as a reason for this decline while Gone with the Wind makes use of euphemistic, romantic language, yet it is still not devoid of racial undertones with the mention of master and slave.
The films also have caricatures of black domestic workers that dehumanize black people to stereotyped roles that are servicing white characters. While black face was not as commonplace in Fleming's time, there is still a distortion of black features with the discolored gray hair of the black male servant and a certain physicality that was characteristic of the mammy caricature.
Thinking further on the caricatures, both Griffiths and Flemings portray a Mammy that was typically a sexless, overweight older Black woman that spent all of her time catering to the needs of a white household or specifically a young white female in these instances. She is little more than a household appliance, stripped of agency and built for service.
Griffiths and Flemings additionally include moments of Southern opulence where white characters feel entitled to enjoy the life of luxury that has been afforded to them without having to acknowledge or confront the black lives and black labor that have allowed them to participate in these indulgent practices.
The films also use imagery of slaves working in fields as a backdrop. What's important here is noticing how slaves serve as background to white characters or even opening credits, as if set pieces, never becoming anything more than part of the landscape.
They both additionally sympathize with the losing southern cause during the civil war, emphasizing violence and destruction of once quaint and peaceful towns. Griffiths film, however, puts more black individuals at the head of these attacks and makes use of a white, southern family unit while Fleming makes sure to include dignified southern soldiers marching nobally into war.
There is also a portrayal of northern abolistinists, both toting the unfulfilled promise of 40 acres and a mule in an almost propagandistic manner, that enlist former slaves potrayed to be ignorant, dumb, and in need of a white savior to educate them on how to help themselves.
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