SLOW FADE TO BLACK: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942 by Thomas Cripps

SLOW FADE TO BLACK: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942

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In the words of its author, a historian, this is a ""social history"" that traces the role of the Negro in the American film industry from its beginnings to the 1942 agreements between the NAACP and Hollywood studio heads codifying social gains that had already been won by blacks in the larger society. Much of the story is concerned with the difficulties encountered by black actors and actresses who were looking for roles that transcended degrading stereotypes and ""jungle bunny"" extras. D. W. Griffith is singled out as the director most responsible for creating and perpetuating these stereotypes, and one of the few coherent chapters in the book outlines the largely unsuccessful efforts of the NAACP to suppress or censor his epic The Birth of a Nation. These and similar efforts led to the virtual elimination of black roles and the subsequent efforts to establish all-black film companies, most of which were dismal failures both artistically and financially. Along the way, we are given a tour of ""racist"" 1920s Hollywood (Greta Garbo ""succumbed to the point of having a Negro drive her old Packard""), although the author admits that the movie industry was no more racist than any other American institution of the time. So what's the point? We already know that American society was overtly racist and that the movies portrayed blacks in stereotypical roles; several recent books--notably Donald Bogle's 1973 study--treat the same subject with less excess baggage and more humor. This study lacks a focus, and any points the author tries to make drown in the plethora of detail and are weakened by his small but gratuitous injections of personal opinion. In his preface the author disparages ""the historian's urge to impose a systematic meaning"" on ""the fugitive details of history""; would that he had relented somewhat in the present case.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1976
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press