It’s February and we’ve jumped to the 1930s in our celebration of HCPL’s Centennial. As you might remember, the 1930s is dominated by the effects of the Great Depression, but even in times of great hardship, authors, musicians and other artists can still thrive and much of their work is still consumed today. For example, in junior high I discovered classic screwball comedies like The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, My Man Godfrey and It Happened One Night.
In mainstream movies of this time people of color are mostly portrayed in the role of servants, like Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-winning role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Having played the role of the maid in numerous productions both on radio and in film, this article from Biography in Context acknowledges that this win was a “symbol of progress for African Americans”, but also recognizes Hattie was “the object of intense criticism” for continually playing roles seen by many as “particularly offensive”.
I admit to my ignorance of the existence of any African American-led film productions during the early years of filmmaking. When I started creating our playlist of 1930s films on Kanopy for our Centennial celebration, I learned about the Pioneers of African American Cinema collection and the existence of “race films”. Written, directed, produced and performed by African Americans, these were films that told their stories.
One of the most well-known filmmakers of this era is Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux was an author and entrepreneur as well as a filmmaker, and his books are often thought to be fictionalized accounts of his own life. According to this article from Credo, his films were both celebrated and criticized because while they “examined politically charged topics such as interracial dating, lynching, and Ku Klux Klan terrorism”, he also focused more on educated blacks holding professional positions rather than those in the working class. Coincidentally, his wife, Alice B. Russell, is highlighted this month by the American Film Institute. Not much is known about Russell beyond the fact that she was an actress, but it is known that she helped with the production of her husband’s films and is listed as a producer for his film Birthright under the name Burton Russell.
Other developments in the film industry during this period include the shift from the silent film era into the talkies, but there were still a few silent films that were released in the 1930s, like Charlie Chaplin’s final turn as Little Tramp in Modern Times. The 1930s also saw backlash to scandals in Hollywood and films depicting what society deemed as dubious morals. This resulted in the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code, more popularly known as the Hays Code. In response to threats of boycotts from prominent religious leaders and organizations of the time, in 1934 the Code was amended and it resulted in the requirement for films to obtain a certificate of approval from the newly formed Production Code Administration before they could be released.
Check out our Kanopy playlist and the Pioneers of African American Cinema collection and see what moviegoers of the 1930s in Harris County might have seen in a theatre. Read or listen to this interview with film scholar Jacqueline Stewart who provides the introduction to the newly returned to streaming edition of Gone with the Wind, and think about why the portrayal of people of color (in some cases played by whites) in so many Hollywood films is so problematic.