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Making a Promised Land

Harlem in 20th-Century Photography and Film


Paula J. Massood


New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2013

Paperback. xvi + 247 p. ISBN: 978-0813555874. $26.95


Reviewed by Isabelle Schmitt

Université de Bourgogne, Dijon



The beautiful Barron Claiborne 2002 photograph on the cover, Couple in Raccoon Coats, an African American couple in magnificent clothes reminiscent of the Twenties, invites the reader to a journey in space and time as the author engages in an analysis of the links between Harlem as an African American capital and land of promise and opportunities and the evolving definition of specific African American aesthetics in two representative arts, photography and cinema. The structure of the five-chapter book is quite logical and smooth as it follows the chronology but also circles back to the heyday of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, the last chapter dealing with the nostalgia for the period. Spanning the last century and concluding on the verge of the new one, it investigates and documents manifold tensions as it brings to light the complex interactions of art, politics, and economics at play in Harlem by exploring the neighborhood’s representation in photography and film.

Opening on the challenges Harlem has been facing since its return to economic growth in the late 1990s, the introduction justifies the historical scope of the book, the lessons of a past having shaped Harlem into, in Charles S. Johnson’s 1925 words, “the Mecca of the Negroes the country over” being necessary to a better understanding of urban African Americans’ paradoxical identity as reflected in still and moving pictures. Contradictory representations of Harlem as the New Jerusalem versus the Harlem of poverty and crime in fact date back to the early years of the twentieth century and while the study largely focuses on the years following World War II, covered in the last three chapters, the first two are devoted to periods between the eve of World War I and the Great Depression.

The first chapter, “African American Aesthetics and the City: Picturing the Black Bourgeoisie in New York” focuses on photography rather than film, the presence or rather absence of black bodies in early American film generating a highly fraught chain of significations. The period between 1900 and 1910 is marked by the emergence of the “New Negroes” as industrialization, migration and urbanization brought a desire for a redefinition of self and citizenship. Most African Americans moving to Harlem in the 1910s belonged to a civic and economic elite and shared an uplift ideology insisting on education and the arts as central components of progress. Therefore, popular entertainment such as cinema was disapproved of by the black bourgeoisie, especially as the few “race films” available presented a stereotypical image of African Americans based upon minstrel shows. Portrait photography was preferred as a medium to represent the “New Negro” and W.E.B. Du Bois’s Paris 1900 Exposition photographs depicted an African American ideal. Adopting the conventions of middle-class portraiture, these photographs pictured empowerment through a process of mimicry and inversion, not devoid of ambiguity in their closeness to other shots documenting racist theories of inferiority.

The second chapter grapples with the issues of Harlem as Promised Land since it deals with the period known as “the Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s, but also with the evolution and representation of the capital of African American culture in the 30s. The title, “Heaven and Hell in Harlem”, introduces the dichotomy pivotal to the chapter. Again, photograph was favored over film, but with an evolution from private portraiture to public documentation. Harlem is studied in its evolution from black middle-class heaven in the 1920s to the Depression, from Promised Land to ghetto. As regards film, the 1920s saw the emergence of African American productions and “race films” quite illustrative of the conflict between art and entertainment which led the educated elite to prefer uplifting melodrama to comedy and more generally non-fiction to fiction. The transition to sound in 1927 had an impact on the race film industry and by the mid-1930s, race film producers had abandoned morality tales for the production of popular Hollywood genres such as musicals and gangster films. The latter emerged as they could acknowledge conditions specific to black urban audiences and interweave popular culture and social reality. With the Depression, Harlem came to be more and more associated with crime in films playing out the tensions between the community and individuals. However, race film ebbed in the forties and in the wake of the Depression a new genre of urban street photography took roots in a pre-World War Two effort to offer uplifting images of black men and women.

The third chapter, “Delinquents in the Making”, explores Harlem in visual and written texts from the 1940s to the early 60s. Civil-right campaigns were mostly supported by newsreels and nonfiction films. The rise of the photo-text as well as independent film productions like The Quiet One (1948) helped document the “Negro problem” in works often fraught with social determinism and underscoring the problem of black male youth as central. Both photo-text albums and films contradicted the common Hollywood representation of African Americans in idealized southern settings. The end of the period is characterized by a new generation of filmmakers such as John Mekas experimenting with cinematic forms in works like The Cool World (1963) that presented a less conventional, more vibrant Harlem in an attempt to break free from stereotypical representation.

“Gangster’s Paradise: Drugs and Crime in Harlem, from Blaxploitation to New Jack Cinema”, the fourth chapter, opens on yet another riot in Harlem, in 1964, the broadcasting of the events confirming Harlem as a capital of inner-city despair. While photo-texts continued to expose the neighborhood ills, albums like Harlem Stirs (1966) focused on community organization. Van Peebles’ 1971 film, Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, documenting a post-civil rights context, ushered in the Blaxploitation boom of the 1970s in a crisis-ridden industry targeting a shifting audience demographic. Despite the ambiguities inherent to Blaxploitation, some of these films mixed celebration and critique, their main feature being the return to powerful black male figures of empowerment and the emergence of new gangster characters as in Black Caesar (1973), which departs from the conventional discourse of victimization. The mid-1980s saw a resurgence of black filmmaking focusing on African American and Latino creativity in Harlem and other neighborhoods like Brooklyn in Spike Lee’s films. The latter’s works show how by the end of the 20th century Harlem would juxtapose poverty pockets and streets where black professional classes lived with economic comfort and race pride. Nevertheless, Spike Lee also documents the return of the “gangstas” organizing the crack business which has been decimating low-income urban minority communities as of the 1990s in the wake of Reaganomics.

The last chapter, “Echoes of a Renaissance: Harem’s Nostalgic Turn”, makes use of Pierre Nora’s concept of lieux de mémoire to envision Harlem as a complex cultural construction, with the nostalgia for the Renaissance era as a major component, hence the cover photograph. However, the latter was part of a fashion spread making use of an icon of African American culture to sell products to global customers in the context of Harlem’s gentrification and possible gradual return to its origins as a white middle-class neighborhood. Nevertheless, the resort to nostalgia for commercial ends bears witness of the importance of the place as a symbol of African American despair and progress as well as the production of three historical films partly located in Harlem, Spike Lee’s Malcom X (1992), Bill Duke’s Hoodlum (1997) and Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007) in a context of overall population shifts putting Harlem on the verge of a mutation in the new century.

The conclusion wonders at this future through an analysis of Alice Hattie’s album Harlem on the Verge (2003), expressing hopes for the construction of a new identity but fearing a commodification in which Harlem could be reduced to a mere brand.

Providing exciting insights into an urban and artistic scene both famous and infamous, this extremely rich and well-documented and illustrated book reveals a deep yet clear-sighted sympathy for the subject as the author brings to light the different components of a “vexed and complex promised land” through subtle analyses of films, photographs and photo-texts. The only regret would be the lack of a list of primary as well as secondary sources, largely compensated by a very convenient index and numerous notes.


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