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Cinema Civil Rights

Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era


Ellen C. Scott


New Brunswick (New Jersey): Rutgers University Press, 2015

Paperback. x+253 p. ISBN 978-0813571355. $29.95


Reviewed by Keith Corson

Rhodes College, Memphis (Tennessee)




Ellen Scott’s thoroughly engaging first book, Civil Rights Cinema, is part of a broader movement in African American film studies that looks to expand the parameters established by scholars in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s (Donald Bogle, Thomas Cripps, et al.) The tendency to make sweeping generalizations and use seemingly representative films as a stand-in for broad swaths of history has been replaced by more focused work that is rooted in archival research, a larger set of texts, and a willingness to address and unpack the complications of film history. Scott’s book does for censorship in the civil rights era what Christopher Sieving’s Soul Searching (2012, Wesleyan Press) does for representations of Black Power politics in 1960s and what Jacqueline Stewart’s Migrating to the Movies (2005, University of California Press) does for urban film culture in the “race film” era. Civil Rights Cinema is an essential step in clarifying the history of race on screen, replacing reductive labels (“positive” or “negative” representation) with a thorough engagement of Hollywood’s complex system of production. Whereas previous scholars have too often looked at black representation during the studio system solely through the lens of analyzing the images on screen, Scott sets out to understand how these images made it there in the first place. Moreover, she also looks to expand the conversation by addressing absence as well as presence. For Scott, the images of African Americans on screen tell only part of the story of race in Hollywood. She is equally concerned with the structured omission of black bodies on screen, be it through censorship informed by civil rights opposition or white bodies used allegorically to make black political perspectives more palatable.

The impetus for Scott’s analysis is best expressed in her introductory statement that, “the structure of limitation itself requires interpretation” [p. 1]. Scott understands commercial filmmaking as a process of creative development, adaptation, and censorship (be it state sponsored or self-governed by the film industry itself). Scott splits her analysis into four parts, looking at separate systems of regulation that shaped the content and tenor of civil rights depictions within Hollywood films, analyzing the impact of the film industry’s self censorship (primarily the Production Code Administration, or PCA), state and local censorship boards, studio executives, and black protests organizations (namely the NAACP). Each section is rooted in archival research and expands from the usual set of “problem pictures” to include films not often placed within the same conversation of racial representation in Hollywood. Scott gives as much time to little-known films like One Mile from Heaven (1937), Crash Dive (1943), and Slave Ship (1937) as she does to Gone with the Wind (1939) and No Way Out (1950), which is one of the most refreshing aspects of her study.

The first three sections work in unison, showing the cinematic discourse surrounding African American culture and politics as being something being enacted, or at least enforced, by whites. The fourth section complicates this by showing African Americans as having a level of agency by pressuring Hollywood in matters relating to screen representation. As Scott argues, the PCA, studios, and local censors created a “system of vetting” around depictions of racially focused political content, limiting what audiences could see through vague notions of what they should see [3]. These limitations, of course, led to absences. There were absent black bodies on screen during the height of the studio system, not to mention black political perspectives. But how does one attempt to write a book about an absence? Scott chooses “representability,” an approach often used in queer scholarship of classical Hollywood but not as commonly used for other repressed identities. Scott finds evidence in texts to support her readings, moving away from creative analysis to focus on texts with clear evocations of events that could not otherwise be dealt with explicitly during the era. Rather than only using films with blackness literally represented on screen, Scott compellingly reads race into films from the era that deal with central conflicts or iconography of the civil rights era, even if they are displaced onto white characters. Issues such as lynching and miscegenation, as Scott argues, were often present in studio films, even when black performers were not. Scott understands these as “racial fragments” or, more accurately, “absence presence” using both institutional and textual analysis [2]. 

Rather than seeing the PCA as a static entity, Scott is wise to understand the structural shifts within the organization and deal with the ways personnel, industry logic, and the political context shifted over the years in which the code was enforced. Scott also resists the temptation to look upon the PCA as anything more than marketing ploy. Although the PCA crafted a series of rules and guidelines, censorship decisions were primarily concerned with brand management of Hollywood studios and the reputation of cinema as wholesome entertainment. The rules that were at the heart of the production code were malleable, often changing along with broader political contexts or made to fit individual circumstances. A clear example of this can be found in the relationship between the United States Office of War Intelligence (OWI) and the PCA during World War II. The OWI’s impact on the PCA’s logic of censorship was immense, and through it Scott provides an alternate understanding of black-cast studio films like Stormy Weather (1943) and Cabin in the Sky (1943) by using archival information to reverse common notions that they were viewed as progressive at the time of their release. To the contrary, the OWI feared that releasing films with all-black casts would reinforce and normalize segregation, hurting the war effort [42-43]. Moments like this show Scott at her best, giving focused analysis of her archival findings to make a clear intervention in the ways in which African American film history has been understood.

Scott balances discussions of the PCA with other bodies that shaped Hollywood’s strategies for production and distribution, avoiding the scores of oversimplified histories that have turned PCA chief Joseph Breen into an almost mythic figure of moral rigidity. At the same time, Scott maintains the PCA as the most prominent and persuasive of governing bodies when she suggests that the spike in African American representation in the mid-to-late 1950s was tied to censorship, with the “Miracle decision” in 1952 (Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson) granting film’s protection under the first amendment and, therefore, ruling that state and local censorship boards were unconstitutional [64]. This decision did not only undermine the power of the PCA, but it also highlights the undervalued power of state and local censorship boards. State boards were largely more oppressive than the PCA, cutting films further to adhere to local racial attitudes, not national ones, and doing so without the participation of the filmmakers or studios.

Most of Scott’s information on state and municipal decisions was found through the PCA’s archives, giving this section a more anecdotal basis. State boards were founded (or justified at least) to govern foreign films that did not fall under the reach of the PCA, but they often were used to further censor the same Hollywood films that had already been granted the PCA’s seal of approval. Aspects of sexuality were particularly singled out by state and local censors, reflecting the concerns of Bible Belt communities. The PCA gave guidelines to the studios and a working idea of what they could (and could not) do, but state boards destabilized this streamlined method for pre-planning. Instead, state and municipal boards added an extra layer that not only altered film content and spectatorial possibilities locally, as Scott argues, but also made studios shy away from making films that might elicit challenges and changes beyond the PCA.

The perspective of the studios is provided through a single case study, using Daryl F. Zanuck’s tenure at Twentieth-Century Fox as a window into Hollywood. Scott outlines the role of individual producers in the classical studio era pressing for representation of civil rights issues, using a telling quote from Zanuck where he says of himself that, “I have sought more than any other person in the industry to break ground in touching on social and political causes” [108]. This claim is problematic not only for being self-serving, but also for failing to fully grasp how limited this achievement would be in comparison to the output of the executives at other major studios. While Zanuck spearheaded films like No Way Out, Pinky (1949), and Island in the Sun (1957) for Fox he also helped in the making of far from progressive fare like The Littlest Rebel (1935) and In Old Kentucky (1935). Zanuck’s symbolic role as a contradictory figure caught between progressive impulses and retrograde attitudes is best captured by Scott in her analysis of the production of Slave Ship (1937). Production files contain over a hundred pages of memos from Zanuck to the filmmakers, showing that studio films became an outgrowth of the producer’s personal politics and sensibilities, often with contradictory attitudes involving race [112]. Zanuck’s memos, and the film itself as shown through Scott’s textual analysis, reify racial mythologies and typographies while also striving to break new ground politically.

Zanuck, as was the case with any producer at a major studio during the era, functioned as an added layer of censorship, albeit subjective and informal. Studio heads and producers often removed creative decisions from the hands of directors and writers, superseding creative or ideological intent by foregrounding the budget and box office concerns that were at the heart of movie making as a business. Yet the input of producers, as seen through Zanuck’s memos, reflected the ideology and aesthetics of the studio chiefs as well as their financial concerns. On Pinky and Island in the Sun, Zanuck took conservative literary texts and gave them to left-leaning writers in hopes that they would transform the text [135]. But as Scott shows in her summaries of the production of each film, Zanuck’s role as a producer often muted the impact of these hired writers by giving them notes that dismantled significant changes to the source material. At times premised on his own gut instinct in how to make a successful film, Zanuck’s role as a one-man censorship board helps underline the inexact process of exclusion.

The book’s final major segment focuses on the “interpretive activism” of black critics and civil rights organizations that used public discourse to foreground issues “left in the shadows” by Hollywood [147]. While a much-needed counterpoint to the previous three sections, Scott misses a number of opportunities to expand arguments she makes earlier in the book and complicate the role of NAACP and the black press in shaping screen representation. Scott’s analysis falls in line with previous scholarship, looking at the benefits of vocal protest to force change in Hollywood or educate the filmgoing public about damaging stereotypes. One of the biggest shortcomings of interpretive activism is that being premised on reading film texts it foregrounds representation of race on screen rather than broader, structural omissions. Pointing out what is wrong with the racial depictions in, say, Song of the South (1946) is useful, but the protests surrounding the film failed to address the hundreds of films made that same year in which African Americans were wholly absent. When Hollywood takes on depicting black lives on screen it runs the risk of backlash, not only from racist censor boards but also through the interpretation among the black press and social organizations. By playing it safe and ignoring race altogether, Hollywood has made a practice out of avoiding these headaches altogether. The question of how to address absence is one of Scott’s primary concerns early on in the book, yet she does not do enough to extend this critical observation to the interpretive community during the civil rights era.

As the NAACP gained steam following World War II it began pushing to end broad stereotypes (Mantan Moreland, Stepin Fetchit, et al.), showing a preoccupation with erasing certain black images rather than cultivating spaces for new ones. The same impulse defined the response to the blaxploitation cycle in the 1970s by the conservative black press and civic leaders (i.e. Jesse Jackson). Scott quotes a 1943 Pittsburgh Courier survey to substantiate this impulse, the poll that asked readers if they should boycott movies that depict African Americans as “inferior”: 82.7% said yes [169]. Yet, the poll fails to mention the boycotting of Hollywood films where blacks are not represented at all as an option. Scott looks at interpretive activism as a needed oppositional voice to the studios, and in many cases it was. But the details Scott provides about the protest in the black press against a proposed production of Countee Cullen’s play St. Louis Woman suggest that interpretive activism often functioned as another layer of censorship [173]. Scott hints as “safe” exclusion in the 1960s, but leaves this observation underdeveloped.

Cinema Civil Rights is wildly ambitious in its scope, taking on every studio film (and a number of non-studio films) from the 1920s to the early 1960s. On one hand the book can be understood as a jumping-off point for future scholarship, as Scott never lingers on a single film for more than a few pages. At times Scott struggles to find a balance between her own analysis and the wealth of information she found in the archives. With so many telling quotes that get to the heart of PCA’s train of thought, the book often mirrors the archivist’s pleasure in unearthing material as well as the tendency to delve in too deeply without coming up for a breath of air. Yet this may not be a shortcoming. Given the same material, another writer may have turned this book into a sprawling tome that unpacks every detail and, in doing so, loses the thrust of the argument. Scott’s writing may be dense at times, but she has command over the material, never losing her broader argument within the details.

The contribution that Scott makes to African American film history with Cinema Civil Rights is sizeable, but it is her sense of purpose rather than her exhaustive research that makes the book essential. Scott introduces her subject eloquently and finishes the book by tying civil rights issues (as opposed to the “civil rights generation”) to contemporary cinema, which is a crucial way to understand what is at stake. This book is not about cataloguing the push for progress in the distant past, replicating in scholarship the simplified and sterilized depictions of the civil rights movement in Hollywood films like The Help (2011) and The Butler (2013). It is a crucial reminder that issues of civil rights are still at stake, even as we have grown apathetic and unfocused in our response. Scott’s book is a call for engagement that forces the reader to not only reinterpret the past but to also reassess the present.


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