Excerpt’s From V. J. Jerome’s "The Negro In Hollywood Films" (1950) Essay, Research Paper

About the Author


text of this booklet is an expansion of a lecture, "The Negro in Hollywood

Films," delivered at a public forum held under the auspices of the Marxist cultural

magazine, Masses & Mainstream, at the Hotel Capitol, New York, on February 3,


The lecture, which dealt with fundamental and theoretical aspects of the film medium

and the Negro question, and which projected a rounded program for uniting Negro and white

Americans in the fight against chauvinism in the film and other cultural areas, was

received with enthusiasm by the audience, and its publication urged upon the sponsors of

the meeting.

The author, V. J. Jerome, is editor of Political Affairs, leading journal of

Marxist thought and opinion in the United States, and also chairman of the Communist

Party’s National Cultural Commission. He is the author of several books and pamphlets,

including Social-Democracy and the War, War and the Intellectuals, The Treatment of

Defeated Germany, and, most recently, Culture In a Changing World, which has

been translated in a number of European countries.

The Underlying Strategy

The treatment of Negro themes and characters by Hollywood during the past fifty years

has borne a clear relationship to the concrete political program of monopoly capital in

each successive period. Each phase of Hollywood policy in this regard must be considered

in the frame of reference of the particular stage of the Negro people’s movement, and of

its alliance with the American working class.

While making certain concessions on the screen, designed to "adjust" to the

Negro people’s forward movement, the controlling interests have sought tenaciously to

retain the clich?s and discriminations of the past in one form or another. These

concessions, being tactical in character, have always been utilized by monopoly capital

with a view to furthering and strengthening its basic strategy. The objective

of that strategy is to perpetuate the odious myth of "white supremacy" in order

to hold back the developing labor-Negro alliance for the common struggle against fascism

and imperialist war; to weaken the fight of the trade unions and white progressives for a

Fair Employment Practices Commission bill, for the abolition of the poll tax, and for the

outlawry of lynching; to prevent the organization and the full integration of the Negro

workers into the trade unions, in order to hamper the unification of the white and Negro

workers in a powerful American labor movement. It is the objective of that strategy, at

all times, to undermine the movement of the Negro people and to prevent it from developing

its full force, and to keep the Negro people from understanding the true basis and nature

of their oppression. The objective is to keep them from understanding that the lynch-law

and Jim-Crow discrimination and segregation are inspired by Wall Street and Southern

landlord reaction.

The objective is, furthermore, to keep from the Negro people the scientific teaching of

the Communist Party that their oppression is national in essence, and that their struggle

is fundamentally a struggle for national liberation.

Finally, it is the objective of that strategy to weaken the ties of the Negro people

with the white workers and other popular allies and thereby to retard the general

working-class struggle for emancipation from capitalism. It is the aim of that strategy to

isolate the Negro people’s movement and rob it of self-confidence, thus to prevent the

Negro people from taking the anti-imperialist road to national liberation.

Roots of Hollywood’s Racism

The fact is that the imperialist credo of chauvinist nationalism and "white

supremacy" dates back to the very origin of commercial film making in the United

States. It is no mere chance that the very first dramatic film, which was shown in 1898,

the year in which American imperialism, fully emerging, announced its "Manifest

Destiny" with the launching of the robber war to wrest colonies from Spain, bore the

title Tearing Down the Spanish Flag. Not less significant is the fact that in

1901–barely two years after announcement of the "Open Door" policy for the

spoliation of China–the public was subjected to the racist film The Boxer Massacres in

Pekin, designed to "prove" that the anti-imperialist struggle of the Chinese

people constituted a "yellow peril" to "white civilization." Street

Scene in Pekin, released the same year, portrayed British police in front of their

Legation breaking up a demonstration of Chinese "unruly citizens" (Edison

Catalogue, 1901).

The imperialist mythology of the Anglo-Saxon super-type was methodically

cultivated in a variety of motion pictures, of which Fights of Nations, released in

1905, was perhaps the most viciously chauvinist. In that picture the Negro was caricatured

as a "razor-thrower," the Jew as a "briber," the Mexican as a

"treacherous" fellow, the Spaniard as a "foppish lover," the Irishman

as a "drunkard," while in the final tableau the United States was presented as

the bringer of peace to all the nations. As a contemporary trade publication described it:

"The scene is magnificently decorated with emblems of all nations, the American eagle

surmounting them. In harmony, peace and good will the characters of the different nations

appear, making it an allegorical representation of "Peace," with the United

States presiding at a congress of Powers" (The Moving Picture World March 9,

1907, as quoted by Louis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film, New York, 1939, p.

75). How prophetic of the day when this imperial eagle would seek to commandeer the United

Nations into line for atomic "Peace"!

The policy of setting native against foreign-born, white against Negro, non-Jew against

Jew, of dividing all in order to conquer all, but with the special, racist design to keep

the Negro people upon the bottom rung of the ladder–that has been the studied policy of

the rulers of this land. In this service they have methodically used the film medium.

The economics and politics of "white supremacy" were reflected in film after

film that maligned, ridiculed, and disparaged the Negro people. Not only was Negro life

ignored, not only were the struggles and aspirations of the Negro people undocumented, but

such characterizations of Negroes as were given were the vilest caricatures, the most

hideous stereotypes, designed to portray the Negro as moronic, clownish, menial, and

sub-human. One need only bear in mind such characteristic titles as Rastus in Zululand

and How Rastus Got His Turkey, which were made about 1910; the equally insulting Sambo

series, which were turned out between 1909 and 1911; and the above-described Fights of

Nations. To that high level of capitalist culture belonged also the series of shameful

racist screen "comedies of errors," typified by The Masher (1907) and The

Dark Romance of a Tobacco Can (1911), in which a man in romantic pursuit of a woman

discovers the object of his quest to be a Negro woman. With such impudence was the

chauvinist "morality" presented!

The ruling class, be it remembered, had long before the advent of the cinema betrayed

the Negro people in the South to the counter-revolutionary plantation oligarchy. The

Hayes-Tilden perfidy of 1876 had sealed the restoration to power of the Bourbons in the

post-Reconstruction state governments of the South. In the opening years of the century,

with the newly emerged epoch of imperialism marked by "reaction all along the

line," the completion of the systematic disfranchisement and segregation of the Negro

in the South was carried out in flagrant violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth

Amendments to the Constitution. Colossal fraud, terror, lynch-law, and the Ku Klux Klan

ruled the South to keep the Negro in "his place." The "white

supremacy" stratagem served the Southern plantation feudalists and the controlling

finance capitalists of Wall Street as an ideological mainstay of their white ruling-class

oppression. Wall Street’s Manifest Destiny ideology, first projected to rationalize the

brutal oppression of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Cuba, and in its latter-day

form of the "American Century" serving to conceal designs for global conquest,

found expression at home in the white chauvinist ideology used as a weapon to oppress the

Negro people. This ideology increasingly permeated the bourgeois cultural field in all

areas. The "white superiority" cult enforced the misshaping of American history

and social science as a whole to a Bourbon bias.

Toward the opening of the second decade of the century–roughly from 1910 until the

outbreak of World War I–a new trend came into evidence in the treatment of the Negro on

the screen, side by side with the continued slap-stick, low comedy films of the past. The

new trend was the Uncle Tom ideology.

To understand this turn, we need to see the political and social background of the

United States during the years immediately preceding World War I.

It was a period of "popular distemper" and mass stirrings, brought to a head

by the severe economic crisis of 1907. It was a time of strong anti-trust currents among

all sections of the people, of agarian discontent, of mass wrath against the spoils system

and against corruption in administration, Anti-militarist sentiments pervaded the country;

everywhere demands rose for the outlawing of war. The woman suffrage movement was gaining

momentum, together with the struggle for equal rights for working women.

It was a decade of significant advances in trade-union organization and of bitter

strike struggles. Those were the years, too, of the growth of the Socialist Party and of

mass socialist sentiment, which was registered, in the Presidential elections of 1912, in

a vote of 900,000 for Eugene Debs. Within the Socialist Party a tide of struggle had set

in, marking the rising challenge of the Left-moving proletarian rank and file to the

petty-bourgeois opportunist leadership. The great defense movement of 1906-07 in behalf of

the framed-up leaders of the Western Federation of Miners, Moyer, Haywood, and Pettibone,

which forced their acquittal, further evidenced the temper of the workers. Thus, President

Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1906 to a leading senator: "The labor men are very ugly

and no one can tell how far such discontent will spread."

To stay "this rising tide of discontent," the bourgeoisie, by a division of

labor, both intensified its exploitation of the masses and assumed the reformist mask.

This was evidenced especially, during the 1912 election, in Roosevelt’s demagogic attempt

to capture the popular vote with his "Bull Moose" offshoot of the Republican

Party. As in the simple binary fission of the one-celled amoeba, science could reveal no

basic organic difference between the "Grand" Old Party and the Rough-Riding

"Progressives." Capital trotted out its most consummate hypocrite in the

Messiah-tongued Woodrow Wilson, whose "New Freedom" purporting to blow taps over

the trusts, proved to be a proclamation of unlimited license for corporate plunder.

These developments found their reflections in the film–basically and predominantly

carrying the message of reaction, but also expressing to a very minor degree the militancy

of the people’s struggles.

In those years immediately preceding World War I, there emerged a series of anti-trust

films, and a number more or less sympathetic to labor. The Power of Labor (1908)

showed industrial workers on strike carrying their struggle to victory. The Egg Trust (1910)

served to expose profiteering in food. Tim Mahoney, the Scab (1911) dealt

with the shame of a worker who betrayed his union brothers. Another film with

working-class sympathies was Locked Out (1911). Notable in this series was the

screen version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1914).

The period of mass ferment before World War I involved also the continuing struggles of

the Negro people, marking the beginnings of the present-day Negro liberation movement.

These struggles inspired to action a section of Negro middle-class intellectuals, advanced

in thinking and fired with zeal for the freedom of their people. Under the leadership of

W. E. B. Du Bois, then a young professor at Atlanta University, there sprang into being in

1905 the militant Niagara movement. Its birth was a Declaration of Independence

challenging the dominance of the Booker T. Washington ideology of accommodation and

acquiescence to the white ruling class, of dependence on the good graces of the white

bourgeoisie for "improvement" of the Negro people’s "lot." The Niagara

organization made clear its stand, in the ringing declaration of its spokesmen: "We

claim for ourselves every right that belongs to a free-born American, civil and social,

and until we get these rights we shall never cease to protest and assail the ears of

America with the stories of its shameful deeds towards us."

Although the Niagara movement was short-lived, its effect on the white ruling class was

unmistakable. Recognizing the growing ferment among the Negro intellectuals, the

capitalist masters of America worked assiduously to "take over" the leadership

of the emerging movement of the Negro people. To this end, they sought to impose on the

movement a deadening "patronage," which could only have the effect of retarding

a militant movement of the Negro people, led by Negroes and consciously, directed toward

national liberation.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People appeared in 1910 and

reflected in its origins both that militancy and that patronage. The former was shown in

the fact that nearly the entire membership of the Niagara Movement merged with the

N.A.A.C.P.; the latter in the fact that the new organization’s entire official leadership,

with the lone exception of Dr. Du Bois, was composed of whites. As Harry Haywood remarks

in his Negro Liberation, ". . . with the launching of the N.A.A.C.P., a new

pattern in ‘race’ leadership was set. It was the pattern of white ruling-class paternalism

which, as time went on, was to cast an ever-deepening shadow over the developing Negro

liberation movement, throttling its self-assertiveness and its independent imitative,

placing before it limited objectives and dulling the sharp edge of the sword of Negro

protest" (Harry Haywood, Negro Liberation, New York, 1948, p. 181.).

In the face of these developments in the political sphere, the screen portrayal of the

Negro could not continue solely on the buffoon level of the Rastus and Sambo films.

Hollywood continued, and even extended, its depiction of the Negro as mentally

"inferior," continued his relegation to slap-stick roles. Yet, simultaneously,

the times compelled something of a tactical departure from the old stereotype. Thus, there

emerged in a number of films of that period a "sympathetic" Negro type–the

classic Uncle Tom.

The Uncle Tom theme found expression in such films as For Massa’s Sake (1911),

The Debt (1912), and In Slavery Days (1913). The first of these shows a

"faithful" slave who tries self-sacrificingly to discharge his white master’s

gambling debts by offering himself for sale.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin itself appeared during these years in three film versions, with

distorted emphasis upon the theme of Uncle Tom’s devotion to little Eva, thus eliminating

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s central indictment of slavery.

It was also in this period, during 1911, that The Battle was directed by D. W.

Griffith, who, four years later, was to make The Birth of a Nation. The Battle set

a precedent for all future Hollywood pictures dealing with the Civil War. It romanticized

the Old South and the "sweet slavery, days." It crystallized for film audiences

all the high-flown, hypocritical legends of the slavocracy–the "generous"

colonels, the fine, indulgent masters, the "happy, carefree state" of the

plantation slaves portrayed side by side with their "brutishness."

What was the significance of all these pictures? Essentially, they represented a shift

in tactic to counteract the new liberation movement of the Negro people, as well as to

hold back Negro and white unity. The main stereotypes of the

Negro–"primitiveness," "childishness," and

"buffoonery"–could no longer serve as sole rationalizations of "white

supremacy." Uncle Tom was needed.

The tactic was designed to erect a barrier against the rising mood of struggle for

Negro rights. Servile acceptance of inequality, collaboration with imperialism, nostalgic

beatification of slavery–this has been the thesis of films dealing with the slave South

and the Civil War during the forty years since. It implies also a slanderous belittlement

of the North’s role in the Civil War, which itself has come to be treated as a

"mistake" and its result as an "illegitimate" victory.

During that time, too, to make the tactic more effective, Hollywood began to release

its series of "white supremacy" films dealing with the "curse of

mixed-blood." Those racist melodramas, typified by The Octoroon (1913),

clearly were designed to stamp the Negro people as "social pariahs" for whom

there was no liberation and with whom there was no association. The "mission" of

such films was to accomplish, under new conditions, in the "serious" and

"tragic" way, what the utterly slap-stick, low-comedy pictures had been

manufactured to do in their way.

But as the war drums began to beat, this tactic was found wanting. Hollywood made a

decisive turn with the outbreak of imperialist World War I.

Woodrow Wilson’s call in August, 1914, upon Americans to be "impartial in thought

as well as in action" was but the opening note in that ascending scale of monstrous

demagogy which served the re-election of He-kept-us-out-of-war Wilson–five months before

he plunged us into war.

Involvement of the United States in the war was plotted from the first by the dominant

circles of Wall Street imperialism. The ominous signs were present in the increasing

direction of United States trade to the side of the Allied Powers, beginning with 1915; in

the functioning of the House of Morgan since mid-1915 as central purchasing agent for the

Allies; and in Washington’s "benevolent neutrality" toward Britain’s illegal

blockade of United States shipping, in contrast to the stern notes addressed to Germany

against her blockade.

War preparations demanded charging the atmosphere with the ideologies of jingoism,

chauvinism, racism, and brutality. Wall Street’s plans for empire demanded the

glorification of the white American "super-race." On the home scene this meant

intensified attacks upon the Negro people. The flames of hatred were kindled against the

Negro people in line with the policy of visiting the war burden upon the Negro and white

toiling masses as a whole. To cope with the mass antiwar sentiment which prevailed over

the land, it was necessary to undermine the markedly developing Negro and white alliance.

The anticipated war production, which would necessarily absorb many Negro workers into

industries, had to be guaranteed against the solidarity of Negro workers with white

workers. With the cessation of the influx of cheap foreign labor consequent upon the

outbreak of the war in Europe, Northern manufacturers had begun to stimulate the Northward

migration of Negroes from the South. Even before the incentive of jobs in the North, that

migration had started, as an escape from the unbearable conditions in the South.

"Justifications" had to be prepared for residential segregation of Negroes, for

the Jim-Crowing of Negro soldiers in the impending war, for the shameless overwork imposed

upon uniformed Negro "labor battalions" in European ports and supply centers,

and in general for the increased national oppression of the Negro people.

Thus, we read in Du Bois’ autobiographical account of that period:

With the accession of Woodrow Wilson to the presidency in 1913 there opened for the

American Negro a period lasting through and long after the World War and culminating in

1919, which was an extraordinary test for their courage and a time of cruelty,

discrimination and wholesale murder. ( W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, New York,

1940, p. 235.)

It was in 1915 that Hollywood, in keeping with its main strategy, produced The Birth

of a Nation, which Wilson praised in the words: "It is like writing

history with lightning."

It is highly significant that Hollywood’s first "superspectacle," the

longest and costliest film produced to that date, should have been a lying extravaganza

glorifying slavery and vilifying the Negro people!

If, prior to that, the Negro had been stereotyped as clown or Uncle Tom, he was now

disfigured as "beast." The foulness of capitalist "culture" has never

been more glaringly revealed. By viciously falsifying the Negro’s role in the

Reconstruction period following the Civil War, by monstrously contriving scenes like that

of the Negro legislators in session "lounging back in their chairs with their bare

feet up on their desks, a bottle of whiskey in one band and a leg of chicken in the other

… the while intimidating white girls in the gallery with nods, winks and lewd

suggestions" (Peter Noble, The Negro in Films London, p. 37), this picture set

the style for all future slanders of the Negro people and distortions of the

Reconstruction period. The film, concretely, aimed to "justify" the denial of

civil rights and equal opportunities to Negroes, and to rationalize frame-ups, terror, and

lynchings, as both "necessary" and "romantic"!

A storm of protest arose when the film was released. Many theatres exhibiting it were

picketed. Foremost in this campaign against the picture were the Negro people themselves.

The protest actions of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

encouraged other sections of the population, including prominent individuals, to engage in

the fight. As a result, the film was banned for a time in a number of states.

The picture has been revived repeatedly since then, even during World War II, at which

time vigorous protest from the Negro newspapers, as well as from the Communist press,

particularly the Daily Worker, forced its withdrawal. The pledge of the Chief of

the Bureau of Motion Pictures of the Office of War Information that the film would not be

shown again has, like many such bourgeois promises, been broken. Today this foul and

vicious spectacle is again on display in various parts of the country.

No doubt, The Birth of a Nation contributed to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan,

which it glorified–an organization which by 1924 counted five million members.

From that time on, all Hollywood pictures dealing with the south or the Civil War have

had a pro-Confederate bias. In not one is the North shown to have waged the just side of

the war, or to have legitimately won the war against the slaveowners. Such pictures have

proved an ideological support for the alliance of Wall Street and the Southern plantation

system in all its racist, pro-fascist, imperialist policies.

In the thirty-five years of capitalist film-making since The Birth of a

Nation, that picture stands out as the classic example of Hollywood’s ruthless basic

strategy with regard to the Negro people, not yet masked by such tactical adjustments and

maneuvers as became unavoidable in after times.

It is unnecessary to detail the course of those minor changes in the intermediate

period, from film to film and from type to type. The operation of a constant strategy,

despite variations of tactic, that we have traced in the course of the first seventeen

years of commercial film-making in the United States, could be shown as equally dominant

through the subsequent period–from the "prosperity decade" following the First

World War, through the "depression years" and the "New Deal era," to

the Second World War and the "peace" years since.

The "Negro Interest" Films

It is against this historical background that we must examine the new series of

Hollywood "Negro interest" films so far represented by Home of the Brave,

Lost Boundaries, Pinky, and Intruder in the Dust. (Hollywood has since added The

Jackie Robinson Story and No Way Out. These films continue the pattern analyzed

in this study.)

One key question can lead us to a keener understanding of these films, and their role

in monopoly capital’s blueprint for dividing and conquering. It demands the fullest

analysis and the clearest answer. For with these films Hollywood has forged a new

ideological weapon. It now assumes the appearance of a crusading sword, raised in defense

of the Negro people. But what hand holds the hilt? Is it aimed accurately at the deep

roots of oppression–or is it aimed and wielded, after all, against the Negro people? Let

us watch the sword in action.

Our key question, then, is: Does this new film cycle signify a real advance in

Hollywood’s treatment of the Negro?

It cannot be disputed that, in a formal sense, these films seem to leave behind the

traditional Hollywood clich? Negro. Their central themes and characters do not seem to

bear the mark of the Uncle Tom stereotype; or the viciously libellous sub-human brute

type; or the "comic relief" calumny ? la Stepin Fetchit; or the bucolic myth of

laughing, singing, romping, happy-all-the-day field hands possessed of the mentality of

children and blessed with a natural contentment that makes the idea of freedom a rude,

Northern interference.

In each of the four motion pictures, we get the formal, outward aspect of a serious and

dignified presentation of the Negro, in a full-drawn, central role. The hero or heroine

moves through unfolding dramatic situations that are calculated to evoke (within the

limitations of the film’s ideology) the sympathetic response of the audience for the Negro

protagonist. The composite Negro protagonist emerges from this film series with qualities

of moral courage, devotion and principled conduct. Not all of these qualities apply

equally to each of the Negro central characters in the films. Nevertheless, we have in

these films what would seem at very long last the Negro come into his own in the screen


So obviously does this represent a sharp departure from Hollywood’s past patterns that,

to those who are content with first impressions, these films constitute nothing short of a

revolutionary change. Regardless of what must be said in criticism–and what must be said

here is fundamental criticism–it would be anything but realistic not to see in this new

screen depiction of the Negro the fact that the advancing movement of the Negro people,

together with their white labor and progressive allies, has forced a new tactical

concession from the enemy. At the same time, it would be even more unrealistic not to see

in this very concession a new mode–more dangerous because more subtle–through which the

racist ruling class of our country is today re-asserting its strategic ideology of

"white supremacy" on the Hollywood screen.

Let us examine the films themselves, matching reality against appearance, in theme and

content, and in mode of presentation; comparing total impression with presumed intent, in

the messages these films convey to the millions.

The New Stereotype

We begin with Pinky. The film deals with a Southern Negro young woman, named

Pinky (a slang term for a light-complexioned Negro who can pass for white). While studying

in Boston to become a registered nurse, Pinky (Jeanne Crain) falls in love with a white

doctor. Unable to tell her suitor of her Negro origin, Pinky runs away from what has

become for her an impossible situation. She returns to the South, home to her washerwoman

grandmother, Aunt Dicey (Ethel Waters). Here, she again encounters the real life of her

people at first hand. The young Northern doctor, who follows her to the South, where he

learns from her that she is a Negro, urges her to marry him, on condition however that she

return North with him, "come away from all this," and keep from the world her

Negro identity. She spurns his request. He leaves. At the insistence of her grandmother,

much against her will, Pinky consents to nurse an aristocratic, cantankerous, old

woman–Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore)–who is dying in her decaying plantation mansion.

From an early revulsion, there comes about a mutual attraction between Pinky and this

hard-shelled woman with the "heart of gold." The change is not too clearly

motivated, although an indicated factor is Miss Em’s detestation of her designing

relatives. The old woman dies and–has bequeathed her estate to Pinky! Pinky, however,

does not find it easy to inherit "white" property. Miss Em’s relatives challenge

the will. Pinky fights courageously for her rights. And–God’s in his heaven: All’s right

with the South–Pinky is awarded the estate! Her new property is converted into a

combination nursery-clinic-training school for Negroes, over which she presides, to five

happily ever after, as the fairy tale ends.

That is the bare narrative. What are this picture’s positive values–values that the

people have forced upon Hollywood? First among this film’s positive aspects, then, are the

indicting scenes of exposure. The wretched facts of discrimination in the South are

memorably etched in several scenes, perhaps the sharpest of this kind in the entire film


There is the scene in which the police arrest two Negroes, a man and a woman. Pinky,

who is with them, is at first mistaken for white. She is gallantly deferred to by the

policemen, who "protect" her from the Negroes at her side. But Pinky defiantly

declares herself to be a Negro. Instantly, there is a change in the conduct of the police

toward her. We see white ruling-class justice, the only Southern justice, suddenly rip off

its mask of chivalry to reveal itself as the racism we know it to be. This is a great,

overpowering moment of film realism.

Later, two joy-riding white youths attempt to rape Pinky in a scene of terrifying,

dramatic impact. White rapists in a Hollywood film! A rare flash of truth on the American

screen. which has the effect of exposing the "rape" libel used to frame-up

Negroes as a bestial falsehood, devised to conceal the notorious actuality of legally

protected white ruling-class rapism.

The indictment of Bourbon bigotry is documented once again in the scene of the town

store, where we are shown dramatically the cruel anti-Negro differential in the upward

pricing of commodities to the customer Pinky, when the white merchant discovers that she

is a Negro. This is reality caught cold–a piercing comment on the "American

way of life."

Finally, on the credit side of the film, there are the positive elements of Pinky’s

character. Let us examine these in relation to a total realistic view of the film.

In the unfolding struggle for Miss Em’s property, there takes place a heavy veiling of

true conditions in the South and a busy sowing of illusions in Bourbon justice. In

Hollywood’s "typical" Southern town, the judge is on the side of justice for the

Negro! The court rules in favor of the Negro, and against the rich white plaintiff. What

is more, no mass pressure is brought to bear on the court. In fact, the masses are shown

as the counter-pressure. The only ones in the entire drama who are really against Pinky

and the Negroes are the poor whites; the class struggle between them and the rich whites

seemingly rages over the issue of justice for Pinky: the poor whites are against her; the

well-to-do whites are for her. Where but on the Hollywood screen can we get such

"insight" into the class alignments of social conflict!

The rose-tinting of bigotry and discrimination, of violence and oppression; the toning

down of everything that might be a little "too stark"; the deliberate evasion of

the fact of existing mounting legal and extra-legal brutality–these emerge as underlying

purposes of the film. In this picture, so high with pretensions of "fairness" to

the Negro, the shame of all this is not only ignored; it is sedulously denied by the

substitution of happenings no Southland ever saw.

The good white fairy of Hollywood and Wall Street has waved her wand: A white

aristocratic woman bequeaths her property to her Negro nurse. The town’s outstanding

attorney, a former judge, takes Pinkey’s case, without retainer. A Southern judge

rebukes the ranting lawyer who seeks to rob Pinky of her legacy. A Southern white

courtroom mob sits and only mutters; even when the court rules in favor of the Negro, the

mob does not act. After the court decision, Pinky is prevented by no one from opening her

nursery center on the inherited estate, presumably with fairy gold. And, final triumph of

the magic wand: The Ku Klux Klan never arrives!

Variety (November 23, 1949) reports that at one sequence, both Negro and white

members of the Atlanta audience applauded. (The audience was separated by segregation, of

course.) That was the scene in which Pinky won the court fight. How should this be

explained? For the Negroes, that scene was the only moment of victory–false and illusory,

contrary to all realities, as it was. While for a section of the whites this scene

undoubtedly expressed their approval of just decisions for Negroes, for many others it

"proved" how nice and how decent Southern white justice "really is,"

Indeed, the point about the Atlanta audience opens up for consideration the calculated

effect of the focal courtroom scene on the varying class and social elements among

American moviegoers.

Insofar as the film addresses itself to the worker in the audience, the depiction of

the lynch-eager mob, shown to be predominantly made up of poor whites, insults the working

class and makes it out to be the social villain of the piece. By deliberately screening

from view the lynch-law guilt of the "better classes"–the landlords,

industrialists, and bankers–the film aims to break down in the worker his self-confidence

and self-respect, and to retard the development of his class consciousness.

To the white middle classes the film addresses itself through the courtroom scene

somewhat as follows: The workers, clearly, are uncouth and Klux-ish. Your alliance cannot

be with them. The "superior" class forces in the film–all the way from landlord

to lawyer–they are the ones who battle m the cause of justice, against the white workers

and farmers. Here is the road for your alliance!

To the Negro members of the audience the film, through the courtroom scene, seems to

say: Your enemy, you can see, is the camp of the poor whites; your protectors and allies

are the others, the "best" whites. With these you must work out your destiny.

Shun struggle and Negro-white unity. Under the aegis and paternalistic protection of the

plantation rulers and their courts of justice, resign yourselves in permanence to your

"racial inferiority."

Bourbon justice has been flattered. And Pinky’s magnanimous attorney, now that her

victory is achieved, solemnly states: "You’ve got the land, you’ve got the house,

you’ve got justice; but I doubt if any other interests of this community have been

served." This is a dramatic and ideological high point of the film, artistically

underscored. Actually, those are the only memorable lines in terms of idea content. In

other words, the picture raises the question: Is the whole thing worth while? We white

upper-class people have been very decent and courageous in showing the problem. But in the

final analysis, isn’t it perhaps all a mistake? And since these words come from the lips

of Pinky’s white defender, whose "goodness" has been dramatically established,

their calculated impact is indeed cogent.

Who is Pinky?

A key to knowing her is to know the reason for her return home. She has left the North

because of her inability to go on in her ambiguous position of concealing her Negro

identity from her admirer. She is embittered because she has had to run away. She has not

come back to her people. When she walks through the streets, she walks with her head up

past the Negro children, past the Negro houses and people.

Yet her very running away has forced her to see herself as belonging to the Negro

people. This conflict within her explains her declaration in the arrest scene that she is

a Negro. It enters into her refusal to accept her white suitor’s conditions for their

marriage. it is a factor in her sharp emotional outburst against serving Miss Em, who has

for many years exploited her grandmother. Pinky’s initial rebellion against this

arrangement which her grandmother seeks to effect is confusedly motivated. On the one

hand, there is her resentment at being treated as a Negro and even considered as one

despite her light complexion: "I’m as white as you are!" she cries out to Miss

Em. On the other hand, her emerging sense of identification with her people, together with

her newly acquired sense of professional independence, suggests a socially conscious

element in her resistance to the paternalistic summons of the over-bearing old white woman

in the Big House.

Aunt Dicey sees the conflict in Pinky and seeks to mold her granddaughter in her own

image. She is motivated by the desire to survive and to protect her own. But in her

abjectness bred of fear and unconsciousness of any way out, she urges upon Pinky to

resolve the conflict within her by kneeling to white "superiority." When, at the

outset, she reproves Pinky for her "passing," it is not because she holds that

her granddaughter should be conscious of the dignity of her people, but that she should

"know her place" as a Negro.

Pinky is a "white" Negro, a Negro who can "pass." She is presented

in total effect as the "unusual" Negro. She has trained herself in the

mannerisms of the whites. She is always conscious of the fact that she has acquired a

profession, a skill which is denied to the masses of the young Negro men and women. She is

so deliberately contrasted to the other Negro characters as to appear obviously

"superior" to them all, and worthy of doing "uplift" work among her

people. Because of all this, in Hollywood’s alchemized South, a white ruling-class court

could not find it out of keeping with its sense of "justice" even to award a

verdict to her.

To give the finishing touch to Pinky’s "superiority," Hollywood assigned her

role to a white woman. Not a Fredi Washington or any one of a score of unquestionably

qualified Negro actresses of light complexion was chosen for the leading role of Pinky,

but the white actress Jeanne Crain was cast for the part. With all due appreciation for

Miss Crain’s creditable performance, this fact bears significantly on our evaluation of

the film’s central character. For, clearly, it would be going "too far" to

let an actual Negro woman, even in a film pretending to have a Negro heroine, defy, in a

white man’s court, the white supremacist code of robbery of the Negro’s right to

inherit; or to let an actual Negro woman be seen in a white lover’s embrace, even though

that love remains, by the taboo of the Hollywood racist code, unconsummated. If a degree

of concession must be made in a Negro character, let it at least be made to a white

player, says Hollywood. The logic is plain. The logic is cruel.

Pinky is a character capable of resolute decision and sustained, unflinching action.

Hollywood cannot permit her initial rebellion against Miss Em to be a basic rebellion. The

film, in effect, sets down that act of defiance against her white benefactress-to-be as

merely a mistake of impetuous youth. The New York Times adds the touching comment:

"It also presents a tender aspect of the mutual loyalties between Negro servants and

white masters that still exist in the South."


What solution does Pinky offer to the Negro "problem"? It is given by the

reformist Negro doctor, representing the Booker T. Washington ideology of gradualism and

accommodation to the white rulers. Pinky, let us remember, is schooled; she is a graduate

nurse. She cannot be expected to grow into the stereotyped bandanna-wearing

"Mammy." Aunt Dicey needs to be "renovated," cast into a new mold. And

so, through the ghetto path of "cultured" acquiescence and segregated

"uplift" work, Pinky’s potential rebelliousness is channeled away from the

course of significant struggle, away from the Negro people’s movement directed essentially

toward national liberation. She moves "forward" into a segregated existence in

which she administers a segregated school–a nice, well-mannered, trim Negro woman who

"knows her place"–and is liked and helped by the "best" white folk.

Here is the "modern," "streamlined" version of the "Mammy"

clich?. Hollywood reverses the old stereotype to create the New Stereotype.

Yes, Pinky offers a solution. A reformist, segregationist, paternalistic

solution. It is a "solution" which, as in all past Hollywood films, builds on

acceptance of the "superiority" of the whites and ends in endorsement of Jim

Crow–in this case, "liberal," "benevolent," Social-Democratic Jim


Pinky, perhaps for fear that the New Stereotype is as yet imperfect for the

function of Pinky’s role, abounds in hideous stereotypes of the past. Pinky’s

grandmother, Aunt Dicey, who has accepted her oppressed status and moves about with an

Uncle Tom loyalty to the "good" white folk, fulfills the old-style

"Mammy" clich?, notwithstanding Ethel Waters’ brave attempt to invest the part

with some dignity. Another stock-character Negro, Jake, is the "bad’ shiftless type,

the loose loafer and money-loving schemer, with "comic relief." Then there is

Jake’s "woman," who "totes a razor." The arrest scene, in which Nina

Mae McKinney is made to raise her skirt and the white policeman extracts a razor from the

rim of her stocking, is reminiscent of the shameful, vilifying tradition of The Birth

of a Nation and Gone With the Wind.

How true is the insight of Robert Ellis who wrote in the progressive Negro weekly, The

California Eagle, on October 20, 1949:

One really must judge harshly here of Darryl Zanuck and Elia Kazan and Philip Dunne and

Dudley Nichols (the producer, director, and writers respectively). For theirs is the main

responsibility, and although they had good intentions, and are, I’m sure,

"liberals"—yet they appraoched this picture with too much money in their

pockets and too much condescension, patronization, paternalism, in their hearts and minds.

And the same incisive critic puts the question to the film makers responsible for this

Jim-Crow practice:

Have you ever stepped down from a railroad car and hunted for the colored toilet–gone

hungry because there was no colored seat at the counter–walked along the street and felt

the hatred and coldness in most people’s eyes merely because of color? . . . How can a

studio, how can an industry that doesn’t employ Negroes as writers, producers,

technical directors, cameramen:–how can they write, direct, produce, or film a picture

which has sincere and real sensitivity (shall we say artistry) about Negro people?

Who can challenge this bitter truth?

[. . . .]

Adding Up the Score

Home of the Brave, Lost Boundaries, Pinky, Intruder in the Dust must be labelled

clearly. Taken together, they constitute a new cycle of films that seem to arm, but

actually attempt to disarm, the Negro people’s movement; that seem to promote the

Negro-and-white alliance, but actually attempt to set divisions between Negro and white.

They are films that, in the guise of "dignity," introduce a New Stereotype–a

continuation of the Uncle Tom tradition, in "modern" dress, while retaining the

old stereotypes. They are films that attempt to split the Negro people’s solidarity with

promises of "rewards" from the "best" whites–"justice" and

"positions" for light-skinned, in distinction from dark-skinned, Negroes;

"respectability" and "social station" for Negro middle-class

professionals, in distinction from working-class Negroes. They are films that seek to

prevent the Negro workers from advancing to leadership in the Negro people’s liberation


They are films that through distortion and dramatic misrepresentation of fact attempt

to shift the blame for Negro oppression to the Negro people themselves. They are films

that attempt to inspire in the Negro people trust in their worst enemy–the white ruling

class, by portraying that class as the Negro’s benefactor and legal protector, while

arousing in them mistrust, fear, and hatred against the white working people, who are

depicted as the would-be lynchers, as the camp of the lynchers. They are films that seek

to make the Negro feel beholden to the white free-enterprisers and to be on his best

behavior in expectation of "gradual" emancipation. They are films that attempt

to deprive the Negro people of self-confidence in its capacity to struggle, to divert

Negroes from collective, mass action, from the Negro people’s movement, into individual

grapplings with oppression, into efforts at personal "adjustment." They are

films that attempt to deny the objective existence of the Negro question, by making

lynch-law appear a "moral" problem of the "better class" whites, by

making Negro-baiting appear a matter of the Negro’s "sensitivity" due to

"guilt feeling" and of his baiter’s "unhappiness" and sense of

"insecurity." They are films that seek to weaken the Negro people’s

understanding of the source and nature of their oppression, by means of the

Social-Democratic thesis of "no difference" which leaves the Negro masses

defenseless against their double oppression, class oppression and national oppression.

Apart from positive features already discussed these films aim to undermine the Negro

people’s struggle for national liberation from the "master race" domination of

landlords, industrialists, and bankers, and to blunt any struggle against the monopolists

and their war-and-fascism program.

In terms of the white audiences, similarly, this cycle of films expresses a reactionary

ideology. In their total impact, these films would have the white masses believe that the

ruling class is concerned over the Negro people’s plight, that it seeks to promote their

welfare, is democratically minded toward them, and aims to do away with lynchings and

discrimination. Implicit in such propaganda, insofar as it is directed to white workers

and progressives, is the negation of the mutually vital need for the alliance between the

working class and the Negro people’s liberation movement. It is not surprising, therefore,

that the Social-Democratic, labor-reformist, and liberal publications joined with the open

bourgeois press in acclaiming these films. They said in effect: Leave it to the ruling

class, leave it to the Truman government, leave it to the courts leave it to the churches,

leave it to the moral sense of the "right-thinking," "better-class"


This film cycle in an over-all sense leaves to the white masses the ideological residue

that the Negro must "know his place," and that whatever rights need to be

accorded him must be given within the framework of that idea. The white spectator is

taught to regard the Negro people as "unfortunate" beings, toward whom the

whites should exercise "tolerance" and to whom they should give moral

"hand-outs." By means of this patronizing, white chauvinist

"morality," such films seek to perpetuate the myth of Negro

"inferiority" and to beguile the white masses with the fiction of "white

superiority"–that deliberately- and artificially-fostered ideology from which only

the white rulers profit.

These films, moreover, in presenting the poor white masses as the lynchers, attempt to

make them appear responsible for the Jim-Crow segregation and oppression of the Negro

people, to make them appear the breeders of white chauvinism. Thus, white chauvinism, the

ideological weapon with which imperialism buttresses its national oppression of the Negro

people, is made to appear "inherent" in the white masses, who are victims of the

same ruling class. Of course, the poison of chauvinism infiltrates the ranks of the masses

of the oppressor nation; and to the extent that they fail to join in fighting alliance

with the subject nation, they bear an onus for the national oppression and for the

pernicious chauvinist ideology. But the chauvinism which these white masses manifest is

alien to their interests and to their class morality, and has to be purged from their

midst. Indeed, the very idea that chauvinism is inherent is itself chauvinist. Such films

serve their purpose as brakes on joint mass action of Negroes and whites. They have the

effect of disorienting the white masses from the clear view of their

responsibilities–inseparable from their own interests–to the oppressed Negro people. To

that extent, they retard the development of the broad people’s unity so vitally necessary

in today’s grim struggle against war and fascism, so vitally necessary for the national

liberation of the Negro people and for the achievement of Socialism.

These "Negro interest" films appear at the very time when the Negro people

are being subjected to increasing discrimination and oppression. The falsity of these

films in artistic terms is in measure to their political service to reaction. They distort

the reality of the Negro people’s struggle, which is concerned with jobs, housing,

education, equal rights, and peace.

American imperialism aims with its Truman "New Look" demagogy to convince the

Negro people in upsurge that their fate is safely in the hands of the "best"

white folk, that their social condition is every day in every way getting better and

better, and that therefore they should tolerate "occasional" Georgia lynchings

or Harlem police shootings, and pay no heed to the "trouble-making" Paul

Robesons and Ben Davises. This propaganda tries to conceal the persistent

failure–chargeable to both parties of capitalism–to establish a Fair Employment

Practices Commission, to enact anti-poll tax and anti-lynching legislation, to outlaw Jim

Crow in the armed forces, and to pass a Federal civil rights measure. It puts a veil over

the systematic exclusion of Negro workers from positions in basic industries limitedly

acquired in war time, through wholesale firings, down-grading on the jobs, and restriction

of job openings to the hardest and most menial work. This general condition is reflected

in the sharp rise of Negro unemployment: In New York, as of 1949, Negroes constituted

about 20 per cent of all unemployed, whereas their population percentage (according to

data from the preliminary census of 1950) is 9.5 per cent; in Chicago and Toledo, nearly

half of the registered unemployed were Negroes. (The Economic Crisis and the Cold War, edited

by James C. Allen and Doxey Wilkerson, New Century Publishers, New York, 1949, p. 70). In

city after city, the majority of the unemployed Negro workers have already consumed their

unemployment insurance and are at the mercy of inadequate and precarious relief


Truman’s showy "civil rights" bunting would cover up the shocking living

conditions in Negro ghetto communities–such appalling facts as that rentals in Harlem’s

dilapidated, rat-infested, stifling tenements consume 45 percent of the family income, as

against 20 percent in the rest of Manhattan; that Harlem’s maternal death rate is double

that of the rest of New York City’s and its tuberculosis rate quadruple (See Look magazine’s

article "Harlem … New York’s Tinder Box," December 6, 1949, by its staff

writer, Lewis W. Gillenson).

And in the field of education the President’s "civil rights" demagoguery

would drown out the growing protests against the quota system for Negro students in

colleges, and against the appalling segregation in public schools legally authorized in

twenty-one states and the District of Columbia, and permitted in eleven others. (See the

article, "Civil Rights and Minorities" by Paul Hartman and Morton Puner, New

Republic, January 30, 1950.) In the sphere of the arts and professions the same

demagoguery would silence indignation against the notorious discriminatory practices, as

shockingly exposed in March, 1947, at the conference of the Cultural Division of the

former National Negro Congress. (For some of the facts relating to discrimination against

Negro artists and workers in the cultural media, see Culture in a Changing World,

by V. J. Jerome, New Century Publishers, 1947, pp. 31-33). In the sphere alone of our

present survey, the film industry, we must take sharp note of the fact that Hollywood does

not employ a single Negro writer, director, sound man, cameraman, or other technician.

And, as we have seen in regard to the very films that are offered as an earnest of a

"new approach" to the Negro people, in two of the four pictures in the cycle the

major Negro characters were denied to Negro actors. In the face of these glaring facts,

Mrs. Roosevelt writes:

Things have been improving in the economic field and in education for the colored

people. I would also say in the field of arts that there is an increasing opportunity for

them to gain recognition on an equal basis. But if Mr. Robeson succeeds in labelling his

race as a group as Communists, many of these gains will be lost, I am afraid, in the

future (New York World Telegram, November 3, 1949).

In plain words, the Negro people must be made to under, stand: either you line up on

the political side the "best" white people choose for you, or else–. This is

the same Mrs. Roosevelt, chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Commission which was castigated

in a group petition prepared by the eminent Negro scholar Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois: "We

charge that the Human Rights Commission under Eleanor Roosevelt, its chairman . . . have

consistently and deliberately ignored scientific procedure and just treatment to the hurt

and hounded of the world" (National Guardian, December 5, 1949).

Imperialism draws willing aides for its chauvinist propganda from the reactionary

Social-Democrats and reformist labor leaders, as well as from Negro bourgeois nationalist

leaders. Their role in the mass organizations of the Negro people and among Negro trade

unionists is to undermine the self-confidence and arrest the militant advance of the Negro

people’s movement, and, above all, to thwart the historical alliance of that movement

with the American working class. In the concrete terms of today, their assistance to

imperialism is aimed at "selling" Wall Street’s war program to the Negro masses.

In this light, we can perhaps more readily understand the policy of

"elevating" certain upper-stratum Negro leaders which serves to give the

impression of full integration of the Negro people in American life. American imperialism

cultivates in this period a tissue-thin top layer of Negro aristocracy, while it

intensifies white ruling-class violence and terror, both legal and extra-legal. This new

tactic is designed to reinforce its ideological transmission belt among the Negro people

and to bring false comfort to the angry Negro masses in order to blind them with illusions

and blunt their capacity for struggle, in order to break their resistance to the

despoilers and warmongers.

The sundry misleaders of the Negro people constitute a grave threat to the present

status and future development of its liberation movement. For it should be clear that the

movement of the Negro people cannot go forward today unless it marches shoulder to

shoulder with the world anti-imperialist front of struggle for peace and national freedom.

By the same logic of historical necessity, the peace front in the United States today

cannot advance unless it makes the fight for Negro rights an organic part of its struggle.


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