It has been argued that D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, may be the most racist film Hollywood ever made. It depicted black men as subhuman and menacing rapists just as black people were gaining political power during Reconstruction after the Civil War.
The film painted a portrait of blacks illegally stuffing the ballot box, while whites were denied the right to vote. It glorified the Ku Klux Klan as coming to the rescue of Southern whites and it was the first feature film to be screened at the White House.
In his latest book, Hollywood Black: The Stars, The Films, The Filmmakers, film historian Donald Bogle said the movie led to a resurgence of the Klan. Only four years later, the nation was rocked by race riots where hundreds of black people were killed in the Red Summer of 1919.
Bogle, a Philadelphia-area native whose first book is taught in colleges around the country, said that the film industry, since the beginning of the silent-film era, usually depicted black people in the most callous ways.
“But mostly during the very early years, the movies were a parade of embarrassing, insulting, demeaning caricatures — often offsprings of the rigid stereotypes of the minstrel shows that had been so popular in the 19th century,” Bogle wrote in his ninth book.
On Tuesday, Bogle, who lives in Manhattan and teaches a film seminar at the University of Pennsylvania, came to talk about his new book at South on North Broad Street. The Inquirer talked with him afterward.
Why is it important to talk about the images and ways black people are portrayed?
Film is a powerful medium. We learn a lot from movies. We go to the movies to be entertained. But the messages and images of what we see in the movies stay with us. It was important to really think about what we’re given up there on the screen. Movies can be manipulated. We often are getting a distorted view of black people’s lives.
What did you notice about black audiences reaction to the images they saw in Black Panther?
There was an excitement among black audience members when they were leaving Black Panther. That excitement came from seeing a positive image of this assertive black hero who has challenges before him, who falters and comes back. It’s a good view of Africa, from the costumes to the set design, as powerful and untouched by white colonialists. The women are strong and smart. And Angela Bassett, when you first see her, she looks like what she is, a queen.
Where did your love of film and film history come from?
I grew up outside of Philadelphia and as a child, I suffered from asthma. There were times I could not leave the house to play outside. So I would watch television and they would show old movies from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. The thing that struck me was whenever I saw a black character in the old movies, I perked up, whether it was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dancing with Shirley Temple, or Hattie McDaniel. I would see these characters, and I always wondered where did the black characters go when they left the scene? They were skillfully suggesting [in their acting] that they had a life that the movie wasn’t showing.
What did you learn about the struggles for early black stars?
Lena Horne came to Hollywood in the 1940s. She’s signed by MGM. She’s the first African American woman in Hollywood to be fully glamorized and publicized by her studio. At the most powerful white studio, none of the hairdressers would touch her hair. The hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff told me he had to bring in black people to do it. And even though Hattie McDaniel was the first black actor to win an Oscar [best supporting actress] for Gone With the Wind , she wasn’t allowed to sit with the rest of the cast during the 1940 Oscar ceremonies.
There seems to be a new energy among black filmmakers now. Is this new activity tied to a new focus on black activism?
I do think that film responds to what is happening in social movements. Five years ago, most of my white students, and some of the black students I teach at NYU, thought we were in a post-racial society. They couldn’t see why it was important to write their black characters with a sense of their particular culture. I’d have to tell them the importance of writing a black character that shows a full person. Where are the photos of a black family in the apartment? What is the art on the walls? Now today’s students have come of age in [the] age of Black Lives Matter and police shootings. They are looking at what films can do and should do. ... We are in a kind of renaissance in a way.
You mentioned that the films Green Book was a “white savior” film. What did you mean by that?
With Green Book, it really is a white man’s redemption story. These are the kind of movies [that] show a white person coming in and rescuing the black person. In Green Book, the white driver [played by Viggo Mortensen] is depicted as a racist in the beginning of the movie. But with the black character [played by Mahershala Ali], we don’t learn much about him. We don’t see him in another environment, with family and friends. I think Mahershala Ali is remarkable in his performance. But the white character is redeemed by his action.
With the recent release of the trailer for Harriet, there are complaints on social media that black Americans should boycott the film because a British-Nigerian actor was hired to portray Tubman.
I wouldn’t boycott it. It’s an important film. We do want to see African American actors and actresses having a chance to play certain roles, but when it comes to British black actors — Hollywood is filled with black and white actors who come here because Hollywood is the best place for getting a chance to play certain iconic roles and to reach a larger audience. I also wouldn’t criticize David Oyelowo, who gave an excellent performance portraying Martin Luther King in Selma . And Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor were very good in 12 Years a Slave . And we have to remember we’ve had Laurence Fishburne and Denzel Washington play roles about African figures. Hollywood, whether it should be viewed that way, or not, becomes the ultimate place where actors want to be.