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Regards croisés sur les Afro-Américains

Claude Julien

Social concerns

A Provisional Interpretation of a Difficult Word

Francis Bordat

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One difficult word I came across in my current research on Hollywood censorship is “miscegenation”, as it appears in one famous Hollywood document of 1930, the Production Code written by Martin Quigley and Daniel Lord for the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America).

1“Miscegenation”, is defined in article six of section II of that text as “sex relationship between the black and white races”, and as such, its representation is banned by the major companies, which means that films that do not conform will be refused the seal of approval and, as a consequence, will not be shown in the best theaters of the country. Surprisingly enough, despite the amount of scholarly research published on the question of censorship in the past ten years (in Europe and the United States), this clause number six, which was only repealed in 1956, has attracted little critical analysis. And in the few cases when it did, commentators were usually content with confirming the prevailing explanation that the miscegenation-clause was meant to flatter the white audience of the Southern States where inter-racial marriages were forbidden by law. The motion picture industry would have thus placed itself, as one French critic put it, “within the ideological sphere of the South”.

2My contention is that this interpretation takes the word “miscegenation” at face value, and that it disregards a more complex and deliberately hidden message intended not for the public at large, but for the Hollywood community of film makers.

3Let me first recall the general philosophy of the Production Code. Ever since 1922, the publication and implementation of the Code had been one of the paramount projects of Will H. Hays, the President of the MPPDA. Finally passed and published in 1930, but strictly enforced only after 1934, this industry guidebook acknowledged the general responsibility of cinema as a mass medium — and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of that purpose. However, the first objective of that document was to protect the business of motion pictures from the deleterious activity of local and State censorships boards, which had hindered the expansion of the industry ever since the emergence of the nickelodeons in 1904. One must keep in mind that before 1948, the movies, contrary to the press in general, were not protected by the first amendment of the Constitution, the Supreme Court having defined them in 1915 as “business pure and simple”. As a consequence, cinema remained fragile when attacked by the censorship boards that had multiplied in the late teens and early twenties, with the active support of lobbies, leagues, clubs and other pressure groups.

4One priority for the industry in 1922 was to compile and classify all the cuts and rejections ordered by censorship boards across the country, notably those of the six State Boards (Kansas, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia) and the biggest local boards of Chicago, Memphis and Atlanta, which directly controlled about two thirds of the national audience. The motion picture producers were then strongly advised to take that list into account, for the good of the industry as a whole. Self-censorship was put forward as the best answer to censorship proper.

5This is why all the articles of the Code precisely referred to images or words which, in the movies of the roaring twenties and of the cynical early thirties, had been repeatedly cut out by censors. All, of course, concerned the basic, possibly structural voyeurism of the motion pictures in terms of sex and violence, whose complacent exhibition can indeed be spotted in hundreds of silents and early talkies since they were, then as ever, a major drawing force of the medium. Limiting myself to the rules of section II, I can certainly think of precise sequences which the Code meant to ban from precise films: representations of passion, seduction, rape, white slavery, childbirth or even sex-hygiene. One exception though is that article number six, for if I temporarily leave aside one famous film, I cannot quote even one example of “sex relationship between the black and white races”. Now then, what was the use of forbidding something that did not exist? What was the use of suppressing something that no one even thought of indulging in?

6At this point, I have tried to check that I was not forgetting examples or overlooking relevant censorship data. We do find in the Hollywood silents examples of love stories between whites and Asians (Griffith’s Broken Blossoms in 1922), between cowboys and squaws (DeMille’s The Squaw Man), and between WASP boys or girls-next-door and a wide variety of dark vamps or latin lovers. But apart from The Birth of a Nation (which of course is the exception mentioned above), one cannot find images (even derogatory ones) of mixed couples in films released before the Code. The presence of mulatto characters can perhaps be considered as an effect of inter-ratial sex, and thus as a kind of indirect allusion to miscegenation, but I have only heard of two Hollywood films before 1930 (The Debt in 1912 and The Octoroon in 1913) which present such characters, and the archetypal story which they introduce (in which “tragic mulattoes” first believe they’re white, but must eventually forsake their hopes of integration when they learn of their black blood) obviously confirms racist prejudices.

7When I looked into the files of the censorship boards of the teens and twenties, I was unable to find a single example of a film being cut or rejected because it showed love or sex between blacks and whites. The censors of Tennessee or Georgia (like the famous and infamous Lloyd T. Binford who reigned over the Memphis censorship Board from the twenties to the fifties) did refuse movies for racist reasons, but mostly after 1934, and never for breaches of the miscegenation taboo. What Southern censors did forbid in motion pictures was whatever conveyed a positive image of African-Americans, or of course anything that seemed to question the institution of segregation. In 1920, Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates was refused by Southern theaters because of a lynching sequence. Even after the Code was enforced, between the mid thirties and the mid fifties, they found quantities of objectionable material on those grounds. All the Lena Home numbers were cut by Lloyd T. Binford because, he said, “there are plenty of good white singers”. In 1949, Curley, a small comedy featuring children, was censored because black and white children were seen together at school...“The South”, Binford then reminded oblivious producers, “does note permit Negroes in white schools or recognize social equality between the races, even in children.” In 1934, John Stahl’s Imitation of Life was banned in Georgia and Tennessee, not because the story was about passing, but because passing was not clearly disapproved of, and because the actress who played the part of Peola was a genuine mulatto, Fredi Washington. By contrast, Elia Kazan’s Pinky (1949), where a white actress, Jeanne Crain, plays the part of the mulatto, and where she eventually renounces the idea of passing for white, was not rejected by the Atlanta censors.

  • 1 Even Micheaux’s “race movies”, when they approached the theme of inter-racial love, clearly reject (...)

8Paradoxically, the few outspoken representations of inter-racial sex that reached the Screen were found acceptable by Southern censors when they were meant to inspire a feeling of disgust1. Thus, while the South would not tolerate images of the white man’s sexual desire for the black woman (and of the consequent black woman’s sexual slavery as mistress, concubine or prostitute) because such images acknowledged inter-ratial libido and objectively threatened the ideal of racial purity and the principle of segregation, it found no objection to images illustrating or sustaining the central racist fantasy of the white woman’s rape by the Black Buck. In other words, far from being an absolute taboo in the eyes of the Southern censors, miscegenation became acceptable on screen when its evocation confirmed racist ideology.

9Evidence of this tolerance is provided by the case of The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915. As everybody knows, this film of David Wark Griffith, a masterpiece by many standards, is one of the most racist works in the history of cinema. Not only does it provide a shameless apology of the Ku Klux Klan, but it displays the full series of racist stereotypes inherited from older times and other media and now given their first and seminal illustration in film: “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, Bucks”, to quote Donald Bogle’s famous title, and quite a few others to boot. The portrait of the horrible Gus, a lasting archetype of the black rapist, who drives the blond virgin to suicide in order to escape “fate worse than death”, remains, even by moderns standards, one of the most extreme visualizations of militant racism. As most African-Americans in the film, including the black representatives of the South Carolina Congress during Reconstruction, Gus is psychologically reduced to his one and single obsession to “marry” (as titles elegantly put it) a white woman. Griffith’s film is extremely spectacular in terms of production values and cinematic power, but there is no question that most of its dramatic efficiency relies on the exploitation of that primeval fantasy of the white girl’s rape by the colored beast.

10Like the book The Clansman from which it was drawn, The Birth of a Nation was clearly set within the ideological sphere of the South, even though it was celebrated by a majority of the cultural elites of 1915. Strictly speaking however, this is the only film I can think of whose explicit topic is miscegenation, and which fully represents inter-racial sexuality on screen: apart from Gus, two mulattoes, a man and a woman, are given important parts. The woman is the mistress of a white politician, while the man lusts after the daughter of the same Yankee. The two mulattoes are products of miscegenation, but they also seem bent on perpetuating it.

11Naturally, the film was a huge success in the South. Special trains took crowds of spectators to Atlanta where Joseph Simmons, head of the Klan, took opportunity of the première on December 6th 1915 to lauch a new campaign in support of his movement.

12Now, if one admits that the film which most blatantly disregarded the taboo of miscegenation before the Code was also the most openly sympathetic to Southern ideology, it becomes impossible to establish a formal link between article n ° 6 and Hollywood’s supposed efforts not to alienate the Southern audience.

13Yet, in spite of its overall success at the box-office, The Birth of a Nation was a cause of concern for the industry. The Boston Branch of the NAACP had published damning criticisms. “In my judgement”, wrote Oswald Garrison Villard, the film “is a deliberate attempt to humiliate ten million American citizens, and to portray them as nothing but beasts. The play should not be tolerated in any American city”. In The New Republic, Francis Hackett judged that it “degrade[d] the censors who passed it and the white race that endure[d] it”. The film was boycotted in numerous towns and cities, with many white liberals joining black ranks in protest. When it was re-released in Californian art theaters seventy years later, it still brought about hostile demonstrations and picket-lines before the cinemas.

14Local and State censorship boards were very much aware of the discontent (and the occasional violence) with which the film had met. And their standards clearly testify to the fact that they worried about it. The influential Police Standards of Chicago banned any “racially offensive material”. The Kansas State Board of Review Standards stated that “no comedy which ridicules any religious sect or peculiar characteristics of any race of people should be shown”. In Ohio, “national, racial and class hatred should not be fostered”, in Maryland, “inflammatory scenes and titles calculated to stir up racial hatred” were banned, in Pennsylvania, “stories or scenes holding up to ridicule and reproach races, classes or other social groups... will be disapproved”.

15These are precise directions, tangible primary sources, which the first draft of the Code, the “Don’ts and Be carefuls” of 1927, clearly echoes when it prohibits any “willful offense to any nation, race or creed”. The Code itself confirms them. While it forbids miscegenation, it also rejects the “racisme ordinaire” of its time with a sort of “political correctness” avant la lettre toward ethnic minorities. In one 1934 addition to the original draft of the Code, one can read this: “In the administration of Section V of the Production Code, the Production Code Administration may take cognizance of the fact that the following words and phrases are obviously offensive to the patrons of motion pictures in the United States and more particularly to the patrons of motion pictures in foreign countries: Chink, Dago, Frog, Greaser, Hunkie, Kike, Nigger, Spig, Whop, Yid”.

16My hypothesis is that behind the apparently pointless prohibition of miscegenation, Will H. Hays and his aides meant in fact to rule out the racist representations associated with the white fantasy of the hypersexed black male. They were indeed sucessful in this, for as Donald Bogle remarks, the figure of the Black Buck completely disappeared from American cinema under Will Hays and Eric Johnston, to return in full force, although with a new twist, after such blaxploitation pictures as Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

17In conclusion, what we find here in Hollywood’s textbook is a rather successful example of a deliberately ambivalent signifier. While it seems to condone dominant prejudices of racist ideology, it in fact provides Hollywood professionals with spectific advice to steer clear of them. For the ultimate purpose of article n ° 6 as we now see it can be summed up as follows:

181. On the surface, it would seem to placate the South by putting into the Code what was a matter of law in several Southern states (the law against miscegenation was only repealed in 2000 in Alabama). Simultaneously, the article also flattered the ordinary racism of mainstream America. After all, the Supreme Court itself did not declare miscegenation laws illegal before 1967. It also reminded the Hollywood professionals of another more secret but far stronger taboo: never should black and white actors and actresses be shown in each other’s arms. Griffith himself had taken that never written law into account: the black characters who came really close to white girls in The Birth of a Nation were all interpreted by white actors. And though modern spectators may smile when they see black and mulatto characters played by white men in black face, and though black actors now occupy a significant percentage of Hollywood credits, this taboo has not altogether disappeared from today’s films. Love scenes between Whoopi Goldberg and her white partner were cut out of the final version of Fatal Beauty after spectators at sneak previews protested against them. And this also happened to Wesley Snipes and Denzel Washington with their white girl friends in respectively Drop Zone and Devil in a Blue Dress.

192. More importantly however though less explicitly, the purpose of article 6 will have been to discourage the expression of white racist fantasies in American cinema. For even though such representations were likely to attract part of the audience into the theaters, the profession feared that they should eventually affect the box-office negatively and perhaps even bring about serious “race” trouble. That was the “business lesson” of The Birth of a Nation. The industry leaders surmised that what had been acceptable and eventually profitable because of Griffith’s fame and genius might no longer be tolerated with the more run-of-the-mill products of second rate directors. In short, it was the progressive, not the reactionary, that Hollywood mostly feared.

20Here again, Tinsel Town provides us with a small masterpiece of ideological hypocrisy. Its approach, however, is perfectly accorded with the general policy of the “Hays Office”, which was never content with pleasing only a majority. As early as 1930, reaching a mass audience meant taking into account even the smaller segments of the public. The weight of African-American spectators and that of militant white liberals, as that of all other minorities, could not be sacrificed to that of the conservative Southern whites, even if their racism remained widely shared.


1 Even Micheaux’s “race movies”, when they approached the theme of inter-racial love, clearly rejected it — a bias which has persisted to this day in African-American cinema.

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