Race in Early Hollywood

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Welcome to Museum Moments, presented by the Canadian Women in Film Museum. The museum is based in the childhood home of actress Marie Dressler in Cobourg, Ontario. These Moments explore themes and topics surrounding Canadian women in Early Hollywood to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Today, we will be exploring issues of race in early Hollywood. Please be advised that this Museum Moment deals with issues of race and the use of blackface in Hollywood. Please continue listening at your own discretion.

Movies are important to our cultural understanding of race. Early movies provide a record of cultural attitudes and norms during that era. Therefore, we need to look critically at portrayals of race in early movies, which were filled with racist ideas and attitudes, coming straight from the cultural norms of the era. Hollywood came to be during the Jim Crow era of legalized segregation and discrimination, and early films helped spread these ideas into the populace. One of the ways this was accomplished was through minstrels and blackface.

Blackface is defined by scholar Ayanna Thompson as being the “application of any prosthetic–makeup, soot, burnt cork, minerals, mask, etc.–to imitate the complexion of another race”. This practice has a long history–stemming from medieval plays featuring white actors using black makeup to signify demons, to Shakespeare’s company using white actors to play Othello. The long tradition of blackface in the US began in the 1830s with the invention of minstrel shows, where white performers would mimic enslaved people in variety shows, putting on offensive accents, and racist caricatures. These portrayals reinforced racist attitudes through stereotypes of intellectual and moral inferiority.

Minstrel shows were one of the most popular forms of live entertainment in America before the invention of cinema. These shows would become the basis of Vaudeville and make their way to Hollywood. It was expected at the time that white actors could and would play people of any race, often to critical acclaim, while actors of colour were ridiculed and criticized for playing white roles.

While these movies and practices were deemed acceptable at the time, as contemporary audiences, we must be aware of the many levels of stereotypes and cultural biases that have led to the creation of that performance, and the racial violence they represent.

Thank you for listening to today’s Museum Moments. For more information, or to join us for another Museum Moment, visit our website at cdnwomeninfilm.ca, or visit us in-person at the Marie Dressler House in Cobourg, Ontario.