Racism in early American film

There was frequent occurrence of racism in early American film, the earlier part of the twentieth century. An example of this includes The Birth of a Nation, which promoted white supremacy, amongst other things. Over time as race relations have cooled, parodies and documentaries of racism have begun to be included into film.


Early history

African American

The film industry of the United States grew slowly at first. Over time, plots began to develop and movies became better produced. In 1915, the film The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith was released. The plot of the film basically showed that Ku Klux Klansmen were the saviors to the nation and that they would help to bring back a stable government.[1] The movie also included the use of actors in blackface. Over time, racism became embedded into the film of Hollywood. In 1927 the film The Jazz Singer was released. One of the central themes was the use of blackface by character Jack Robins. Scholar Corin Willis said about the movie:

In contrast to the racial jokes and innuendo brought out in its subsequent persistence in early sound film, blackface imagery in The Jazz Singer is at the core of the film's central theme, an expressive and artistic exploration of the notion of duplicity and ethnic hybridity within American identity. Of the more than seventy examples of blackface in early sound film 1927–53 that I have viewed (including the nine blackface appearances Jolson subsequently made), The Jazz Singer is unique in that it is the only film where blackface is central to the narrative development and thematic expression.[2]


In 1921, Paramount Pictures released the Rudolph Valentino movie The Sheik. The movie itself was a box office success but showed Arabs as savage beasts who auction off their own women. The film was followed up a few years later with The Son of the Sheik, which also portrayed racist overtones. Rudolph was even asked by a New York Times reporter once whether or not his well-off character could fall for a savage (an Arab woman). To Valentino's credit, he responded by saying: "People are not savages because they have dark skins. The Arabian civilization is one of the oldest in the world...the Arabs are dignified and keen brained."[3] In his essay "Arabs in Hollywood: An Undeserved Image", Scott J. Simon argues that of all the ethnic groups portrayed in Hollywood films, "Arab culture has been the most misunderstood and supplied with the worst stereotypes":

Rudolph Valentino's roles in The Sheik (1921) and The Son of the Sheik (1926) set the stage for the exploration and negative portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood films. Both The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik represented Arab characters as thieves, charlatans, murderers, and brutes.

He also singled out A Son of the Sahara (1924) as "the strongest subconscious attack on the Arab culture of all the Arab movies of the 1920s."[4]


Racism against East Asian peoples in Hollywood roles also began in the 1920s. Charlie Chan (actually based on the real Chang Apana), a supposed "good Asian" was used as an antithesis to Fu Manchu, the so-called "bad Asian". In 1923, the British silent film serial The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu came out. This movie ushered in the beginning of decades of movies with the Fu Manchu theme. In 1929, the American film The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu starring Warner Oland came out.

Native Americans

Racist Hollywood Noble Savage stereotypes of Native Americans began early in American films. In particular the notion of the "Noble Savage" stereotype. Throughout the early 1900s many films that perpetuate Native American stereotypes were made.

Hollywood's golden age

In the 1940s, people like Dudley Dickerson were appearing in Three Stooges films. Dudley was used because of his bug-eyed appearance and portrayal of stereotypes of the time. The prevailing views in Hollywood at the time helped to prevent him from advancing his career, but he never complained about his line of work and actually enjoyed what he was doing.[5] A later Stooges short, The Yoke's on Me, showed a stereotypical view of the Japanese people.[6]

Movies of the era showed began to increase the stereotypes that previous generations had started. The Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu stereotypes began to increasingly become more active in movies. Republic Movies released a fifteen episode serial Drums of Fu Manchu, which was later released into a feature film. This brought back the Fu Manchu stereotype after a few years of inaction in Hollywood. The "Devil Doctor" stereotype was absent from film between 1940 and 1965.

Arab stereotypes also played into the film of the time. This included the use of bellydancers and billionaires. The bellydancer stereotype first occurred on film in 1897 when Thomas Edison's kinetoscope showed the women dancing.[7]

See also


  1. DeVore, Dan (January 23, 2003). "Birth of a Nation, The (1915)". Movie Justice. Archived from the original on 2009-07-07.
  2. Willis (2005), p. 127.
  3. Villa, Marco (May 28, 2010). "Casual Racism in the American Press". Marcovilla.instablogs.com. Archived from the original on 2012-03-09. Retrieved 2011-09-28.
  4. ""Arabs in Hollywood: An Undeserved Image" by Scott J. Simon". Pages.emerson.edu. Retrieved 2011-03-20.
  5. "DVD Verdict Review – The Three Stooges Collection: Volume Six (1949–51)". Dvdverdict.com. Retrieved 2011-03-20.
  6. Raymond, Tom (May 26, 1944). "The Yoke's on Me – the Three Stooges | Three Stooges short films". Three Stooges Pictures. Retrieved 2011-03-20.
  7. "100 Years of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotyping". Ibiblio.org. Retrieved 2011-09-28.
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