- Hollywood Be Thy Name and the New Wave of African American Film Scholarship
The turn of the century has witnessed a significant shift in the literature on African American film and African American representation in the cinema. Theoretically sophisticated, cross-disciplinary and historically grounded, these works have gone beyond the simplistic binary of good and bad representation that plagued African American film studies in the late twentieth century. Superlative examples of this new trend include Paula Massood's Black City Cinema (2003), an examination of African American urbanization and the cinematic experience, and Jacqueline Stewart's Migrating to the Movies (2005), a narrative of African American migration and the black relationship to the cinema.
Joining this rich body of groundbreaking scholarship is Judith Weisenfield's Hollywood Be Thy Name, an examination of African American religion in American film from 1929 to 1949. This chronological period is significant for a number of reasons. First, it marked Hollywood's widespread acceptance of the sound film (and the death of the silent cinema). Studio executives were fascinated with the potential of the African American voice in film. Second, it began with the death knell of the first wave of African American produced and directed film (1913–1929), which flourished during the silent era. Third, it marked the apotheosis of the studio system where Hollywood dominated worldwide cinema and vertical integration created near oligopolistic conditions in the industry. Weisenfeld's book also occupies a unique period in African American history including pivotal events such as the impact of the Great Depression, World War II and the beginnings of the modern Civil Rights movement. The author's magic in this volume is her ability to juggle African American history, film history, and black religiosity in a manner that is highly readable. It is indeed a major accomplishment.
One of the key features of this new scholarship is the emphasis on black engagement with cinema rather than simply focusing on representation. Both [End Page 89] Stewart and Weisenfeld have made this a primary focus of their scholarship. Weisenfeld begins her volume with a press report on black response to an all-white feature, Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings (1933). It is the author's active use of multiple sources of the black press—impressive since it is very difficult to use the black press of the first half of the twentieth century as an archival source since there is virtually no indexing of such works, particularly in regard to African American newspapers, journals and magazines considerations' of movies—that make this such an engaging book.
As the author aptly demonstrates, cinematic depictions of black religion held broader ideological functions in the American landscape. Such films could include big budget, white-produced studio pictures, white-financed independent all-black productions, or black-controlled independent productions. The motivations of those individuals both behind and in front of the camera must be considered when addressing African American religion in film. Such films usually addressed black religion in conjunction with other facets (or imaginings) of African American culture including intellectual ability, sexuality, leadership, gender roles, racial division, and economics. Throughout Hollywood Be Thy Name the author consistently stresses the agency of African Americans involved in the cinema; be it as spectators attempting to make meaning, actors or writers involved in the creative process, or politically engaged individuals countering what they considered as destructive cinematic representation. This new wave of scholarship has combated the victim model of earlier work (particularly Donald Bogle's Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks ), which virtually gave no agency to the African American spectator, actor, or writer. Recent biographies of Canada Lee, Stepin Fetchit, and Sidney Poitier have demonstrated that African American actors were often limited in their roles but made conscious decisions in choosing how to embody themselves on the screen. The writing of bell hooks reaffirms the work of Stuart Hall by arguing that African American women often negotiated or...