TDR: The Drama Review 44.1 (2000) 137-156
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Uncle Tom's Cabin: Before and After the Jim Crow Era
There is no topic more depressing than that of blacks in early American cinema, the topic of this article. The problem is the intersection of the period of silent cinema (1895 roughly through 1927) with the so-called Jim Crow era, during which racial segregation and apartheid became both custom and law in the US, and the insufficiently explored impact of that intersection on the resulting film industry at myriad levels. It is an impossible, inconceivable intersection, one that film scholars can't even agree really took place in any profoundly meaningful way.
Of course, everybody agrees that it's true enough that the movie theatres were segregated in some fashion; blacks were, for the most part, banned from serious and dignified participation in films, racial and ethnic stereotypes were rife, etc. But what seems impossible to establish definitively is the precise nature of the impact of the socioeconomic, legal, and political realities of Jim Crow on the aesthetic, formal, and narrative components of subsequent films. Each subject (the Jim Crow era and silent film) is generally taught by the experts as though they took place in different worlds. It would improve my mood considerably, I like to think, if this manner of coping with the difficult intersection of these two fields of knowledge were to somehow soften into some form of mutual understanding and tolerance. But how to make that happen--I am still not sure. On occasion, I have strongly suspected that I got into silent cinema in the first place, and even went so far as to make it the focus of my dissertation, not because I chose to study it but rather it chose me through the natural inclination of the depressive to always choose that which will reinforce and consolidate her negative self-assessment and her pessimistic mental state. After all these years, I still don't know if there is any achievable or constructive point to this inquiry.
The endlessly ephemeral quality of silent cinema turns out to be just the right metaphor for historical memory--or, to put this another way, it is almost impossible to pin facts down in the field of silent film for a number of reasons. First, experts think that only somewhere between 10 to 20 percent of silent films survive today, and current official lists rely upon a not necessarily [End Page 137] explicit or readily comprehensible combination of existing prints and citations of films (which may no longer exist) in trade journals and other ancillary documents. Even the seemingly innocent question of whether or not a film still survives cannot be simply answered, since no one knows how many films still exist in the hands of private collectors who are under no legal compunction to make their holdings public, much less accessible.
Also, it looks as though not much concerted effort at all has been devoted to scouring the resources of other kinds of archives, libraries, and collections for film holdings that they may be entirely unaware of, or that they may continue to deem insignificant. One must add to this concoction the mysterious and flammable nature of silent film stock, itself, which can either explode or disintegrate and which doesn't have much of a shelf life. Moreover, current preservation technologies are prohibitively expensive and not a national priority. As for the films that we know remain in film archives around the world or among corporate studio holdings, it continues to be a tricky business to get a grip on this picture since recoveries of films previously thought lost are still being made.
Moreover, it is only possible to say anything really conclusive about all of this if you have the kind of access to the resources of film archives and/or studios possessed by only a small coterie of silent cinema scholars. To get abreast of the archival situation, either nationally and/or internationally, would necessitate as well...