- Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949, and: Blackening of the Bible: The Aims of African American Biblical Scholarship
Judith Weisenfeld's Hollywood Be Thy Name is a generative, well researched study of filmic representations of African Americans, black religious customs, and ideas about race in America. Focusing on Hollywood-produced movies, as well as "independent and semi-independent" black filmmakers from the late 1920s through the late 1940s (7), Weisenfeld argues that while many scholars have "examined the ideological functions of the cinema with regard to the production and maintenance of racial categories and racial hierarchy, none have addressed the profound connections between ideas and representations of religion and those of race in the history or the filmic presentation of African Americans" (4). Paying close attention to the process whereby racialized and religious meanings have been produced throughout history, she shows how film contributes to "the discursive production of race, gender, and sexuality in America" (4). In the process, Weisenfeld raises important questions about the medium of film, its engagement with, and shaping of, notions of race and culture in the United States.
In exploring the ideological operations of significant Hollywood films addressing race, sex, and religion, Weisenfeld persuasively argues that the early films, Hallelujah (1929), and The Green Pastures (1936) depicted black American religious customs as invariably comical and sexual. At the same time she demonstrates the ways in which "black religious thought" was portrayed "as simplistic and childish in ways that served to marginalize black people from conventional formulations of citizenship" (213). Weisenfeld supports these claims with detailed analyses of each film; in the case of Hallelujah, for example, she incorporates the reflections of white film director King Vidor, who indicated in his memoir: "The sincerity and fervor of [blacks'] religious expression intrigued me, as did the honest simplicity of their sexual drives. In many instances, the intermingling of these two activities seemed to offer strikingly dramatic content" (20). Alongside this and other revealing quotes, she examines both the film's storyline and its visual and musical elements, which together work to portray black Americans as simplistic, sexualized persons, prone to frenetic religious expression.
The following sections of her book cover "race movies" which engaged both religion and sociopolitical issues such as migration and urbanization, as well as films directed by African Americans, who intervened in and, to varying degrees, complicated conventional representations of African American religious practices. She then examines the nature and consequences of white directors' depictions of black Christianity and patriotism during and after World War II (including governmental efforts made to "raise the morale of black troops"—many of whom were disturbed by continuing discrimination in the U. S.), and further explores the complexities of the deployment of "liberal Christian rhetoric" in a film about racial passing (196, 234).
Particularly informative is Weisenfeld's inclusion of both black and white commentary on the films under discussion. Revealing the complexity of the politics of artistic representation, she explores both the intraracial and interracial dissent that frequently arose in contemporary debates over the sociopolitical implications of films endeavoring to capture black modes of worship and shape images of black patriotism. Weisenfeld's work provides an illuminating study of the history of race and film in America; it is, moreover, highly suggestive for scholars in the twenty-first century, as we continue to wrestle with the ideological functions and sociopolitical consequences of racialized and sexualized religious images in the media.
Similarly, Michael Joseph Brown's Blackening of the Bible: The Aims of African American Biblical Scholarship raises key questions—especially for historians, biblical [End Page 205] scholars, and students of African American religion. Rather than assert and seek to support a primary claim, his book is "more descriptive than argumentative" (x); more specifically, he introduces readers to the "enterprise of African American biblical hermeneutics" (ix). Focusing on black...