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  • Sincere Fictions:The Production Cultures of Whiteness in Late 1960s Hollywood
  • Eithne Quinn

Picket lines, congressional hearings, and letter-writing campaigns threatening to boycott Hollywood could only get us so far in our search for jobs on both sides of the camera. The answer was always, "Of course, we'd like to hire you black folks, but the unions won't let us. And even if they did, where would we find black technicians, prop men, costumers, and makeup artists? Where?"

—Ossie Davis, in Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together

"Sincere fictions" [are] personal ideological constructions that reproduce societal mythologies at the individual level. In such personal characterizations, white individuals usually see themselves as "not racist," as "good people," even while they think and act in antiblack ways.

—Joe R. Feagin, Hernan Vera, and Pinar Batur, White Racism: The Basics

Early 1968 saw the announcement of two film projects that were among the most influential of the period in terms of behind-the-camera Hollywood racial politics. The Learning Tree was to be the first studio picture directed by an African American. The second project, a film about the slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, proved so contentious that it ended in cancellation. Although the announcement of both these black-themed films was hailed as an advance in race relations, the projects diverged significantly in terms of their racial politics of production. For The Learning Tree, Warner Bros.–Seven Arts' head of production, Kenny Hyman, signed African American Life photographer Gordon Parks Sr. to direct the film adaptation of Parks's own autobiographical novel. Also hired as screen adapter, score composer, and coproducer, Parks was, according to one journalist, "backed to the broadsword" by Hyman (Knapp, "Assessment" 18). The Confessions of Nat Turner (later shortened to Nat Turner), by contrast, was—along with almost every other Hollywood film of the period—to be made by whites. It was an adaptation of William Styron's 1967 historical novel of the same title, and Norman Jewison signed up to direct. In response to black criticism about the planned filmic portrayal of Nat Turner, Jewison declared: "I'll make the film my way—and nobody is going to tell me how to do it" (Warga 1).

Focusing mainly on the two contrastive case studies of The Learning Tree and Nat Turner, this article offers a historical study of film production practices and discourses focused on race. Late 1960s America was adjusting to the end of state-sanctioned white supremacism, when, as historian Nancy MacLean writes, "groups that had been pressed to the margins of American economic and public life challenged their confinement and shook up the established social order" (8). This was a moment of profound contestation over the meaning of race and the means of achieving racial equality, which traveled into the film industry in vital ways. As African Americans and other minority groups increasingly contested their exclusion from film jobs, white film workers had to reflect, probably for the first time, on their own racial practices in and beliefs about the workplace. This article is not concerned with more racially recalcitrant personnel, like the executives of the Walt Disney Film Company and some members of the craft union locals, who made little effort even to pay lip-service to racial tolerance in the late 1960s (Burke 14). Instead, it focuses on liberal and centrist workers, like Hyman and Jewison, and seeks to establish that there was a prevalent view among whites that the industry, despite glaring evidence to the contrary, was basically racially progressive. To understand and explore this view, this article draws on the work of race sociologists—above all, the idea of "sincere fictions of the white self," which Feagin, Vera, and Hernan identified following extensive [End Page 3] opinion surveys of post–civil rights white attitudes. Such discourses are "sincere" because they are heartfelt, but they are also "fictions" because they deny that there is discrimination in the face of persisting inequality. Feagin and his coauthors' work on sincere fictions, according to leading race theorist Howard Winant, is "indispensable in answering [the] question in the US context" of why and how "racism...


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