- Colonial Cinema and Imperial France, 1919–1939: White Blind Spots, Male Fantasies, and Settler Myths
In the past decade the historiography of the French colonial empire has grown tremendously. Leaving behind its status as perhaps the most under-developed field within French history, the study of colonialism is now one of the most active and vibrant subjects in contemporary French studies. Despite the appearance of an increasing number of case studies of specific aspects of the empire as well as general over-views of the French colonial world, scholars are still wrestling with a central question: how does one weave the thread of colonial history into the well established larger fabric of the French historical narrative? In other words, how do we move from a history of France and its colonies to a history of imperial France? With Colonial Cinema and Imperial France, 1919–1939: White Blind Spots, Male Fantasies, and Settler Myths, David Slavin takes a crucial step towards the formation of a history of imperial France. His work consistently emphasizes the connections between processes in the colonies and the métrople. In this regard alone, Slavin should be praised. However, his contribution to the field goes far beyond presenting a model of history that integrates the colonies into the broader history of France. Colonial Cinema and Imperial France develops a theoretical understanding of the history of race in early twentieth Century France. Emphasizing the development and maintenance of whiteness as a strategy of social control within both colonial and mainland France, Slavin presents a version of how the French became white. Informed by Gramscian theory and recent critical histories of race, his argument is tied to crucial historical turning points in inter-war France and uses colonial film as a prism to view an important cultural shift from optimistic yet paternalistic collaboration with indigenous elites to the Manichean logic of a race war.
To many readers casually browsing the titles in colonial, French, and/or film history, Slavin’s book may seem a little misleading. Despite the second word in the title, this is not a history of film. Many of the standard subjects of a cinema history are not considered. There is very little discussion of film technique and style. He does not analyze the contribution of this genre to the wider history of film. On occasion Slavin does address the development of storylines, the trials of shooting on location, and the personal experiences of certain directors, actors, and writers, but only when these issues are directly relevant to his exploration of the hardening of French racial attitudes. Thus, to certain readers the book may prove frustrating at best and disappointing at worst. However, the intended audience of this book, the historian of colonialism and the scholar interested in critical racial studies, will find it insightful, challenging, and stimulating.
The scope of Slavin’s argument is broad enough to be of use to those interested in comparative colonial studies as well as specialists in the Iberian, British, Dutch, German, or American empires. Indeed, drawing from Theodore William Allen’s work on colonial Virginia (The Invention of the White Race, New York: Verso, 1994), Slavin demonstrates the potential rewards of regional cross-pollination. Specialists of the French empire may be surprised at the way in which Morocco and Algeria dominate his history of colonial cinema. While he does not go into depth on the Maghrebian nature of French colonial cinema, the proximity of North Africa was the most important factor for shooting the overwhelming majority of colonial films on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. He further notes that the difficult climate of other—more humid—colonies took its toll on film stock and equipment. For our purposes, we are left with a book that goes into great detail on two colonies but scarcely mentions French possessions in the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. Unfortunately, this gives the impression that the most important developments in the French colonial world happened in Algeria and Morocco. This...