From "Sambo" to "Superspade":
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 2, Number 3, February 1973
- pp. 1-4
- Additional Information
FROM "SAMBO" TO "SUPERSPADE": By Daniel J. Leab Daniel J. Leab ofthe History Department ofColumbia University is the author ofa book on the early years Newspaper Guild. He has written articles and reviews in the Labor History, Journalism Quarterly, The Monthly Labor Review and otherjournals. This article is a condensation ofthe introduction to Professor Leab'sforthcoming book From "Sambo " to "Superspade: "The Black in Film, to bepublished by Simon & Shuster in 191 S. Until recently the movie image ofthe black has been a "Sambo" image. Beginning in the 1 890's when the first motion pictures were produced for exhibition in penny arcade peepshows and for decades thereafter, movie makers either ignored Negroes or with rare exceptions presented them as stereotyped characters who were objects ofridicule and condescension. And this stereotyping applied to men and women, adults and children. Sambo "was docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing" (to use the delineation ofthe image rendered by historian Stanley Elkins in a somewhat different context). Just about everything traditionally held to be of some value in the United States was absent from this movie stereotype of the Negro. Invariably, blacks were presented as subhuman, simpleminded, superstitious, and submissive. As portrayed in screen they exhibited qualities offoolish exaggeration and an apparently hereditary clumsiness and ignorance as well as an addictive craving for fried chicken and watermelon. The blacks' relationship with whites was on the whole depicted as one ofcomplete dependence, often with a kind ofchildlike attachment on the part of the Negro (1). The central character in the 1910 Lubin comedy Rastus in Zululand symbolizes the American film industry's treatment ofthe black as a Sambo figure. Rastus was described as "an odd-jobs man, that is he did oddjobs when he has to, but when there are a few small coins in his pocket he prefers to sleep." The film begins with Rastus searching for a place to sleep. He finds one in the sunlight. This rather offchoice ofa sleeping place is explained in bigoted fashion by the Lubin company's plot synopsis ofthe film: "a darky needs warmth." The sleeping Rastus dreams that he has gone to sea and has been shipwrecked in Zululand. Captured by savage cannibals, he has been placed in the community cooking pot. The entreaties ofthe chiefs daughter save Rastus from being part ofthe stew, but she is so obese and ugly that he chooses to return to the pot. He awakens just as the water has begun to boil and "is much relieved to find himselfwithin walking distance of a place where nerve tonic is sold." (2) Rastus in Zululand accurately reflects the racial prejudices and beliefs ofpre-World War I America, although in ascribing a certain joi de vivre to Rastus the film treated the black less viciously than some movies did other ethnic groups. The movie industry's changing treatment ofthese groups over the years reflected these groups' gradual assimilation by American society. But the black remained an outsider to that society. For decades, except for a few notable instances, the industry either ignored the Negro or utilized the Sambo image. So ingrained did this stereotype become that in 1935 an all-Negro film made for black audiences contained a scene, ostensibly humorous, in which an employer dictating a want ad uses the word "Negro" and each time his assistant (played broadly for laughs) writes "nigger." (3) The British filmmaker and movie critic Lindsay Anderson has said that "everyone who has seen more than halfa dozen films with his eyes open knows that ifthe cinema does not create the significant social movements ofour time, it intimately reflects them." Among social scientists and others concerned with the impact ofmovies on society there have been strong divisions ofopinion about whether movies influence an audience or whether they mirror its ideas, but there is in the American Dream. Almost from the American film industry's beginnings, the black on screen was left out ofthat dream, either by being ignored or by being presented as an object incapable ofpartaking by reason of a not quite human nature. (4) This treatment ofthe Negro had caused the respected blackjournalist Lester Walton to...