- Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood by Miriam J. Petty
by Miriam J. Petty. University of California Press.
2016. $34.95 paperback; $65.00 hardcover; e-book available. 320 pages.
In 1976, James Baldwin published “The Devil Finds Work,” a nonfiction blend of autobiography and film criticism.1 Detailing his own cinephilic perception, the essay critically interrogates the visual economy of race in American cinema. “It is scarcely possible,” Baldwin notes, “to think of a Black American actor who has not been misused: not one has ever been seriously challenged to deliver the best that is in him.”2 Describing the stunted careers of Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters, Baldwin suggests that “what the [End Page 199] black actor has managed to give are moments—indelible moments, created, miraculously, beyond the confines of the script: hints of reality, smuggled like contraband into a maudlin tale, and with enough force, if unleashed, to shatter the tale to fragments.”3 In Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood, Miriam J. Petty skillfully mobilizes Baldwin’s observation to mine the cinematic fragments and figures of American cinema. Focusing on the semiotic meanings of Black “protostars”—specifically Hattie McDaniel, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, and Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry—Petty magnifies the indelible moments, the unforgettable impacts on- and off-screen, of these “picture stealers” and details how Black audiences claim, critique, praise, interpret, and grapple with these figures and their attendant discourses.
Stealing the Show, recipient of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ 2017 Best First Book Award, provides a necessary recalibration of American cinema’s studio era. A corrective to simplistic, broadly drawn readings of 1930s Black performers, Stealing the Show deftly balances nuanced readings of Black stereotypes, cinematic moments, extracinematic dynamics and discourses, and self-fashioning and spectatorial politics. In doing so, Petty demonstrates the substantial and, often, subversive ways that “Black entertainers and audiences expressed agency and negotiated ideas about their lives and identities through acts of performance and discourse that incorporated and exceeded the cinematic frame.”4 Focusing on widely known performers and performances, Petty pushes beyond a superficial reading of Black representation in the 1930s, encouraging a more thoughtful account of the import and impact of the roles these pioneering, beleaguered stars played.
In the past decade, scholars have shifted the historical, theoretical, and critical conversations around American cinema and African American filmgoing, specifically attending to the on-screen figures, critical discourses, and spectatorial practices during early cinema and the studio system.5 Film historians have delved into the complex and often fraught performative practices of African American entertainers and the varied and sometimes contradictory discourses produced by Black audiences. Petty’s smart and engaging study is a significant contribution to this body of scholarship. With evocative and well-argued prose, her interrogation of the acclaim and visibility of Black actors and actresses as well as the problematic nature of Black stardom in the era of social and cinematic Jim Crow is both rich and easily digestible. With deep archival research buttressed by detailed textual analysis, Petty’s historicist impulse masterfully contextualizes the cinematic and cultural significance of the cadre of Black performers that make up the book’s case studies. [End Page 200] Stealing the Show’s sophisticated and expansive conceptual framework can best be understood by unpacking the idea conveyed in the book’s title. Like the performances, public personae, and discourses of the stars profiled, the notion of stealing the show is a multilayered, rhetorical maneuver. For Petty, “stealing the show” describes and lauds the ways in which Black performers captured viewers’ attention in a film, scene, or sequence. Shifting the gaze from the putative center of attention—meaning away from the top-billed (white) stars foregrounded on screen to the margins and, thus, the marginalized people in the cinematic frame—“stealing the show” denotes a performative act that pulls focus and makes Black actresses and actors visible in new and consequential ways. In doing so, the phrase also captures the complex racial and cultural politics...