Many films that do not seem to address issues of race or ethnicity are in fact doing the work of defining and fortifying such categories. Richard Dyer has argued that "whiteness" is a category that seems invisible because it gives the impression of being nothing; the power and domination of images of whiteness on screen are in the appearance of pervasive normality. Scholars studying these representations ask what has to be suppressed and what has to be controlled in production in order to make such images seem effortless and natural. Dyer has argued that if "blackness" in Hollywood studio films represents physical expressiveness, emotion, sexuality, and proximity to nature, then "whiteness" signifies the opposite through controlled, cerebral, even deathlike images. Jezebel (1938), for example, was one of a series of plantation films from the 1930s—including Gone with the Wind (1939), Dixiana (1930), and Mississippi (1935)—that simultaneously masked and displayed the capitalist exploitation of African American labor through images of lavish plantations and dazzlingly wealthy white Southern families. In these films, the rigidity of whiteness is maintained through interracial relations—whites dominate but are dependent upon blacks, to the point that the actions of African American characters onscreen function to express the emotions of white characters, so as to preserve the restrained vision of whiteness.
Blackface minstrelsy—both the visual practice of "blacking up" and the musical work of sound and song—was one of the most important American popular culture forms of the nineteenth century. The term "Jim Crow" as a description of the segregation laws of the South originated with the name of a popular early-nineteenth-century blackface character performed by the white actor Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice (1808–1860). In the twentieth century, popular forms such as vaudeville and cinema drew heavily from this tradition of racial masquerade. In the midst of prohibitions regulating the representation of miscegenation on screen and the segregated viewing spaces and practices in the South and elsewhere, the extraordinary
This husband-and-wife team, both of the Nebraska Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) tribe, became an influential force in the production of silent one-reel westerns between 1908 and 1913. Though their American film careers were short-lived, they intervened in the industry at a particularly crucial moment in the formation of a genre that would dominate Hollywood production for decades.
Princess Red Wing (the stage name for Lillian St. Cyr) was a graduate of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and a professional actress. A recognizable presence in cinema, she starred in the first feature-length film—Cecil B. DeMille's western, The Squaw Man (1914)—and over thirty-five other films between 1909 and 1921, including Donald Crisp's Ramona (1916) and an early Tom Mix picture, In the Days of the Thundering Herd (1914). When James Young Deer took over the West Coast studio operations for the French-owned film company Pathé Frères, he was already a veteran entertainer. He had performed with the Barnum and Bailey circus and the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch Wild West Show and had acted, directed, and written scenarios for several film companies including Kalem, Lubin, Vitagraph, and Biograph. He also worked at one of the first independent film companies, the New York Motion Picture Company, under the Bison trademark.
With trade journals calling for more authenticity in westerns and Native American and other moviegoers protesting the inaccuracies and negative stereotypes of Indians onscreen and threatening industrywide censorship, Young Deer and St. Cyr were able to leverage their cultural identity and industry experience. From about 1909 to 1913 they used the early flexibility of the industry to exert unprecedented control over popular images of Indians. Both behind the camera and in front of it, Young Deer and St. Cyr rewrote the racial scripts of the western, commenting on racism, assimilation, racial mixture, and cultural contact. Many of their films revisited and revised the wildly popular "squaw man" plot involving a crossracial romance between an Indian woman and white man. Young Deer and Lillian St. Cyr systematically undermined the "vanishing Indian" trope by giving the plots a new political center of gravity. In films such as For the Papoose (1912) and White Fawn's Devotion (1910), mixed-race families answer to the tribe's justice systems and mixedblood children remain part of their Indian communities rather than being taken away to be raised in adoptive white families or in boarding schools.
As Young Deer and St. Cyr became more successful, the mass production of movies became more established, and the studios more wary of potentially objectionable subject matter, the couple's films became less distinctive. The details of Young Deer's later career are sketchy. After leaving California because of legal troubles in 1913, he worked in France and elsewhere, but little is known about his film work in Europe. Lillian St. Cyr continued to draw on her theatrical experience in vaudeville, was a college lecturer, and served as an activist in Indian affairs.
The Falling Arrow (1909), Red Wing's Gratitude (1909), The Mended Lute (1909), White Fawn's Devotion: A Play Acted by a Tribe of Red Indians in America (1910), The Red Girl and the Child (1910), A Cheyenne Brave (1910), The Yaqui Girl (1910), Little Dove's Romance (1911), For the Papoose (1912), The Prospector and the Indian (1912), The Squaw Man's Sweetheart (1912), The Squaw Man (1914), In the Days of the Thundering Herd (1914), Ramona (1916)
Aleiss, Angela. Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies . Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.
Deloria, Philip J. Indians in Unexpected Places . Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.
Hearne, Joanna. "'The Cross-Heart People': Race and Inheritance in the Silent Western." Journal of Popular Film and Television 30 (Winter 2003): 181–196.
Simmon, Scott. The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre's First Half-Century . Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Smith, Andrew Brodie. Shooting Cowboys and Indians: Silent Western Films, American Culture, and the Birth of Hollywood . Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2003.
popularity of racial cross-dressing in the form of blackface minstrelsy became an engine that drove the film industry's transition to the sound era. Blackface has marked crucial moments in film history, from The Birth of a Nation to the first sound film and first musical, Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer (1927). In The Birth of a Nation , the figure of Gus, a white actor in blackface, performs "black" desire for white women that, in the South, became the pretext for lynching. By contrast, in The Jazz Singer the drama of the transformation of the Jewish protagonist Jake Rabinowitz (Al Jolson) into Jack Robin through his performance of blackness suggests, as Michael Rogin has argued, that the assimilation and eliding of complex, multiple ethnicities into a consolidated American "white" identity happened through the process of racial caricature that maintained boundaries between black and white. Thus, according to Rogin, Jewish blackface performers modeled Americanization through the ritual of defining themselves as white by playing with blackface performance, redrawing the boundaries of social exclusion along racial rather than ethnic lines, and representing America as polarized by racial dichotomy rather than ethnic pluralism.
Blackface minstrelsy and its translation from stage to cinema at the turn of the twentieth century is only one example of the powerful deployment of stereotypes and their devastating effects. The word "stereotype" originally referred to methods of making identical copies in the printing industry; this idea of an endlessly replicated image of an "other" remains important to the work of stereotypes in shaping expectations. Stereotypes are not simply accidental departures from realism; rather, they function systematically as a form of broad social control, influencing collective perceptions and public memory as well as colonizing individual self-perceptions through internalized racism. Character-based stereotypes seem stable, but in fact they develop and change over time—not as an evolution or development towards more consistently positive representations but rather in response to specific historical situations. Whether stereotypes are "positive" or "negative," they present limited options for action.
Famous examples of stereotypes abound, and minority actors within the parameters of such roles have often given extraordinary performances. Hattie McDaniel (1895–1952) won an Oscar ® for her role as a loyal servant or "mammy" in Gone with the Wind (1939). Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878–1949) played a version of "Uncle Tom" opposite Shirley Temple in the 1930s ( The Littlest Rebel , 1935; The Little Colonel , 1935; and Just Around the Corner , 1938) and Stepin Fetchit (1902–1985) became a Hollywood star playing "coon" characters, such as his "Jeff Poindexter" in Judge Priest (1934). Indian stereotypes given greater depth by Native American actors include noble savages and savage reactionaries (Eric Schweig as Uncas and Wes Studi as Magua in The Last of the Mohicans , 1992), Indian princesses (Irene Bedard voicing the animated Pocahontas in Disney's Pocahontas , 1995), and wise sages (Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man , 1970). Noriyuki "Pat" Morita (1932–2005) played cryptic, wise, and servile Asian characters on television in Happy Days (1975–1976, 1982–1983) and in films such as The Karate Kid (1984), while images of decadent, seductive, dangerous Asian men and women have appeared in films such as The Cheat (1915), Shanghai Express (1932), and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and more recently in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004). Certain directors, such as Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola, have become associated with films that explore ethnic identities and issues of assimilation and difference. Italian American and Irish American gangster figures have been humanized on screen in films such as The Godfather (1972) and On the Waterfront (1954), and drawing on the tradition of "social problem" genres, such films have effectively rendered experiences of immigration, although in some cases ethnicity is posited as part of the "problem" documented in the film.
Just as important as identifying stereotypes is thinking through the conditions of their production and reception. Within the restrictions of Hollywood genres and character stereotypes, minority performances can provide a venue resistance both onscreen and offscreen. Actors such as Sessue Hayakawa (1889–1973), Louise Beavers (1902–1962), Dolores del Rio (1905–1983), Princess Red Wing, Jay Silverheels, and many others, though they sometimes played stereotyped roles onscreen, were able to use their position within the industry in a variety of ways—including creating opportunities for other minority actors; providing offscreen role models of professional success for minority youth; advocating for legal and social change; and, within their performances themselves, offering subtle signs of agency and potential for self-representation beyond the scripted lines they were assigned to deliver.
This potential for subversive performance and for off-screen interventions is not possible with the conventions of racial masquerade in which minority presence is rendered only as a caricature. Blackface minstrelsy—and other forms of racial ventriloquism in casting—also excluded African American and other minority performers from the stage and screen, making the "presence" of stereotyped characters in films an indicator of absence. In the "redface" of the western, for example, the common practice of having white actors (such as Rock Hudson, Debra Paget, Charles Bronson, and many others) embody Indian characters contributes, at the level of performance, to the visual trope of the "vanishing Indian." These actors—whose "whiteness" is consolidated through their performance of a racialized
"Image studies," or the practice of examining stereotypes, is an important form of analysis but it has limitations. Film scholars Ella Shohat and Robert Stam have described the difficulty of comparing stereotypes to an external reality (which is impossible to define without resorting to essentialist notions of the typical) as well as the need to consider broader politics of film style; race-based casting; genre conventions other than realism (such as parody or other modes of address); historical, cultural, and production contexts; and other mediating issues. They suggest considering race and ethnicity as discourse-based, in the sense of competing voices in specific historical and cultural contexts. This "relational" model reveals the functions of race and ethnicity even in films that suppress the constitutive role of race in American culture. Further, it opens our analytic horizons beyond the singular, character-based stereotype, allowing us to study a range of issues related to hybridity and syncretism in film marketing, distribution, exhibition, and spectatorship.