Race and Ethnicity


The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPA) Production Code of 1930 (enforced after 1934) dealt explicitly with interracial romance, stating that "miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden." This wording was taken from the pre-Code industry restrictions of 1927, called "The Don'ts and Be Carefuls," but the cultural fascination with—and social prohibition of—interracial romance begins with the hierarchical relations established by European colonizers. Film theorist Ella Shohat argues

Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) challenged the dying Production Code with its interracial relationship.
that even when films do not appear to address race or ethnicity in their content, the constitutive role of race in American society means that issues of racial and ethnic hierarchy are always present. She calls for analyses of "ethnicities-in-relation" rather than isolated minority and mainstream histories (p. 220).

The word "miscegenation" (from the Latin miscere , "to mix," and genus , meaning "race" or "type") first appeared in a pamphlet in 1863, authored by the conservative Democratic reporters George Wakeman and David Goodman Croly as part of an attempt to polarize voters around the issue in the 1864 presidential election. After the turn of the twentieth century, when many of the rights secured for African Americans in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution had been dismantled through Jim Crow laws, outspoken proponents of white supremacy produced intellectual arguments for eugenic control of racial mixing, as in Madison Grant's book, The Passing of the Great Race (1916). At the same time, a competing discourse of cultural relativism emerged in the writing of anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942), asserting the primacy of cultural training and linguistic models rather than biological "race" in determining human differences.

The prominence of miscegenation themes in film history reveals not only anxieties about racial mixture but also the profoundly gendered nature of cultural and racial representations onscreen. Prohibited interracial sexual contact underlies the visual joke in an early narrative film, Edwin S. Porter's What Happened in the Tunnel (1903), in which a white man flirts with a white woman on a train, but when he tries to kiss her as the train goes through a tunnel, the woman changes seats with her African American maid, who receives the kiss. This early film models a different kind of "encounter" narrative from the colonial scenario imagined by Mélièsin ATripto the Moon , but its construction of hierarchical, sexualized relations between whites and "others" was similarly foundational and indicative of future narratives, ranging from the horror of interracial mixture in D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) to the titillating films of Dorothy Dandridge in the 1950s. Films such as Pinky (1949), Imitation of Life (1934, 1959), and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) challenged the Production Code's strictures with their representations of interracial dating and light-skinned African American women "passing" for white. Shortly after the Code was replaced by the Classification and Rating System Administration in 1968, the loosening of both racial and sexual prohibitions led to an explosion of independent African American filmmaking.

While the Production Code and its enforcement through the Hays Office effectively kept representations of "miscegenation" off of Hollywood screens, little objection was raised to the (usually doomed) interracial romances between white and Indian characters in films such as The Last of the Mohicans (1936) and Broken Arrow (1950). The cycle of "pro-Indian" westerns in the 1950s used sympathetic Indian characters to signify other minorities, especially African Americans during the Civil Rights movement and Jews in the wake of radical anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, while at the same time commenting politically upon Native American assimilation and changes in the way the US government handled Indian policy. Non-Native writers, actors, and directors have consistently appropriated images of Indians for the purposes of both nationalist and counterculture messages. That Indian characters onscreen appear to function as metaphors for other ethnic groups is unsurprising, given the variety of non-Native actors who have "played Indian" (in redface), including Italian American actors (Sylvester Stallone), African American actors (Noble Johnson), Jewish actors (Jeff Chandler), and Asian actors (Sessue Hayakawa), yet this practice also suggests the centrality of Native American representations to Hollywood's construction of America on film. John Ford's now-classic western, The Searchers (1956), wavers between condemning and furthering the destructive racism of its main character, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). Another character—the mixed-blood Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), adopted and raised by white settlers—becomes the focal character for viewers. The trope of rescue in which the men search for a niece captured by Comanches becomes an indictment of racism and destructive patriarchy as Ethan himself vacillates between rescuing Debbie (Natalie Wood) and killing her.

While the word "miscegenation" has roots in a specific US context, the Spanish word mestizaje refers more broadly to the cultural and racial mixing of indigenous, European, and African peoples in Latin America. It represents highly symbolic female figures of cultural syncretism, such as the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe and La Malinche, the indigenous concubine who is also a translator, have been depicted on film (as in Emilio Fernández's María Candelaria , 1944). Cinematic representations of cross-racial romance such as Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Nelson Pereira Dos Santos's Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês ( How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman , 1971), Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Angst essen Seele auf ( Ali: Fear Eats the Soul , 1974), Stephen Frear and Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala (1991) resist racial and sexual categorizations with visual and narrative dramas that at once blur and call attention to racial boundaries and social intolerance.

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