The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1997, Volume 43, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema. Edited by Daniel Bernardi. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996. Photographs. Bibliography. Notes. Index. ix + 353 pages. $18.95 paper.

Reviewed by Norman L. Rosenberg, Distinguished Lecturer at San Diego State University and DeWitt Wallace Professor at Macalester College, author of Protecting the “Best Men” (1990).

The birth of the North American motion picture industry coincided with the rise of highly charged discourses about racial differences that, during the early 20th century, reaffirmed the privileges of “whiteness.” Daniel Bernardi, in line with other recent discussions of “race,” imagines whiteness, and other racial identifications, as “a social-historical formation” (p. 3) that springs from a complex process of cultural production. Racial categories, in this view, are neither innate nor natural; rather, they emerge from the ways in which cultural works represent, both in print and visual media, different groups of people. Even if people of Northern European ancestry constituted the ideal, those from Eastern and Southern European backgrounds also became classified within the category of “white.” People of Latin American ancestry, in contrast, joined all those “others,” such as Asians and Africans, who were relegated, in the dominant classification scheme, to “the very bottom of the racial privilege ladder.” (p. 106.)

Silent cinema, from this perspective, played a central role in articulating this construction of racial differences and in reaffirming an ideology based on claims of white superiority. The racial imagery in Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, (1915), generally familiar to most historians, neither stood alone nor sprang from the prejudices of one southern-born director. The Birth of Whiteness amply demonstrates the relationship between constructions of race and dominant trends within the motion picture business.

The fourteen essays in this volume survey a wide range of images and issues. Bernardi himself shows how Griffith’s earliest films used innovative techniques to articulate the kinds of racial imagery later found in his controversial Civil War epic. Several other contributions — including one on films about Custer’s “Last Stand” and another on images of family life on the frontier — deal with that familiar Hollywood genre, the Western. Other essays consider American “orientalism” in films featuring the popular Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, in several movies directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and in two “classics” of the early American cinema, Madame Butterfly (1915) and The Forbidden City (1918). And in a similar vein, Fatimah Tobing Rony urges that Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), often hailed as a “classic ethnography,” be seen as another example of a silent filmmaker (along with university-based anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowksi) representing racial “others” in ways that helped to reaffirm the racialized hierarchy that dominated early 20th century discourse.

The most interesting essays in The Birth of Whiteness move beyond simply identifying “offensive” representations and begin tracing the complex processes through which racialized images get produced and, oftentimes, contested — and thus reformulated. Here, Dan Streible’s work on the ways in which different audiences viewed films showing the African-American prizefighter Jack Johnson dominating his white challengers is very suggestive.

Many African-Americans struggled against efforts to contain showings of Johnson’s fight films. Viewers in Harlem cheered during outdoor screenings of Johnson’s 1910 victory over James J. Jeffries; despite attempts to keep this fight film away from African-American audiences, clandestine showing were often mounted in black neighborhoods. Then, in 1912, Congress banned the interstate shipment of all fight films, a measure that kept Johnson’s subsequent fights, even his defeat by Jess Willard, off movie screens. Still, African-Americans in Chicago revived outdoor showings of the 1910 Johnson- Jeffries match in 1915 as a means of protesting the opening of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in the Windy City!

Perhaps, the most interesting chapter for readers of this journal may be Chon A. Noriega’s consideration of how Ramona (1884), Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel about racial injustice became translated into a 1910 film by D. W. Griffith; in the process Jackson’s social critique and her call for political reform largely vanish in favor of a nostalgic filmic portrait of a “frontier California” that was already, by 1910, becoming the historical background from which tourist attractions could be constructed. In this sense, as Noriega’s contribution insists, the struggle over race and representation continues as part of the politics, in history and in other forms of public discourse, of our own times.

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