Ellen Scott's research dives into the history of African Americans and film
The CMS vice chair is writing books about cinematic depictions of slavery and Black female film critics
By Noela Hueso
Growing up, Ellen Scott was a devoted movie watcher. As a young African American woman living in Philadelphia, she was intrigued not only by what she saw on screen but by what she didn’t see. She became increasingly concerned with representation in film.
“The process of movie watching became entwined with my sense of the social world — of what was just and right,” she said.
Today, Scott is an associate professor and the vice chair of Cinema and Media Studies at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. She focuses her attention on the cultural meanings and reverberations of film in African American communities and, more broadly, the relationship of media to the struggle for racial justice and equality.
“My decision to study cinema came from wanting a clearer set of answers about why we about why we see the images we see of Black people on screen and also a sense that the effect of images — of representation — is far deeper than what film scholarship had fully mapped out,” she said.
In 2016, Scott received an Academy Film Scholars grant for her project Cinema’s Peculiar Institution, which investigates depictions of slavery in film. The project has grown to become one of two books that Scott is currently writing. The other, Bitter Ironies, Tender Hopes, explores the little-known subject of Black female film critics, one of the many topics covered in the graduate course she teaches, "Black Women Media Makers of the Diaspora," a historical and theoretical survey of Black women’s contributions to media culture.
What’s the time frame you’re covering in Cinema’s Peculiar Institution?
It’s a comprehensive history from 1903 to the present.
That predates Birth of a Nation, which came out in 1915.
Yes. There’s Edwin Porter’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1903, and that may be one of the first representations of enslaved people on screen. Obviously, it’s a silent film; it’s rather short; and there’s a steamboat race. One of the most affecting scenes is an auction block sequence that also turns into a moment of performance with the people on the auction block doing a dance.
What’s being implied by that?
There’s a tendency not only in this film but in others during this era to combine depictions of the horrific with entertainment. I wager that this was at least a part of what was going on with Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
What are some of the other recurring scenarios or themes that you’re finding?
There are some really fascinating silent films, partly because censorship mechanisms in Hollywood weren’t in place.
The octoroon — a person who is 1/8 Black, who could potentially pass for white in most cases but who is enslaved — is a figure that shows up quite a lot in the early cinema period. It doesn’t translate over into classical Hollywood, though, partly because in that period there was concern about Southern spectatorship and the distribution of these films within Southern territories. Studio heads said, "We can’t show what the South considers miscegenation," so that was an issue.
There are a few also that show situations that point to the injustice of slavery. Those are narratives I’m tracking. Wife for Wife (1915) is a fascinating one: An enslaved man’s wife is sold down South. He gets upset about this and decides to take retribution against the master — wife for wife. He tries to use a snake as a way to get back at the master; he also tries to poison the master’s wife. These are acts of rebellion that, once we get to classical Hollywood, are really not being registered — unless the person writing the script is leftist and has leftist sensibility.
For the most part, by the time we're into the classical Hollywood era, we have a pretty sanitized narrative about the life of the enslaved, one that reveals the enslaved to be more reliant upon the master’s paternalism than the master is on the labor of the enslaved. Censorship records reveal that the industry doesn’t want each individual studio to release films where the word "slave" is being used. They prefer "servant" to "slave"; they want to show slavery without force or a kind of volunteer slavery, where no one really wants to fight back against the system.
We know at the same time, through the work of folks like cultural historian Michael Denning, that there was an active cultural front of the communist party and other progressive groups in the 1930s. At the same time as you’re getting Gone With the Wind (1939), you’re also getting competing narratives like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), which Waldo Salt and Hugo Butler, two leftist screenwriters, try to make into a tale about abolition and the Underground Railroad. If you know anything about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in the novel Huck says, "I'm no abolitionist."
The story that looks beyond what’s on the screen to the production history tells us more about Hollywood than the finished film in a lot of instances. That’s what the book is looking at.
How many films do you anticipate including?
Part of the process is just identifying films that depict slavery. There’s no guide to that; a lot of times it’s a Civil War film where there’s one enslaved character. I really want to get a sense of where enslaved characters show up in films, where the discourse of slavery shows up. At this point, I’ve identified just over 800 silent films. There’s more than 600 in classical Hollywood; the films in the post-classical period are still unfolding.
How has the depiction of slavery in film changed through the years?
There are a few decisive moments, the Civil Rights movement being one of them, where there’s a real turning point in terms or representation. We have Zeinabu Davis’ Mother of the River (1995); she’s the first Black woman to make a film dealing with a Black woman enslaved. There are films that start to shift this from a narrative about either slavery in the abstract or from a white perspective into a really African American-centric narrative about what it was like to live in community governed by fictive kinship, which was a crucial survival technique for enslaved people.
What is fictive kinship?
Because they didn’t have family around them, enslaved peoples developed kinship relations with individuals who weren’t blood relations. That phenomenon still goes on in the Black community.
Slavery comes up and is discussed in Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (1990) and there’s no way to read Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) that doesn’t have the history of slavery baked into the text. The approaches really differ and oftentimes there’s a foregrounding of where we are now in light of that history rather than a retelling of the horrors of slavery. Harriet (2019) is able to communicate a really brutal past but in an idiom that doesn’t sensationalize the brutality and centers on one of the most heroic narratives in American history — the narrative of Harriet Tubman.
How have films that depict slavery generally been received by the African American community?
Historically, there has been a concern about the tendency of Hollywood to portray African Americans as ready servants and volunteer slaves, which is largely what happened during the Classical Hollywood era. When the docudrama Roots aired on television, it had the largest viewership of any television show prior and resultantly many scholars studied the reception of the show. It’s striking how many Black viewers said that they had trouble watching or had to turn it off because of the difficulty and pain that it depicted. Part of the problem is that many of these images are not made by and for Black people. The challenge for contemporary filmmakers — and one that we can see being taken up in some very compelling ways by folks like Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Zeinabu Davis, Kasi Lemmons and Gerard Bush, most recently — is how to depict slavery not as merely a brutal institution but in a way that truly humanizes those enslaved people of African descent who survived slavery — and fought every day in different ways for freedom.
Does it seem to you that there have more movies on slavery in recent years?
With the Obama era there was a return. It’s interesting because he’s African American but he’s first generation — his father was reared in Africa; he doesn’t have that same history that most African Americans do; but because he was an African American president and an icon in that sense for Black Americans, there was this [collective] thought: “What is the history of slavery and how far have we come?”
Posted: February 27, 2020