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Cinema's Peculiar Institution: Screening Slavery in 1939

Media Colloquium


Ellen Scott

12:00 pm

330 Fisher-Bennett Hall, Penn campus

When we think of depictions of slavery on screen in 1939, one film most likely to come to mind: David O. Selznick’s epic adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. The film famously raised questions for the Production Code Administration about the depiction of slavery and Reconstruction. However, Gone with the Wind was far from the only film of that year that explored American slavery. Indeed 1938-1939 was a part of a cycle of films dealing with slavery and slave life that were at the center of a culture war about the memory of slavery. Even as Selnick toiled to construct a film that painted the Old South's white supremacy with nostalgia, euphemism, and humor and depicted slavery without cruelty, inhumanity, or racial friction, Hollywood filmmakers aligned with the cultural front, with projects like Langston Hughes' Way Down South, Waldo Salt and Hugo Butler's MGM project The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Fred Zinneman's The Story of Dr. Carver strove to suggest slavery as a condemnable institution against which Black men and women regularly rebelled. Though their attempts to swing the pendulum away from Hollywood’s tradition of appeasing the south would not be entirely successful, the story of their attempts to alter Hollywood’s representations of slavery demonstrate the broader scope of Hollywood’s racial vision and the limits censorship placed on imagining slavery.

Professor Ellen C. Scott, Ph.D., specializes in media history, African American cultural history, film and media theory, American film history, sound theory, the history of censorship and cultural studies. Her research focuses 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. Her first book, Cinema Civil Rights (Rutgers University Press, 2015) exposes the Classical Hollywood-era studio system's careful repression of civil rights but also the stuttered appearance of these issues through latent, symptomatic signifiers. After tracing these films from their first conception through restrictions imposed on them by industry and state censors, the study ends by assessing how black political figures and journalists turned Hollywood's repressed racial imaginary into fodder for their own resistant spectatorship and full-blown civil rights demands.


This is for faculty and graduate students only.