George A. Larkins
April, 25, 2011
Missing the Boat: PCA racial neglect surfaces in Lifeboat.
Canada Lee as Racial Sterotype.
The Production Code Administration (PCA) began as an industry self regulating review board in 1929. It existed, in part, to provide regulation over the Motion Picture Producers Distributors of America (MPPDA) in response to pressures from political, religious, and moral groups. During it’s tenure it allowed for the exhibition and exploitation of African Americans as a subservient class. The portrayals of African Americans in early Hollywood film appear as inherently racial in nature. This oppressive sociological segregation according to Thomas Cripps may be traced to slavery or a “social substitute for bondage” (19). The 1944 film Lifeboat and performance by Canada Lee (Charcoal, Joe) provides a unique opportunity to explore the issues that led to and perpetuated this trend in American cinema.
Robert Maltby presents a thorough review of the Production Code Administration formation in Genesis of the Production Code and it’s accompanying Documents (1995). In his essay the various religious and political influences that shaped the drafting are explored. Key elements that called for the protection of race and the omission of that protective language are provided. The article does not provide any justified reason why the final draft removed the protective language in regards to race.
Thomas Cripps provides a groundbreaking account of black film history in Slow Fade to Black (1977). Historical topics covered include early Black Cinema as a response to the misrepresentation of African Americans by Hollywood studios. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) protests to negative stereotypical characterization and examples of such in the film Lifeboat. The book does not provide an in depth analysis of the black or white emotional responsiveness to the exhibited characterization.
Berys Gaut’s essay Identification and Emotion In Narrative Film (1999) explores the relationship of the “spectators emotional response to film” (201). The strength of the essay is offering a new approach to existing cognitive theories in viewers emotional responsiveness to film. Gaut’s article does not discern racial cognitive interpretations, which could provide insight into black and white audience’s differing emotive response’s to negative racial portrayals.
Production Code Administration
The film Lifeboat certainly contains racial discriminative elements that may have been avoidable had the PCA included protection from willful offensive treatment of race. The review process for the film Lifeboat addresses censorship concerns only in relation to the group and individual moralistic behavior of white passengers. In contrast, the review poses no restriction or objection to the negative racial tone and immoral acts imposed on the sole African American character. Furthermore, the PCA allowed for a continued representation of the stereotypical socially denigrated Negro at a time when movie viewing was approaching its peak attendance on a national scale. For both black and white audiences such portrayal evoked the capacity to do harm. The moral fabric of American society should be constitutionally based on the premise that all men and women are created equal. The PCA failed to follow it’s own underlying principle of disallowing creation of entertainment that does harm to human beings in lowering the moral standards of those who see it .
The 1930 code drafting was claimed to be necessitated by the advent of sound in film production. In Richard Maltby’s essay “Genesis of the Production Code”, the development process is a series of drafts culminating in a pamphlet entitled “A code to maintain social and community values in the production of silent, synchronized and talking motion pictures” (33). An additional document referenced as “Reasons” for the code was adopted at the same time and was only distributed internally to the MPPDA until 1934, after which it was distributed with the code pamphlet. This “Reasons” section was developed as a separate document in an attempt to conceal the Catholic influence of Father Daniel P. Lord’s involvement in it’s drafting (40).
The “Reasons” attempted to bridge the schism that divided Catholic leader Father Daniel P. Lord and Jason Joy, director of the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) versus Irvin Thalberg, representing the nine Jewish majority owned studio heads. The primary argumentative difference is whether the viewing of motion pictures influence’s broad moralistic and spiritual values or if it is merely a form of entertainment.
Maltby’s account of the October 4, 1929 meeting of the MPPDA board of directors contains Jason Joy’s explicit language that “Willful offense to any nation, race or creed” (33) shall not appear in motion pictures.
Joy’s final draft of January 1930 reflects his initial intent, however, the defining comments in regards to race have been removed “The motion picture, of necessity, must satisfy the yearning that every person from every walk of life has for mental recreation, relaxation and stimulation. It must not entertain part of the people all of the time and all of the people part of the time, but all of the people all of the time. Entertainment has also cultural and inspirational values and so important an element as the motion picture must consider the foundation on which it is built”(39).
Clearly, Joy’s original language would have provided a basis for equal protection in regards to race, while his final draft favors a broader scope that is more subjective in nature. Attached as an exhibit to Joy’s draft was Lord’s “General Principles” which recognized the moral importance of entertainment that can prove harmful or helpful to the human race. In his draft Lord states, “It enters intimately into the lives of men and women and affects them closely; it occupies their minds and affections during leisure hours, and ultimately touches the whole of their lives. So correct entertainment raises the whole standard of a nation. Wrong entertainment lowers the whole living conditions and moral ideals of a race”(41).
If wrong entertainment includes racial stereotype of second class citizenry, then it can be reasonably be assumed that such characterization in Lifeboat would be willfully offensive to race.
Thalberg’s subcommittee drafted it’s own set of “General Principals” reflecting their opinion in the pure entertainment aspect of motion pictures. Their principals were in keeping with studio’s desire for less restriction on content. The draft stated, “People see in it a reflection of their own average thoughts and attitudes. If the reflection is much lower or much higher than their own plane they reject it” (35). The studio head committee members rejected the notion that cinema could be ”an essentially moral or immoral force” (35). Thalberg’s draft conceded that it may be objectionable to show the branding of humans or animals.
Maltby’s essay “The Production Code and the Hay’s Office” reveals that the majority of Lord and Joy’s drafts were condensed and omitted racially moral language in favor of restrictions on sex, crime and violence. The notable retained language was, “No picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it”(43). and “natural law is understood the law which is written in the hearts of all mankind, the great underlying principles of right and justice dictated by conscience” (44).
Lifeboat was produced nineteen years following the release of the controversial film Birth of a Nation (1915). The later film sparked outrage by the NAACP inciting demonstrations. In Boston, according to Edward Campbell Jr. “Soon after the film began, one protester threw an egg at the screen. In all, it took two hundred police officers to clear away the demonstrators” (59). By 1942, the NAACP, having received no protection by the PCA, managed to procure a meeting with the studio executives. They were promised change in “depiction of Negroes on screen in keeping with the changing times” (Cripps, 376).
The PCA code review file of Lifeboat contains a series of objections in regards to language, nudity, violence, and mob behavior. All inferences are individually directed towards the immoral behaviors and actions of Caucasian characters. Joseph Breen, the enforcer of the code in Hollywood, in his letter dated September 23, 1943, questions the advisability of the line “We weren’t a mob when we killed him.” This cognitive awareness by the PCA of the influence on viewers of mob violence only serves to amplify the disregard of the African American. Instances of derogatory types and stigmas in Lifeboat, according to Cripps, were acknowledged by the producer Darryl Zanuck, who “fretted over making the Negro role an “assistant steward” who sings, recites psalms, “boogies up” a song, and admits to being a pickpocket” (378). The assistant steward position was regarded as no more than a janitorial position and in charge of a commissary on a boat with no supplies.
The PCA also missed other key opportunities to take corrective action in regards to Joe’s character. According to Donald Bogle “ The passengers symbolize specific elements in a full democratic society” (139). If this notion can be accepted and as Daniel Leab denotes “Joe should logically be on screen more than he is. When the survivors vote on various decisions, Joe abstains for no discernible reason” (127) then Leab’s theory that he never actually becomes part of the group has deeper sociological implication. This portrayal may be construed as representing the African American as a non participant or as being excluded from white democratic society.
Blatant depictions of racism in earlier films may be less discernible in Lifeboat, however, the subtle nuances of second class citizenry that “Joe” represents are clearly evident. This unflattering portrayal of the African American is arguably equally, if not more, offensive than southern old plantation celluloid depictions. Negligent actions and behaviors on the part of the PCA , Hollywood Studios, and to a greater degree, the Federal Government to protect and equally represent all U.S. Citizens could plausibly be considered as causing harm.
The inaction to protect the white movie going public may have caused a counter-affective effect. Gaut states “to identify affectively with him is to imagine feeling what he feels”.(205) In presenting a false representation of one dimensional stereotype characters, the white viewer is denied an opportunity to connect empathetically. White audiences as a result could adopt racial misconception and possible prejudices resulting in lowering their internal moralistic standards. The black spectators of such films likewise may, as Gaut defines “identify epistemically” (205) believing that they too are denigrated, individually and in society, resulting in an emotive response of repressive anger from being publicly exhibited as second class citizens.
The persistent willful misrepresentation of the African American race may have furthered mistrust of white controlled institutions designed to protect and provide equal treatment, namely the PCA and the United States Federal Government. Having been recognized by the fourteenth amendment as United States Citizens in 1868 and being granted voting rights in 1870, African Americans were deserving of said protection. The preoccupation by the elitist oligarchy that was the studio system and the Production Code Administration with sex, crime, and violence, ultimately overshadowed the potential moral servitude of the code and constituted failure.
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