In 1942, the United States found itself not only fighting a war on two fronts abroad, but trying to unify the population at home behind the war effort. One group -- black Americans -- presented a particular problem. Blacks still suffered under the burden of Jim Crow laws which kept them segregated in large sections of the country, especially the South as well as the armed forces; they were effectively denied the right to vote in the South, and in the North they were confined to menial jobs and to living in squalid ghettoes.
Polls taken by the government showed that blacks despised the Germans, not surprising because of the Nazis' racial policies. At the same time, however, blacks showed a more ambivalent attitude toward the Japanese, who some tended to identify with as fellow people of color.
With racial tensions increasing, the government was anxious that nothing aggravate black hostility and undermine the war effort. Films were the most popular form of entertainment and the government, through its Office of War Information, had high hopes of getting Hollywood to portray blacks in a more favorable light than the film industry had ever done before.
There was clearly room for improvement. As Dalton Trumbo said, the movies made "tarts of the Negro's daughters, crap shooters of his sons, obsequious Uncle Toms of his fathers, superstitious and grotesque crones of his mothers, strutting peacocks of his successful men, psalm-singing mountebanks of his priests, and Barnum and Bailey side-shows of his religion."
OWI's Bureau of Motion Pictures regretfully concurred. In an analysis of the depiction of blacks in wartime movies in 1943, the bureau concluded that "in general, Negroes are presented as basically different from other people, as taking no relevant part in the life of the nation, as offering nothing, contributing nothing, expecting nothing." Blacks appeared in 23 percent of the films released in 1942 and early 1943 and were shown as "clearly inferior" in 82 percent of them.
One of the hottest issues for the Bureau of Motion Pictures the summer of 1942 erupted over MGM's "Man on America's Conscience," which triggered a bitter row over race. Although one might think it was the American black who troubled the nation's conscience, Metro wanted to rehabilitate the reputation of President Andrew Johnson (1865-69). Abraham Lincoln's successor enjoyed a certain vogue before the modern civil rights movement as the embodiment of the slain president's presumed generosity toward the South and as a champion of reunion. Largely overlooked were Johnson's opposition to black voting rights, his support of the notorious black codes that regimented blacks' behavior and his opposition to programs for the economic advancement of the freed slaves.
By contrast the Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction era, particularly Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, were painted as vindictive partisans who put the South "to the torture." Southern white supremacists found this interpretation appealing. So did the movie industry. Wanting to protect the box office from southern film censors, Hollywood adopted the region's white supremacist view, typified by the idealized plantation society of "Gone With the Wind." Blacks had been relegated to the most degrading stereotypes, as represented by Stepin Fetchit and worse.
The script made Andrew Johnson the hero and Thaddeus Stevens the heavy. The champion of black rights emerged as a crippled, demonic figure, who cajoled Johnson, a helpless alcoholic, into a reversion to drunkenness.
MGM thought it was simply making another "biopic," a framework on which to hang one of Louis B. Mayer's beloved costume dramas. But this material was social dynamite in the tense racial atmosphere of World War II. In 1943 racial tensions exploded into rioting in Detroit and other major cities. OWI wanted to dampen racial conflict, which both threatened wartime unity and gave the Axis fodder for its propaganda mills. The agency also worried that movies such as this Metro travesty would further antagonize blacks, who displayed considerable skepticism about America's rhetoric of democracy.
A survey of Harlem blacks carried out by the Office of Facts and Figures in early 1942 found that 49 percent of respondents believe they would be no worse off if Japan won the war. Eighteen percent actually thought a Japanese victory would improve their lot.
OWI correctly interpreted such findings as reflecting a desire to see American society "changed not conquered." Blacks were overwhelmingly loyal to the United States, despite their status as second-class citizens. Blacks had to "fight for the right to fight," said Walter White, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). But when they finally won that right, they had to fight in segregated units. The armed forces even segregated blood plasma by race, and German POWs were allowed to dine in restaurants that were off limits to black American GIs. The black press during the war called for a "Double V"-victories over both the Axis abroad and Jim Crow at home.
"The Man on America's Conscience" became a crucial test case of OWI's power with the studios and its commitment to racial justice. Its Bureau of Motion Pictures joined an informal alliance of blacks (led by Walter White) and white liberals and leftists in Hollywood who pressed for greater sensitivity on racial issues. Though many of Hollywood's veteran black performers feared change because the old stereotypes were their meal tickets, a new generation demanded, in Lena Horne's words, that "the Negro be portrayed as a normal person."
Wendell Willkie, the unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate in 1940, played a uniquely influential role as both chairman of the board of Twentieth Century-Fox and special counsel to the NAACP. More liberal on racial issues than Franklin Roosevelt, Willkie gave a fiery speech to studio executives in early 1942 in which he pointed out the offensiveness of racial stereotypes and their danger to the war effort. Willkie and White circulated among the tables at the annual Academy Awards dinner, visited studio commissaries and met privately with industry leaders in their campaign to have Hollywood depict "the Negro as a normal human being and an integral part of human life and activity."
Many industry officials pledged to cooperate. White believed that "some extraordinarily fine things are in prospect in the moving picture world. . .a new concept of the Negro." His optimism was premature.
After extensive negotiations, MGM reluctantly agreed to reshoot parts of the nearly finished film -- an expensive operation. Stevens, portrayed as a villain in the original version, now emerged as a sincere, if misguided, figure. The revised picture tried to focus on issues of principle, but with the embattled president clearly representing superior virtue. The changes did not go very deep. Released with the less provocative title of "Tennessee Johnson," in its new form the picture was yet another variation on a favorite Hollywood theme -- the success story.
OWI was greatly relieved when it saw the release print. The film stressed the importance of achieving change through the ballot box rather than through violence. This was, of course, an ironic message for American blacks who were systemically excluded from voting, often through violence. But "ballots not bullets" fit OWI's emphasis on democracy.
The picture contains just four blacks -- all of them docile servants in Washington, D.C. -- and all of two lines hinting at slavery. The finished product was an early instance of what later became a frequent tactic when Hollywood faced OWI's racial strictures: writing out. If blacks were portrayed in an offensive manner, it was easier to eliminate them than to change the treatment. When the presence of a black pantryman called attention to military segregation in "Action in the North Atlantic," Warner Brothers cut him out at OWI's suggestion. Black servants disappeared from "An American Romance." The extent of writing out is hard to gauge, but it was probably extensive: Membership in the black actors' union fell by 50 percent during the war, suggesting that their opportunities were much reduced.
Blacks escaped conventional limits more fully in combat pictures than in any other genre. They played heroic combat roles in "Crash Dive" (Twentieth Century, 1943) and "Sahara" (Columbia, 1943), although the former followed the Navy's policy of limiting blacks to menial tasks in the early part of the war. MGM's "Bataan" (1943) offered perhaps the greatest departure, with Kenneth Spencer adding a black face to a baker's dozen of ethnically diverse GIs. He is almost equal. He is present for discussions of strategy, although his contribution is not about how to defeat the enemy but a vague affirmation of faith in the United States. He dies as heroically as the other soldiers in the face of the overwhelmingly superior Japanese force.
Yet subtle implications of inferiority remain. "He spends a good part of his on-screen time humming 'St. Louis Blues,'" notes historian Daniel Leab. When he sets an explosive charge, he depends on the instructions of his white partner, who is entrusted with pushing the plunger. Ironically, Hollywood's ability to create a mythical world gave blacks a better deal than did real life, for there were no integrated combat units at this time.
Blacks generally came off best in films where they appeared as entertainers -- not as serious actors -- yet even here they paid a price. In entertainment films, the cast was either all black or the blacks were segregated from the white cast or the main story line. "Cabin in the Sky" (MGM) and "Stormy Weather" (Twentieth Century), both of which appeared in 1943, featured strong performances by outstanding stars, but, the very framework of these pictures perpetuated the position of blacks as essentially a people apart. "Cabin in the Sky" combined comedy, music, and the trite image of black religion as one step removed from picturesque superstition. The Bureau of Motion Pictures worried that blacks were presented as "simple, ignorant, superstitious folk, incapable of anything but the most menial labor." OWI's Washington headquarters dismissed such worries and thought the picture was just good fun.
"Stormy Weather" dramatized the life of Bill "Bo Jangles" Robinson and featured Lena Horne in her first big role. OWI called attention to the film's implied segregation but concluded it could not "possibly give offense to any group." Walter White, however, objected that Lena Horne was forced to do "vulgar things" that producers would not dare impose on white actresses. He feared that Hollywood reinforced stereotypes of blacks as "primitive barbarians who never stop short of extremes" in sexual matters. Latter-day audiences, fed on the wide-open sexuality of movies and television, find Horne sexy rather than vulgar. White nonetheless had a point; in the context of World War II, such roles reflected a subtle racism.
Horne was ambivalent about such casting. One the one hand wartime movies gave her an immense following among blacks-and among whites, too. A black academician recalled her own feelings when she saw the picture as a North Carolina teenager: "I didn't know all that stuff was going on-I just wanted to look like Lena Horne." Some whites date their first impression of "black is beautiful" from "Stormy Weather." The title song became her trademark. On the other hand Horne, while managing to avoid the maid or jungle roles she had feared, had trouble getting the dramatic parts she coveted. "I became a butterfly pinned to a column singing away in Movieland," she said.
For some liberal reviewers such pictures were, as Manny Farber said of "Cabin in the Sky," "well turned decorations in something which is a stale insult." Hollywood's proclaimed good intentions would merit respect, he said, only when "it brings out a movie where the central figures are Negroes living in a white majority." Walter White dreamed, too, of a serious treatment of black life. Early in the war he tried to interest several producers in a sort of early day "Roots" that would trace black history from an African tribe to modern professional success. Other people of color had had their day on the screen, but no producer would take White's bait. Screen images at the end of the war strongly resembled those OWI had found in 1943. A Columbia University study in 1945 found that of 100 black appearances in wartime films, 75 perpetuated old stereotypes, 13 were neutral, and only 12 were positive. The "new concept of the Negro" that White had expected did not materialize.
OWI did not dare propose such a film, for in dealing realistically with black history it would challenge the propagandists' vision of a united, democratic America. It settled instead for vague, safe hints of incremental change, designed to suggest that democracy would bring eventual progress in race relations. The agency's sacred and sentimental symbols were thus deployed on the racial front to imply that blacks were full participants in American life although they remained in fact a people apart.
Clayton Koppes is chairman of the history department of Oberlin College. Gregory Black is chairman of the communications studies department of the University of Missouri, Kansas City. This article is adapted from "Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits & Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies."