Racism in early American film

Racism in early American film is the negative depiction of racial groups, racial stereotypes, and racist ideals in classical Hollywood cinema from the 1910s to the 1960s.

From its inception, Hollywood has largely been dominated by white male filmmakers and producers, catering to a predominately white audience.[1] Various techniques have been used to depict non-white characters including whitewashing and ethnic stereotyping. Themes of white supremacy and xenophobia are commonly found within these films, reflecting contemporary attitudes towards non-white groups, taking on different imagery as race relations shift.


African AmericanEdit

In February 1915, the film The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith was released. The film depicted Ku Klux Klansmen as the saviors to the nation that bring back a stable government and uphold American values. The movie used actors in blackface to depict African Americans as savages, using threatening imagery to justify violence against African Americans.[2] After the movie's debut, racial violence against African Americans increased, including the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in November of the same year.[3]

In 1927, the film The Jazz Singer by Alan Crosland was released, regarded as being the first sound film. One of the central themes was the use of blackface by Jewish character Jack Robins. The use of blackface in the film has led to controversy, particularly in regards to its role in the plot and its Jewish character.

Scholar Corin Willis said about the use of blackface in The Jazz Singer:

In contrast to the racial jokes and innuendo brought out in its subsequent persistence in early sound film, blackface imagery in The Jazz Singer is at the core of the film's central theme, an expressive and artistic exploration of the notion of duplicity and ethnic hybridity within American identity. Of the more than seventy examples of blackface in early sound film 1927–53 that I have viewed (including the nine blackface appearances Jolson subsequently made), The Jazz Singer is unique in that it is the only film where blackface is central to the narrative development and thematic expression.[4]

Middle EasternEdit

In 1921, Paramount Pictures released the Rudolph Valentino movie The Sheik. The movie itself was a box office success but showed Arabs as savage beasts who auction off their own women. The film was followed up a few years later with The Son of the Sheik, which also portrayed racist overtones. Rudolph was even asked by a New York Times reporter once whether or not his well-off character could fall for a savage (an Arab woman). To Valentino's credit, he responded by saying: "People are not savages because they have dark skins. The Arabian civilization is one of the oldest in the world...the Arabs are dignified and keen brained."[5] In his essay "Arabs in Hollywood: An Undeserved Image", Scott J. Simon argues that of all the ethnic groups portrayed in Hollywood films, "Arab culture has been the most misunderstood and supplied with the worst stereotypes":

Rudolph Valentino's roles in The Sheik (1921) and The Son of the Sheik (1926) set the stage for the exploration and negative portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood films. Both The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik represented Arab characters as thieves, charlatans, murderers, and brutes.[6]

He also singled out A Son of the Sahara (1924) as "the strongest subconscious attack on the Arab culture of all the Arab movies of the 1920s".[6]

East AsianEdit

Many racist tropes of East Asian peoples were codified in early Hollywood films.

Charlie Chan (based on the real Chang Apana), was depicted as a "good Asian", used as an antithesis to Fu Manchu, the "bad Asian" villain. In 1929, the American film The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, starring Warner Oland as the villain Fu-Manchu, was released. The villain Fu-Manchu incorporated contemporary Yellow Peril motifs, an antagonist to white characters and demonstrating otherworldly powers to control the white female lead.

The Show of Shows was released the same year and featured a stereotypical setting with Nick Lucas and Myrna Loy.

Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American movie star, commonly featured in Hollywood films as supporting characters or "Dragon Lady" villainesses during the early 1920s. Anti-miscegenation laws prevented onscreen interracial relationships, forcing Wong to remain in stereotypical "vamp" roles until Daughter of the Dragon in 1931.[7]

South AsianEdit

Several Hollywood movies continue to portray Asian destinations as underdeveloped or of being lived in by savages. This includes showing elephant as a primary mode of transport in modern India or any of the similar stereotypes that has no resemblance to reality.

Native AmericansEdit

Throughout the early 1900s, many films that perpetuate stereotypes about Native Americans were made, in particular the stereotype of the "Noble Savage". The roles of Native Americans were usually reserved for Caucasian actors. The portrayal of indigenous Americans of the silent era most notably remains The Last of the Mohicans (1920).[why?]

In 1936, the Three Stooges mocked Native Americans in the comedy short, "Whoops, I'm an Indian!"


In the 1940s, people like Dudley Dickerson were appearing in Three Stooges films. Dudley was used because of his bug-eyed appearance and portrayal of stereotypes of the time. The prevailing views in Hollywood at the time helped to prevent him from advancing his career, but he never complained about his line of work and actually enjoyed what he was doing.[8] A later Stooges short, The Yoke's on Me, showed a stereotypical view of the Japanese people.

Movies of the era showed began to increase the stereotypes that previous generations had started. The Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu stereotypes began to increasingly become more active in movies. Republic Movies released a fifteen episode serial Drums of Fu Manchu, which was later released into a feature film. This brought back the Fu Manchu stereotype after a few years of inaction in Hollywood. The "Devil Doctor" stereotype was absent from film between 1940 and 1965.

Arab stereotypes also played into the film of the time. This included the use of bellydancers and billionaires. The bellydancer stereotype first occurred on film in 1897 when Thomas Edison's kinetoscope showed the women dancing.[9]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Wilson, Clint C., II (2012). Racism, Sexism, and the Media : Multicultural Issues Into the New Communications Age. Félix Gutiérrez, Lena M. Chao. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications. ISBN 978-1-4522-5636-8. OCLC 958504849.
  2. ^ "Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African-Americans - Scholarly Essays - Jim Crow Museum - Ferris State University". www.ferris.edu. Retrieved March 6, 2021.
  3. ^ Franklin, John Hope (1979). ""Birth of a Nation": Propaganda as History". The Massachusetts Review. 20 (3): 417–434. ISSN 0025-4878.
  4. ^ Gibbs, John; Pye, Douglas (2005). Style and meaning: studies in the detailed analysis of film. Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-6524-8. OCLC 57529141.
  5. ^ Villa, Marco (May 28, 2010). "Casual Racism in the American Press". Marcovilla.instablogs.com. Archived from the original on March 9, 2012. Retrieved September 28, 2011.[unreliable source?]
  6. ^ a b Simon, Scott J. "Arabs in Hollywood: An Undeserved Image". Latent Image. Emerson College. Retrieved May 17, 2012.
  7. ^ "Anna May Wong". National Women's History Museum. Retrieved March 6, 2021.
  8. ^ "DVD Verdict Review – The Three Stooges Collection: Volume Six (1949–51)". Dvdverdict.com. Retrieved March 20, 2011.
  9. ^ "100 Years of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotyping". Ibiblio.org. Retrieved September 28, 2011.[unreliable source?]