St. Louis, southern film history explored in St. Louis native’s new book
Annie Malone, Josephine Baker, King Baggot, Ginger Rogers and Jane Darwell are just a few people with St. Louis and Missouri ties who have made significant contributions to film.
St. Louis native Bob Jackson is the author of a new book that details some of the local connections, "Fade in, Crossroads: A History of the Southern Cinema.” Also a professor of English at the University of Tulsa, Jackson was interested in exploring scholarly media representations of the South as well as issues of race and regional identity.
"I wanted to look more deeply into the way these films operated," Jackson told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. "I was curious about people from the middle part of the country and the South just one generation removed from the Civil War.”
"Gone With the Wind," "Birth of a Nation," and "Song of the South" are just three of the films analyzed in the book.
Annie Malone is one St. Louisan who had a major impact on cinema. One of the first African American millionaires, Malone used cinema in ways other than the traditional Hollywood view as entertainment.
"She actually commissioned the production of a number of motion pictures that unfortunately don’t survive," Jackson said. The pictures consisted of training videos and industrial films that supplemented Malone's cosmetic business that at its height, had some 75,000 employees, Jackson said.
“She was using motion pictures to advertise her business, help train employees and fundraise," Jackson said.
Although Annie Malone was able to use film to her advantage, overall, African Americans did not fare well with the medium early on. “This is one of the tragedies of the history that the beginnings of the cinema directly coincided with the consolidation of Jim Crow segregation in the United States,” said Jackson. The film industry perpetuated racial stereotypes and caricatures of African Americans.
Another issue was lack of access by African Americans. In the 1930s a number of the successful screenwriters were authors from the South, but while the white William Faulkner achieved great success and the accompanying income, Langston Hughes, an African American, was basically shut out.
“There’s so much richness in American culture across racial lines and it was never fully allowed to emerge on the screen,” Jackson said.
Children’s films were not immune from the depiction of racism either. Even Missouri native Walt Disney was later assailed for films such as “Dumbo” which included racist caricatures. Another Disney film, “Song of the South,” depicted the old South as a wonderful place where slaves were happy on the plantation leading a New York Times critic in his review to say “Put down the mint julep, Mr. Disney,” Jackson said.
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