Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film

Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film

by Allyson Nadia Field, Marsha Gordon

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Although overlooked by most narratives of American cinema history, films made for purposes outside of theatrical entertainment dominated twentieth-century motion picture production. This volume adds to the growing study of nontheatrical films by focusing on the ways filmmakers developed and audiences encountered ideas about race, identity, politics, and community outside the borders of theatrical cinema. The contributors to Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film examine the place and role of race in educational films, home movies, industry and government films, anthropological films, and church films as well as other forms of nontheatrical filmmaking. From filmic depictions of Native Americans and films by 1920s African American religious leaders to a government educational film about the unequal treatment of Latin American immigrants, these films portrayed—for various purposes and intentions—the lives of those who were mostly excluded from the commercial films being produced in Hollywood. This volume is more than an examination of a broad swath of neglected twentieth-century filmmaking; it is a reevaluation of basic assumptions about American film culture and the place of race within it.

Contributors. Crystal Mun-hye Baik, Jasmyn R. Castro, Nadine Chan, Mark Garrett Cooper, Dino Everett, Allyson Nadia Field, Walter Forsberg, Joshua Glick, Tanya Goldman, Marsha Gordon, Noelle Griffis, Colin Gunckel, Michelle Kelley, Todd Kushigemachi, Martin L. Johnson, Caitlin McGrath, Elena Rossi-Snook, Laura Isabel Serna, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Dan Streible, Lauren Tilton, Noah Tsika, Travis L. Wagner, Colin Williamson

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478005605
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/15/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 456
File size: 79 MB
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About the Author

Allyson Nadia Field is Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.

Marsha Gordon is Professor of Film Studies at North Carolina State University.

Jacqueline Najuma Stewart is Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.

Read an Excerpt


"A Vanishing Race"? The Native American Films of J. K. Dixon CAITLIN McGRATH

On November 22, 2014, National Public Radio aired a show titled "Imagined Nations: Depictions of American Indians." Produced as an episode of WAMU's Backstory, the series aimed at giving "historical perspective to the events happening around us today," with this episode focusing on the controversy over the Washington, DC, NFL team's name, the Redskins. The show contextualized the debate by exploring key moments, "taking a long look at how Native peoples have been represented — and misrepresented — in U.S. history." The sixth and penultimate segment of the show, titled "Cigar Store Colossus," detailed the never-completed National American Indian Memorial in New York Harbor proposed in 1913 by Rodman Wanamaker, the son of John Wanamaker, founder of the Wanamaker department stores.

Backstory framed Wanamaker's portrayal of Native Americans as an unequivocal misrepresentation. This viewpoint could well have been informed by a 1979 piece written by William Franz, "The Colossus of Staten Island," echoed in the segment's title. Though he was not mentioned in the show, Wanamaker's public lecturer and filmmaker, J. K. (Joseph Kossuth) Dixon, produced Wanamaker's Native American films and photographs and also championed the memorial. In his discussion of Dixon, Franz exhibits a deep skepticism of his work; he describes, for instance, "bombastic introductory remarks by 'Doctor' Joseph Kossuth Dixon, head of Wanamaker's 'education department' and the leader of his earlier Indian expeditions," implying not only that Dixon was not a doctor but also that the education department was not a serious endeavor.

Franz's assessment of Dixon has been echoed in the work of historians Russel Lawrence Barsh and Alan Trachtenberg. For Barsh, Dixon was a Rasputin figure. He compares Dixon's films of Native Americans to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), echoing Chinua Achebe's influential call to banish such representations from the canon. In his analysis of the various iterations of Hiawatha, Trachtenberg's chapter on Dixon paints him as a charlatan; he notes the mixture of education and display, but reads Dixon's involvement with Native Americans as an "opportunity to act out his impulses as a romancer." This chapter does not deny Dixon's paternalism. The aim is rather to reveal the complexities at work in the intersection of his protoethnography, educational imperatives, Native American advocacy, and involvement in a capitalist enterprise. Dixon was working in the early days of anthropology and ethnography. To dismiss him as a salvage anthropologist because he spoke of "the vanishing race" condemns his images, and the history they contain, to a kind of oblivion. His sentimentality has led to a wholesale rejection of his work, which overlooks the unusual uses of nontheatrical film within Wanamaker's display practices and is more accurately described as an instance of what Ben Singer has termed "ambimodernity": "Modernity is better understood as a heterogenous area of modern and counter-modern impulses, yielding cultural expressions that reflected both ends of the spectrum, along with, and perhaps more frequently, ambivalent or ambiguous positions in between." Further, Dixon's photographs and films have not been appreciated in conjunction with his fight for the rights of Native Americans who served in World War I and his repeated attempts to get Congress to reconsider its stance on extending the benefits and privileges of U.S. citizenship to Native Americans. Dixon's films — and the accompanying illustrated lectures, performances, and displays — were part of a complex system of in-house and traveling entertainment dedicated to an educative and moral goal, and were deployed in his fight for Native American enfranchisement. To tell this history without consideration of nontheatrical media as a tool for public education impoverishes any understanding of why these images were made and how they circulated.

Between 1908 and 1913, Dixon made three photographic and filmmaking expeditions to over 80 Native American communities, visiting 169 different tribes. The resulting 8,000 photographs and 34,000 feet of film were edited into a series of photographic exhibitions, illustrated lectures, and plans for three films — Hiawatha, The Battle of Little Big Horn, and The Last Great Indian Council — with Hiawatha being shown extensively from 1908 through 1913. Researching this massive creative output presents several challenges. Dixon's extant photographs, papers, ephemera, and film fragments are spread among three locations: Indiana University's Mathers Museum, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), and the Smithsonian's Human Studies Film Archive (HSFA), where the remaining film fragments are housed. Many of Dixon's photographs (which include some production stills) have survived and are held at the HSFA and in the Wanamaker collection of the Mathers Museum, while paper materials, which include John and Rodman Wanamaker's correspondence, are in the HSP archives. There were over seventy reels in the Wanamaker collection in the 1920s, ranging from in-house productions of short clips to accompany illustrated lectures, longer freestanding films, and commercially produced (and purchased) educational and fiction films. Susan Applegate Krouse helped process the film fragments now housed at HSFA in 1985 when they were "discovered in a basement in Red Lodge, Montana, wrapped in newspapers from 1911." The length of existing footage is quite close to that of Reel 70 of the Wanamaker catalog, which is described as "cutouts, not be used but to be saved. For File Only. 1,000 feet." Krouse and others at the Smithsonian determined that their footage was likely the outtakes.

These surviving archival materials suggest an evolution of Dixon's position over the course of these three expeditions, over time seeing his films and photographs as impetus and support for conveying the necessity of enfranchisement to the public and the U.S. government. Dixon's involvement with the Wanamakers began in 1907, with his employment as a photographer and lecturer for the country's wealthiest father-son department store magnates. The Wanamakers strove to provide what they described, in one of their oldest slogans, as "More Than Just a Store." This "more" manifested itself in numerous ways, one of which was to serve as a hybrid news outlet and educational resource. The first two expeditions, in 1908 and 1909, seem to have been motivated by this declared desire to bring the world within reach. The final expedition, in 1913, was more focused on Native American citizenship, shortly following the groundbreaking for the ill-fated National American Indian Memorial. The collaboration between department store magnate and filmmaker/public lecturer, and the ensuing films, photographs, and public lectures, reveals an approach to visual media as an educational tool at a time when Native American culture was little understood by the general public. Dixon may not have been an acknowledged part of the burgeoning field of anthropology, but he was keenly aware of visual media's ability to influence public sentiment in matters related to indigenous cultures. In order to understand his awareness of visual media's power, we must account for Dixon's work at the Wanamaker department stores and his earlier work as a lecturer for Kodak.

"A Vast Public Museum": The Wanamaker Stores' Culture of Visual Display

In promotional literature, Wanamaker described one of his stores as "a vast public museum" and the Egyptian Hall, on the third floor where public lectures and performances took place, as "This Splendid Temple ... devoted to the cause of Music and Education." He proclaimed the stores' higher attendance numbers (in comparison to those of other museums or art galleries) were a result of Wanamaker's egalitarian (free) admission policies. Wanamaker's first store, the Grand Depot, was modeled on the architecture of the world's exhibition, and its 1876 opening was timed to coincide with that year's Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, for which Wanamaker served as chairman of the Board of Finance. Wanamaker strove for more than visual similarities to cultural predecessors, however. Company literature proclaimed, "To give people the things they want is not enough for the Wanamaker stores. ... They must be a leader in taste — an educator. ... They go a step farther ... and present exhibitions and lectures by men of national reputation, in Science, History, Literature, Art and Music. ... Educative exhibits of art and life and history have been part of the Wanamaker purpose from the beginning." Wanamaker aspired to create a store culture of uplift and high-class entertainment: education with a touch of wonder and amusement.

But what did a store striving to be a "vast public museum" look like? After the success of the Grand Depot, Wanamaker moved to a new property just down the street, built another store next to it, joined the two, and expanded again. The final building at the corner of Juniper and Market Streets in Philadelphia represented an evolution from the single-story, radial-planned world exhibition model of the Grand Depot toward a multistory Greco-Roman museum, with an open atrium on the ground floor, classical marble columns, and themed auditoriums on the upper levels. These auditoriums, Greek Hall and Egyptian Hall, were flexible spaces that at times displayed merchandise such as ladies' fashions and grand pianos but were increasingly used as lecture halls to hold crowds of two thousand or more. Wanamaker expanded his empire to New York City with the purchase of the former A. T. Stewart Department Store, turning it into a hybrid store-museum, with a permanent exhibition hall, Wanamaker Auditorium, with fixed seating for 1,500.

The Philadelphia store's organizational structure involved what I have divided into three tiers of engagement, each reflecting a more structured and focused educational agenda. Confidence in the power of visual media as an educational tool permeated all aspects of Wanamaker's display practices, from the casual in-house displays to the public lectures to the employee school system. The first tier included large-scale displays on the lower floors that utilized the open space of the main atrium, which was known as the Grand Court. Examples included a morning concert demonstration of an early phonograph in 1907, or the celebration of John Wanamaker's birthday in 1911, when over ten thousand guests crowded into the Grand Court. On this occasion, a show of lantern slides and films celebrating his lifetime achievements were projected on an enormous screen draped over the upper balcony.

Unifying this tier were slightly smaller thematic exhibits dotted throughout the store, which customers might happen upon without explicitly seeking them out. For example, the third and fourth floors contained replicas of the birthplace cottage of Robert Burns, King Edward's coronation chair and crown, a series of wax tableaux depicting the French Revolution, and a Japanese gate. These displays were often tied into celebratory days during the store's Anniversary Month of March, which had a different theme each day — Paris Day, Scottish Day, and so on.

The second tier consisted of daily illustrated lectures that usually took place in the Egyptian or Greek halls. These lectures utilized lantern slides, were free and open to the public, and covered topics from architecture to zoology. They were led either by local academics from area institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania or Temple University or by famous authors or experts. Once Dixon was hired, he became the head lecturer and began incorporating films.

The third tier concerned the formal education of the store employees, which took place on the upper floors and roof of the store. The store school began by offering classes for young boys and girls who worked on the shop floor and expanded over time into the accredited University of Trade and Applied Commerce, with classes not only on topics relevant to the store's operation but also on subjects that contributed to a well-rounded arts and science degree. By 1911, over 7,500 students had passed through the Wanamaker classrooms, and a significant portion of employees received some degree of education from the twenty-four full-time teachers employed in the Wanamaker system. Film was also integral to this final tier. In a letter dated June 14, 1916, to film producer George Kleine, H. H. Kaeuper, director of education at the Philadelphia store, wrote, "We are particularly desirous of finding films that will effectively supplement classroom work in history, geography, and general school and commercial subjects." Dixon was most heavily involved in the second and third tiers, focusing on the role of films and photographs in the transmission of knowledge. It was from this position as in-house lecturer and educator that Dixon traveled to capture images — both film and photographic — of Native Americans.

It is not clear who initiated the first expedition, though the Wanamakers had long expressed an interest in Native Americans, beginning with John Wanamaker's trip west for a restorative cure in his youth. As he told his biographer, "Sad was it to witness their desolation and listen to the story of their suffering wrongs — Oh! That their history could be blotted from the page of remembrance for Alas! It is a bitter reflection upon the humanity and christianity [sic] of the White Man." In 1900, John Wanamaker began donating large sums of money to the University of Pennsylvania Museum to fund a series of expeditions. Franz Boas was consulting with the museum at the time, and Wanamaker became interested in funding research into Native American culture, donating a "rare Indian totem" in 1901. In November 1903, a display of Wanamaker's collection of Native American items was announced by the Penn Museum, and in 1905 he donated his entire private collection of over three hundred items. A subsequent, larger exhibition showcasing the bequest opened the same year.

In the first two expeditions in 1908 and 1909 to the Crow Reservation in Montana, Dixon photographed and shot footage for three films. The nonfiction short The Last Great Indian Council attempted to gather all the most senior Indian chiefs to be photographed and filmed. The film of Custer's Last Stand, The Battle of Little Big Horn, was part of the popular historical reenactment genre in early cinema, functioning as a kind of newsreel by providing the public with visuals to match the accounts in print, though Dixon was dissatisfied with the footage, and it was never edited into a completed film. Dixon engaged a number of Native Americans who had been at the original battle more than thirty years earlier, to provide a measure of authenticity as well as to move away from using white actors in redface, a widely employed practice. For his most popular film, Hiawatha, a film adaptation of Longfellow's epic poem, Dixon again employed Native Americans rather than whites in makeup, a point he made sure to promote. Upon Dixon's return after both the 1908 and 1909 expeditions, displays of ephemera, photographic exhibits, film screenings for schoolchildren, and a children's primer on the story of Hiawatha were produced in the Philadelphia and New York stores as tools for his form of spectacular pedagogy.

Since only fragments of these films remain (in the case of Hiawatha, only stills), it is difficult to assess the relationship between Dixon and his actors or the quality of the films themselves. Surviving descriptions of his multimedia performances, scripts of his lectures, and outtakes and production stills, give a sense of the final product and the filmmaking process, however. All three films, though they range from documentary to reenactment to fictional film, exhibit a romanticism typical for the period, as well as moments of engagement with the Native Americans as individuals. Dixon worked with Native American photographer Richard Throssel, and he did not shy away from documenting Native Americans as modern contemporaries, as with his photo of Crow Chief Plenty Coups driving a car. Publicly, Dixon focused on representing Native American culture as under threat, but there are photographs and glimpses in the films of a more complicated truth.


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Table of Contents

Note on the Companion Website  ix
Foreword. Giving Voice, Taking Voice: Nonwhite and Nontheatrical / Jacqueline Najuma Stewart  xi
Acknowledgments  xxv
Introduction / Allyson Nadia Field and Marsha Gordon  1
1. "A Vanishing Race"? The Native American Films of J. K. Nixon / Caitlin McGrath  29
2. "Regardless of Race, Color, or Creed": Filming the Henry Street Settlement Visiting Nurse Service, 1924–1933 / Tanya Goldman  51
3. "I'll See You in Church": Local Films in African American Communities, 1924–1962 / Martin L. Johnson  71
4. The Politics of Vanishing Celluloid: Fort Rupert (1951) and the Kwakwaka'wakw in American Ethnographic Film / Colin Williamson  92
5. Red Star/Black Star: The Early Career of Film Editor Hortense "Tee" Beveridge, 1948–1968 / Walter Forsberg  112
6. Charles and Ray Eames's Day of the Dead (1957): Mexican Folk Art, Educational Film and Chicana/o Art / Colin Gunkel  136
7. Ever-Widening Horizons? The National Urban League and the Pathologization of Blackness in A Morning for Jimmy (1960) / Michelle Kelley  157
8. "A Touch of the Orient": Negotiating Japanese American Identity in The Challenge (1957) / Todd Kushigemachi and Dino Everett  175
9. "I Have My Choice": Behind Every Good Man (1967) and the Black Queer Subject in American Nontheatrical Film / Noah Tsika  194
10. Televising Watts: Joe Saltzman's Black on Black (1968) on KNXT / Joshua Glick  217
11. "A New Sense of Black Awareness"? Navigating Expectations in The Black Cop (1969) / Travis L. Wagner and Mark Garrett Cooper  236
12. "Don't Be a Segregationist: Program Films for Everyone": The New York Public Library's Film Library and Youth Film Workshops / Elena Rossi-Snook and Lauren Tilton  253
13. Teenage Moviemaking in the Lower East Side: The Rivington Street Film Club, 1966–1974 / Noelle Griffis  271
14. Ro-Revus Talks about Race: South Carolina Malnutrition and Parasite Films, 1968–1975 / Dan Streible  290
15. Government-Sponsored Film and Latinidad: Voice of La Raza (1973) / Laura Isabel Serna  313
16. An Aesthetics of Multiculturalism: Asian American Assimilation and the Learning Corporation of America's Many Americans Series (1970–1982) / Nadine Chan  333
17. "The Right Kind of Family": Memories to Light and the Home Movie as Racialized Technology / Crystal Mun-Hye Baik  353
18. Black Home Movies: Time to Represent / Jasmyn R. Castro  372
Selected Bibliography  392
Contributors  401

What People are Saying About This

Rhea L. Combs

“This collection of essays—with its range of topics and archival discoveries—is essential reading for anyone committed to, or even remotely interested in, the study of cinema. Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film uncovers buried treasures that are part of the long-standing tradition of moving image storytelling—a tradition that did not always aspire to mainstream Hollywood recognition, but succeeded alongside it.”

Shola Lynch

Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film illuminates what is hidden right in front of us. Like cable or YouTube today, nontheatrical films have left evidence of a broader expression beyond commercial films and examining them through the lens of race gives us a peek into a less homogenous and more realistic world. This collection of essays reminds us to reclaim this space as culturally valuable and, in a sense, take the power back by shifting perspective to explore an overlooked reality, not a marginal one.”

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