Fag: NORAM 4505 Movies and American Culture

Oppgavetype: Hjemmeeksamen

Tidspunkt: Høsten 2003



2. Movies effectively defined what it meant to be “American” in the 20th century. Describe the way America and Americans were portrayed throughout the 20th century in several films. In what ways did ethnicity play a part in defining the dream and the reality of American life and identity?

In the beginning of the 20th century, the USA emerged as a world power economically, politically, militarily and culturally. Later, the USA became the world power. In fact, the 20th century is often referred to as “the American century”, a phrase first coined by media mogul Henry Luce as early as 1941. The 20th century also saw the emergence of popular culture and modern mass media, due to a variety of economic, technological and cultural reasons. Motion pictures, radio, tabloid newspapers and magazines, comics, television and the Internet changed the concepts of communication and cultural expression in a profound way. America played a very significant part in the invention, development and distribution of these media. In the US, in the first half of the century, the most popular, dominant and influential of the new media was the cinema, which remained a major force of cultural and financial importance also in the latter half of the century, when its cousin television became the number one mass medium. Throughout the 20th century, American movies were popular all over the world, and largely reflected and influenced the way America and Americans were perceived both within the US and abroad. What kind of notions, ideas and images about America and Americans were expressed in movies? Naturally, no time period, studio or genre presented one view on these subjects. In this essay, I will describe how a handful of selected films portrayed America and Americans, and discuss what role ethnicity played in this respect. I have chosen films of critical and popular acclaim and of historical and cultural significance from and about different time periods in order to present a multi-faceted description.

            One of the most important films of all time is D.W. Griffith’s momentous Birth of a Nation from 1915. It was the first large-scale epic of the silver screen and established film as an art form. It brought the cinema respect and attracted the white middle and upper middle classes to the movie theaters. Its cinematography and narrative technique influenced filmmakers for decades to come, and set a new standard for film production. However, it is also one of the most controversial films ever made, as it advocates white supremacy and hails the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. It tells the story of the lives of two white families, the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons, during the Civil War and the Reconstruction. It portrays America as a better place to live before “[T]he bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion,” as the film’s first caption claims. But as long as these Africans are kept as slaves, America is still a great country. The film sharply divides the American people into two categories. On the one side, there are the pure whites, and on the other side, the impure blacks. Everyone with a trace of black genes is considered black. In fact, the offspring of interracial breeding, the mulatto, is the worst kind of human being, since the mulatto possesses the fatal and dangerous combination of “white” intelligence to wish for things and evil “black” lusts and desires. America is therefore better off with white people governing. The country’s problems arise when abolitionists start fighting for the freeing of the slaves. This leads to the Civil War, which is a terrible tragedy, as it pits Northern whites against Southern whites. The emancipation of the slaves overturns social order and institutes anarchic conditions. The whites of the South are portrayed as helpless victims of black injustice and cruelty. Northern whites also experience difficulties with ill-behaving blacks. But the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan saves the South from black oppression. The Klan also symbolizes the reunion of the former enemies of North and South, as whites from both regions find a common enemy in blacks. The new “nation” being born is this very union of whites defending “their Aryan birthright”. A crucial point in the film is when equal rights champion Stoneman realizes that the mulatto Lynch wants to marry his daughter. He strongly disapproves of this proposal, which goes to show that he as well sees blacks and mulattoes as inferior people. But this is portrayed as a healthy realization of the truth, not as an unhealthy double standard. A caption in the film claims that it is “an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” However, the film’s presentation of history is grossly inaccurate and biased, and the depiction of blacks is one-dimensional and caricatured. Blacks are lazy, primitive, brutal, dishonest and megalomaniac, if we are to believe Birth of a Nation. The film condemns equal rights for whites and blacks, because this would undermine law and order. To be white is the only chance one has of being a good American, according to the film.

            One of the many great films to come out in 1939 was Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It was one of a number of socially oriented films by Capra in which the protagonist, typically an idealistic, individualistic “little man” with lots of integrity, fights evil and corruption and restores American values. The film tells the story of a boy scout leader who becomes a US Senator and discovers and effectively defeats corruption and dishonesty. We are presented a picture of America in which something seems to be terribly wrong. Archetypical values like democracy, individual effort and honesty seem to have disappeared completely. American society is in the hands of materialistic cynics who use social and political institutions and media only to advance their own personal interests. The “machine”, a very real phenomenon in American political life in the late 1800s and early 1900s, controls just about everything in society, and represents the greatest threat to traditional American ideals. This reality is what Smith sets out to change. America was great once, and it can be again, he believes. Many of the larger-than-life American symbolic texts of national identity, such as the Decleration of Independence, the Constitution and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, are used to show the ideas on the basis of which national ideology was created, ideas that Smith adores and wishes to reinstate. Smith appears to be inspired by Lincoln’s phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” more than anything else. However, Smith is not able to change things all on his own. He needs the support and inspiration of Saunders to be able to fight for what he thinks is right. This is one of many examples that show how the film calls out for a more communal spirit, and the movie is also a plea for more neighborly and responsible people to rule the country. Smith eventually succeeds in reaching out to Paine, but the ending of the film is not entirely conclusive, as there is no guarantee that Boss Taylor will change his ways. So America is not necessarily saved from evil impulses. One of the messages of the movie is that this fight against evil is a continuous struggle that the American people must fight day after day in order to prevail as the greatest democracy on Earth. Many politicians of the day criticized it for attacking America and its institutions, but in retrospect, hardly any movie of the 20th century approved of traditional American ideals more insistently and intelligently than Mr. Smith did. The people in this film are also more or less divided into two groups, if not as sharply as in Birth of a Nation. There is the authentic, decent and altruistic kind typified in Smith, and there is the insensitive, impersonal and egoistical kind typified in Taylor. But this division is not absolute, since people can change their attitudes and lives if they want to, as Saunders and Paine eventually do. The central characthers of Mr. Smith are all white. This is not suprising, considering the political setting of the film. There were no non-white Senators at the time. White people generally ruled the country. The film does not comment upon this fact, it does not say that it is wrong or right, it is simply a reflection of reality. But some might argue that in not commenting upon it, the movie silently condones the present situation.

            A cycle of mid-50s films treated the then relatively recent development of oppositional teenagers. Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause from 1955 is considered the most successful and important of these (others include The Wild One and Blackboard Jungle). The film deals with three teenagers who find society alienating and oppressive, but who find a sense of community together. It made an icon of James Dean, its main protagonist, forever. Mike Nichols’s The Graduate was one of the two films that initiated the second golden period of American cinema in 1967 (the other one was Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde). This is also a film of iconic proportions, and is about a promising graduate student who is seduced by an older woman and ends up eloping with her daughter. Despite their differences - Rebel is a drama, Graduate is a satire, for one thing - both these films deal with young, maladjusted people. The films portray America and young Americans in a totally different manner than how bland TV-series and “beach” movies of that time does. More or less, these films also divide the people they portray into two categories, the establishment (the parents) and the rebellion (the youths). This is often referred to as a generation gap. The films’ youths come from white, suburban, middle class homes, have never experienced any “real” problems (like poverty, war or mental or physichal disablements), and could probably easily follow the paths their parents recommend, if their goal was to become successful in the eyes of the establishment. But somehow the material affluence and prosperity of postwar America does not appeal to or satisfy them. They are frustrated with their lives, and they cannot look to their parents for role models. As a consequence of this, they live in rootlessness and restlessness. They do not seem to be concerned too much with the future, somehow it does not involve them. Nonetheless, they apparently search for an authentic identity. Frustrated with how the older generation fails to understand their problems, the youths in Rebel turn to violence and dangerous racing games, and two people are killed. The end of the movie is not entirely conclusive as to the question whether a permanent reunion of the generations has been established. But the romantic coupling of Jim and Judy and the understanding smiles of Jim’s parents strongly indicate that (at least some) surrender of the rebellion to the establishment has taken place, and that they more or less will find and accept their place in society. The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock indulges in an extra-marital affair with Mrs. Robinson, but later falls in love with her daughter Elaine and elopes with her. The ending here is far more ambiguous than in Rebel. Even though the elopement is a clear break with the establishment, we cannot be sure that Benjamin and Elaine have found what they are looking for. At first, they smile and laugh at their defiance, but then they look apart and grow serious and the movie fades. Have they run away together or have they just run away? The search for meaning and substance is destined to go on, it seems. Looking back, one sees that many of these movies’ issues are what every postwar generation of youths seems to have struggled with, but these movies spoke to the first two waves of postwar teenagers in a powerful way, and remain fascinating documents of how social trends have been reflected in movies.

            Spike Lee’s Malcolm X from 1992 was one of many films dealing with historical people and events that came out in the early nineties. It is a biopic about the charismatic, but controversial, 1960s civil rights champion born Malcolm Little who converted to the Nation of Islam, or Black Muslims, and changed his name to Malcolm X. He articulated the emerging militancy of the civil rights movement, and remains a significant figure in the history of African-Americans. The beginning of this movie gives a picture of an America in which being white is considered far superior to being black, by blacks also. It shows how blacks strive after being as “white” as possible, among other things by conking their hair. Malcolm is one of these people at the beginning of the film, when he is a young street hustler. Not only is being white an ideal for these black men, but sleeping with white women is the ideal sexual relationship for them. Sleeping with a white woman has a strong symbolic meaning, of success, power and freedom, and Malcolm engages in several such relationships. The film describes America at this point as a generally stable society, in which both blacks and whites more or less accept the situation. But the times are changing. Malcolm’s awareness of the unjust treatment of the black race eventually grows, and his subsequent transformation is only one example of the changing attitudes of millions of black people. America is in upheaval, and the civil rights movement is on the march. Blacks will no longer accept being seen as second-rate citizens. There is no clear-cut division of people in this movie. There are white people who oppose the civil rights movement, white people who support it, black people who advocate non-violent demonstrations, black people who advocate black supremacy, black people who advocate black separatism etc. Malcolm X belongs to the latter kind, at least for a short period. He later modifies his views on black separatism, and spends the last months of his life fighting for racial justice and equality. The film starts with the famous amateur videotape of LAPD officers beating up Rodney King and ends with scenes from American elementary classrooms in which pupils repeat the phrase “I am Malcolm X” and shots of contemporary African-American public figures who wear baseball caps with the “X” logo from the film. Lee does this to show that the legendary figure and his teachings still have relevance in American society. Malcolm is portrayed as symbol of African-American pride, a pride which must not be forgotten. The film has been critized of some things, for example of portraying Malcolm as a hero even in his hustler and gangster days, and of being misogynistic, both when telling about Malcolm’s hustler days and his preacher years.

            One of the last films to come out of the 20th century was Sam Mendes’ American Beauty in 1999. It immediately received enormous attention and became a favorite of audiences and critics alike. It is a deeply black satirical drama about several white, suburban people who find their lives unfulfilling and unsatisfactory. The film’s subject is what Mendes takes to be the hollowness of American suburban living. That the American Beauty roses that appear throughout the film - rich in color, but scentless - are meant to serve as a metaphor for suburban lives, has been pointed out by many critics. In Beauty, no longer are maladjustment problems restricted to concern only the young people, as in Rebel Without a Cause and The Graduate. But even though both the parent generation and the youth generation feel alienated by society, they are also alienated by each other. There is no inter-generational understanding, as the sources of alienation are different. The parents are alienated because they cannot seem to find meaning in life, the youths because of their parents’ inauthenticity and facades. Lester Burnham, the main protagonist, is having a mid-life crisis. He is about to be fired from his job, but quits it instead, he has lost contact with his wife Carolyn, and his daughter Jane loathes him. Nothing seems to be important or give meaning to him any more. In his disillusionment, he starts desiring a friend of his daughter, Angela, and smoking pot with the young boy next door, Ricky. His wife indulges in an extra-marital affair, and their daughter hooks up with Ricky. The neighbor couple, the Fitts, is also remarkably dysfunctional beneath the surface. The relationship between Lester and Angela proves disastrous, and Lester is eventually killed by his deeply disturbed and sexually frustrated neighbor. That the only relationship that seems to have a future in this film is the one between Jane and Ricky is significant. These youths are not at all concerned with maintaining a facade of success and bliss, they seem to be real, honest and authentic, and they are alienated by their parents’ inauthenticity. And this lack of authenticity in American society, suburban society at least, is probably what the film regards as America’s greatest problem.

            I have shown how a film can be used to advocate in favor of a system of racial injustice and how a film can be used to applaud the defiance of such a system, as do Birth of a Nation and Malcolm X, respectively. I have discussed how the portrayal and understanding of social maladjustment have developed, and I have described in what ways Mr. Smith Goes to Washington defined and argued in favor of American ideals and ideas. Collectively, I have given some examples of how 20th century films portrayed America and Americans.



I have read many books and articles about American movie history, American history and the specific movies discussed in this essay that have shaped my understanding of these subjects. Below is a list of the literature that has probably contributed to my interpretation and evaluation of American movies of the 20th century that I have read recently.


·      Boyer, Paul S. 1999. Promises to Keep - The United States Since World War II Second Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company.


·      Carney, Raymond. 1986. American Vision - The Films of Frank Capra. Cambridge University Press.


·      Karney, Robyn. 2002. Cinema Year by Year 1894-2000. Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc.


·      Mintz, Steven and Roberts, Randy. 1993. “Preface and Introduction”, in Hollywood’s America. United States History Through Its Films. Brandywine Press.


·      Sklar, Robert. 1994. Movie-Made America. Vintage Books.





·      American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham), Annette Bening (Carolyn Burnham), Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts) and Mena Suvari (Angela Hayes). DreamWorks, 1999.


·      Birth of a Nation. Dir. D.W. Griffith. Perf. Lillian Gish (Elsie Stoneman), Henry B. Walthall (Colonel Ben Cameron), Mae Marsh (Flora Cameron), Miriam Cooper (Margaret Cameron) and Ralph Lewis (The Hon Austin Stoneman). Epoch, 1915.


·      Graduate, The. Dir. Mike Nichols. Perf. Dustin Hoffman (Benjamin Braddock), Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Robinson), Katharine Ross (Elaine Robinson), William Daniels (Mr. Braddock) and Murray Hamilton (Mr. Robinson). UA/Embassy, 1967.


·      Malcolm X. Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Denzel Washington (Malcolm X), Angela Bassett (Betty Shabazz), Albert Hall (Baines), Al Freeman Jr. (Elijah Muhammed) and Delroy Lindo (West Indian Archie). 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks/Marvin Worth Productions, 1992.


·      Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Dir. Frank Capra. Perf. James Stewart (Jefferson Smith), Jean Arthur (Clarissa Saunders), Claude Rains (Sen. Joseph Paine), Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor) and Guy Kibbee (Gov. Hubert Hopper). Columbia, 1939.


·      Rebel Without a Cause. Dir. Nicholas Ray. Perf. James Dean (Jim Stark), Natalie Wood (Judy), Sal Mineo (Plato), Jim Backus (Jim’s father) and Ann Doran (Jim’s mother). Warner Bros., 1955.