The (In)visibility of Race in Twentieth-Century Crime Films
Summary and Keywords
Crime films defy precise definition. This category includes traditional courtroom films like Witness for the Prosecution (1957), detective films like Gone Girl (2014), prison films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), comedies like My Cousin Vinny (1992) or Find Me Guilty (2006), gangster films like The Godfather series (1972, 1974, 1990), and even musicals like Chicago (2002). Thus crime films provide an almost limitless variety of plots, characters, and settings. Adopting a very broad definition of what constitutes a “crime film”, the representation of race in crime films throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries is examined.
During much of the early and mid-20th century, crime on American Main Street silver screens was largely a white phenomenon. The absence of people considered nonwhite from early crime films is unsurprising because “whiteness is positioned as the default category, the center or the assumed norm on which everything else in American society is based. Under this conception, white is often defined more through what it is not than what it is.” Racial outsiders like African and Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and other persons considered nonwhite were not featured on America’s movie screens. If they appeared at all in early crime films it was as marginal stereotypical characters.
Stereotyping, when used in film, is designed “to quickly convey information about characters and to instill in audiences expectations about characters’ actions.” During the early days of American films nonwhites were encoded with negative, often criminal, stereotypes. In silent films like Birth of a Nation (1915), for example, African American men were depicted as rapists and violent brutes. Mexicans in The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908) and Guns and Greasers (1918) were depicted as criminals. Silent films like The Massacre (1912) and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913) portrayed Native Americans as lawless savages, an image reinforced throughout the 20th century by western films. In The Cheat (1915) Japanese male immigrants were depicted as wily sexual predictors. The stereotypes attributed to ethnic Chinese were slightly different and more exaggerated. Films like The Heathen Chinese and the Sunday School Teacher (1904) and The Yellow Peril (1908) demonized Chinese immigrants as villainous predictors. In episode 13 of the film serial The Exploits of Elaine (1914) the protagonist, Pearl, “[t]rapped in a lair of Chinese devil worshipers . . . is spared rape, a fate worse than death, in favor of ritual sacrifice to an Oriental demon who demands a bride ‘blond, beautiful and not of our race’.” Although nonwhites’ conduct was criminalized in these films, the films themselves were not crime films.
Crime Films in the 1930s
The emergence of American crime films corresponds to the crippling economic distress caused by the Great Depression (1929–1939). Gangster films of the 1930s like Little Cesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932) were especially popular. Gangster films “portray gangsters as desperate men in a desperate hour, victims of a society that stresses wealth and status while failing to provide working-class men with the means to achieve these ends . . . [that] turned criminals into heroes” (Rafter, 2006, p. 20). Unsurprisingly, economically hard-hit American film-going audiences strongly identified with the “economic disadvantages and dreams of wealth during hard times” articulated by many film criminals (Rafter, 2006, p. 20).
But the criminals in these films were largely European ethnics. In a sense their ethnicity often functioned like older notions of race that treated ethnic differences as racial differences. For example, the classic gangster film Little Cesar portrayed Italian Americans as a criminal menace. Public Enemy depicted another ethnic group, Irish Americans, as gangsters, reinforcing negative stereotypes about the Irish. Initially both groups of immigrants, especially Irish Catholic, were not considered white in the sense of being assimilated into the dominant culture, when they arrived. Irish Catholic immigrants were commonly called “white niggers” although these references had diminished by the 1930s with more diverse representations of Irish Americans in film (Benshoff & Griffin, 2009, pp. 56–58).
The use of European ethnics as criminals remained a persistent practice in crime films until the adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC or Code). When the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous 1915 decision, Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, suggested that films were not subject to First Amendment protection, states began to freely censor films. Film studios followed suit, developing the Code in 1930. It took several more years before the Code was vigorously enforced, after which certain subjects were banned from the screen.
The Code prohibited “willful offense to any nation, race or creed.” (Vaughn, 1990, p. 44, n. 13). It also discouraged the use of racial and ethnic slurs. While this provision seemed designed to minimize the stereotyping of European ethnics, the goal was not racial equality. The MPPC prohibited the portrayal of miscegenation on-screen, reflecting the laws in many states outlawing interracial marriage. Many of these laws remained in effect until the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia (1967). The Code’s prohibitions also strongly discouraged films that showed sympathy for criminals or glorified crime (Green & Karolides, 2014, p. 360).
Proponents of the Code expected that white ethnic-linked criminality would disappear, and with few exceptions, this occurred. Especially after World War II, crime films tended to portray criminals as “unemployed white Americans, without religious, professional, labor union or other affiliations” (Clarens, 1980, p. 270). Still the representation of Italian Americans as gangsters persisted, especially into the late 20th century with film classics like The Godfather (1972), its sequels, and Goodfellas (1990). But these films had Italian American directors and were not the only representations of Italian Americans in American films (Benshoff & Griffin, 2009). Nevertheless, some Italian Americans objected to these films because of their negative depictions of Italian Americans as gangsters. This sentiment persisted so when NBC aired The Godfather Saga in 1977 it was preceded by a disclaimer which read:
The Godfather is a fictional account of a small group of ruthless criminals. It would be erroneous and unfair to suggest that they are representative of any particular group” (Cortés, 1984, p. 69).
Notwithstanding the more complete assimilation of European ethnics after World War II, crime on the big screen remained largely a white domain.
White Actors, Nonwhite Characters
Nonwhite characters seldom appeared in early crime films other than as token characters, usually servants, consigned to small supporting roles. But in Bullets or Ballots (1936) black actor Louise Beavers integrated the cast playing Nellie La Fleur, a Harlem numbers racket boss. More often when Hollywood films featured nonwhite characters white actors played those parts. An example is the transitional and the highly improbable crime film Chinatown Nights (1929), a film that started as a silent film but ended up as a talkie when it was released. The featured actors were white. Chinese American actors appeared only in uncredited roles. The exclusion of Chinese Americans from any meaningful roles before or behind the screen might explain the film’s highly improbable plot. A white Tong leader, Chuck Riley, was at war with a Chinese American Tong leader, Boston Charlie. Boston Charlie was played by the white actor Warner Oland, in “yellow-face.” The film demonized Chinese American Tong societies as the equivalent of gangs, a popular stereotype, as opposed to their real purpose as mutual aid associations.
The use of white actors in Chinatown Nights to play nonwhite major characters was not uncommon. The major black characters in D. W. Griffith’s groundbreaking and controversial film Birth of a Nation (1915) were played by white actors in “blackface.” The casting of white actors to play nonwhite characters is an example of role segregation where nonwhite actors “are, by virtue of their race, ineligible for certain kinds of roles, while white actors are able to move ‘horizontally’ into even those roles racially defined” as nonwhite (Wiegman, 1998, p. 163). Another example of role segregation during this era is Bordertown (1935), which features the character Johnny Ramirez, a Mexican American lawyer gone bad. Typical of the time, Ramirez is played by the German-born American actor Paul Muni in “brown-face.” The appearance of a nonwhite major character in Bordertown is best explained by the film’s location and story line, a small town on the Mexico–U.S. border where Mexican Americans are numerous.
Crime films often take place in large cities, considered by many Americans early in the 20th century to be “the locus of crime and corruption.” Cities were thought to be a “moral pollutant” (Clarens, 1980, p. 20). But when crime films moved to less populated areas, occasionally nonwhite characters appeared. There are, for example, black characters played by African American actors in John Ford’s film Judge Priest (1934). Judge Priest is about a former Confederate soldier, William “Billy” Priest (Will Rogers), now a district judge in a small Kentucky town, who presides over a murder trial that involves his niece. The African American characters, however, fit the stereotypical positions assigned to African American actors during this era. There is the happy singing mammy, Aunt Dilsey, who works for Judge Priest. Dilsey is played by the black actor Hattie McDaniels, who five years later won an academy award for her role as a mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939). In addition, there is the dim-witted, shuffling and subservient Jeff Poindexter, played by African American actor Steppin Fetchit (aka Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry), the first distinctive black personality on the American screen. In the opening scene of the film the audience sees Poindexter asleep in the courtroom as the prosecutor accuses him of vagrancy and chicken theft—a stereotypical characterization. Poindexter is befriended by Judge Priest as a source of amusement. Since the two African American characters in Judge Priest are there for “local color” and not as major characters, there is no need for “blackface” characters.
Like Bordertown, the appearance of nonwhite characters in Judge Priest is best explained by the film’s location and storyline. The presence of African Americans in the film seems warranted by the film’s location, Kentucky, and time frame, after the Civil War. Ford takes great pains, however, to portray the former confederate soldier, Judge Priest, as benevolent to all, including former slaves like Dilsey and Poindexter.
1930s and 1940s Asian Detectives Films
Although Chinatown Night was released before the adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code, white actors continued to play nonwhite characters in “yellow-face” after the adoption of the Code. A notable example is the popular Charlie Chan detective film series that ran from the late 1920s through the early 1940s. Chan, a Chinese American detective from Hawaii created by Earl Derr Biggers, was a rare nonwhite crime film protagonist during this era. His character also was at odds with an established film stereotype of “Asians as bogeymen and villainous predators who challenged the very essence of Caucasian purity” (Huang, 2011, p. 195).
Somewhat ironically, Japan-born actors played Chan in two early films, The House with a Key (starring George Kuwa in 1926) and The Chinese Parrot (starring Kamiyama Sojin in 1927). The last film with an Asian Chan was Behind the Curtain (starring E. L. Park in 1929). It is noteworthy that in these films Chan was a minor character and this may explain why Asians actors were used. The portrayal of the Chan character in these films “almost killed off Chan’s Hollywood career” (Huang, 2011, p. 195).
In Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935), the Swedish American Warner Oland actor plays Chan in “yellow-face.” Film audiences accustomed to white actors in “blackface” playing African Americans readily accepted a more subservient Chan. This Chan was a reassuring contrast to stereotypical “Yellow Peril” represented by the villain Fu Manchu. The “yellow-faced” Chan became so popular that when Oland died in 1938 he was replaced with other white actors, first Scottish American Sidney Toler and finally Roland Winters.
Charlie Chan in Egypt is a notable film because the Chinese American detective was paired with Steppin Fetchit. Fetchit/Perry appeared as the fez-wearing, seemingly dimwitted, shuffling “archetypal coon” manservant Snowshoes. The pairing of Chan with Snowshoes is made all the more fantastical by the manservant’s backstory. Snowshoes comes to Egypt because a fortune-teller in Mississippi told him that his ancestors came from that country. In other words, Snowshoes is a demeaning comic figure. Hollywood deployed different strategies to demean African Americans in film, including showcasing black actors “in comic rather than dramatic roles, isolated from a black community” (Gates, 2013, p. 23). Like the depiction of Asian detectives as non-assertive and asexual, Hollywood during this era denied nonwhite actors “the opportunity to perform heroic action, and share the centre of the narrative with a white star” (Gates, 2013, p. 23). Thus the contrast between the seemingly dimwitted Snowshoes and the super-sharp Chan, between “‘darkie’ humor and ‘Chink’ wisdom,” is played for laughs at the expense of both parties (Huang, 2011, p. 240).
Despite the overt racism in the depiction of Snowshoes and Chan, one scholar suggests that there is something subversive about Charlie Chan in Egypt: “[T]he whole film pitches colored–black, yellow, Arab–men against Anglo-European whites, with the former united by their interest in truth and justice and the latter condemned by their insatiable hunger for material wealth” (Huang, 2011, p. 242). This interpretation has some basis in reality. Many American filmgoers may have considered the Arab characters in the film as exotic others—nonwhites. During this era the racial status of Arabs in the United States was contested; they were not considered European because many Americans believed that Arabs could not assimilate into American society (Benshoff & Griffin, 2009).
Further supporting the subversive interpretation of the film is that Snowshoes, despite his dimwittedness, manages to call the police and assist in the capture of the criminals. In some ways the partnership between Chan and Snowshoes foreshadows the buddy pairing of Chinese actor Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, an African American, in the crime-action film Rush Hour (1998) and its sequels. The failure of many commentators to characterize the alliance between Chan, Snowshoes, and Arabs as a nonwhite alliance also may be the result of white actors playing the part of Chan and the Arab characters. Thus to the American film audience only Snowshoes was nonwhite.
As the Charlie Chan film series evolved in the 1940s after Oland’s death, nonwhites appeared in these films more regularly. Later films featured Chan’s “Americanized” sons in minor roles. These characters were played primarily by Asian American actors. In 1944 Chan film audiences were introduced to a black taxi driver, who later becomes Chan’s chauffer, Birmingham Brown. Brown, as played by Mantan Moreland, was a slightly less demeaning imitation of Fetchit/Perry’s earlier depiction in Charlie Chan in Egypt. Nevertheless, Brown bugged and rolled his eyes, mugging in coonish fashion and serving more as comic relief than serious character. Chan’s sons and Birmingham Brown came across as cowardly, bumbling amateur detectives.
The presence of a black servant to a Chinese detective from Hawaii was so unremarkable that it was not mentioned in reviews of the film, except an occasional reference to the “hilarious” eye rolling of Moreland or Fetchit/Perry. Perhaps the presence of African Americans as servants seemed unremarkable because the audiences knew that the actor playing Chan was white and in this era the presence of black servants to whites was not unusual in films or in life. What African Americans found offensive about the servant characters as played by Moreland and Fetchit/Perry is exactly what white audiences loved. Black servants in these films were what Donald Bogle calls the “white master’s darling pets” (Bogle, 2016, p. 37).
Two other detective films during this era are worth noting because the detective characters were played by Chinese American actors. In Daughter of Shanghai (1937), directed by Robert Florey, Philip Ahn plays Kim Lee, an assimilated Chinese American agent for the Department of Justice investigating a smuggling criminal enterprise. Lee teams up with Lan Ying Lin, played by Anna May Wong. Lin, the daughter of a murdered merchant, turns amateur detective to help solve her father’s murder and capture the smugglers.
In Phantom of Chinatown (1940), directed by Phil Rosen, Keye Luke, known for his roles as Number One Son in the Charlie Chan series, plays Jimmy Lee Wong a San Francisco police detective. The film also features Lotus Long, a Japanese Hawaiian actor, as Wen Len, the secretary of a murdered white explorer. One commentator characterizes this film as “remarkable for . . . the period” because it not only has an Asian American actor as the lead, but also “attempt[s] to expose American stereotypes of Asian American culture” (Gates, 2013, pp. 29–30).
In each film a romance develops between Asian American characters, undercutting the asexuality usually attributed to Asian men in films, and normalizing romance between Asian Americans. One scholar argues that the characters in these two films were constructed as Chinese “Americans” as opposed to the construction of Charlie Chan as foreign-born. She speculates that American-born Chinese detectives “were considered most appealing and less threatening when assimilated” (Gates, 2013, p. 20). Unfortunately, neither film is very good. Not only are the plots weak, but the acting is undistinguished.
The popularity of the “yellow-face” Chan crime fighter influenced the screen debut in the late 1930s of the Mr. Wong detective film series (1938–1940), which featured a Chinese detective played by Boris Karloff, and the Japanese detective film series Mr. Moto (1937–1939). Similarly, Moto was played by Peter Lorre in “yellow-face.” Like Chan, Moto spoke in heavily accented English, which emphasized his foreignness.
Ironically Charlie Chan, Mr. Wong, and Mr. Moto were popular at a time when Asians, especially Chinese nationals, were prohibited from immigrating to the United States. The late 1930s also was an era when anti-Japanese sentiment was rising. During this period Asian immigrants present in the country were prohibited by law from becoming naturalized citizens. Perhaps these Asian characters were so readily embraced by American audiences because everyone knew that the actors were white. So while Asian American main characters appeared in crime films during the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s, Asian American actors were largely absent from or marginal characters in these films.
The “yellow-face” Charlie Chan, considered by some to be “an antidote to the racist stereotypes” imposed on Asian men, remains a problematic figure, especially to Chinese Americans. The Chan character is not fully sketched out in either Earl Derr Biggers’s books or the films. There is little information about him or his family history (Chan, 2001, p. 57). Chinese Americans found Chan in “yellow-face” distasteful for the same reasons that African Americans complained that “‘black-face’ notoriously violated the dignity of black Americans” (Chan, 2001, p. 57). Using white actors to play nonwhite characters is an act by domination of white Americans over nonwhites.
Other critics of the Charlie Chan film series argue that Chan, while portrayed positively was not equal to the white characters in these films, rather he was a “benevolent other.” He is an exotic one-dimensional figure (Kato, 2007, p. 138; Espiritu, 1997, p. 99). Nevertheless, some commentators assert that the Charlie Chan character, stereotypes notwithstanding, was an early version of the model minority stereotype attributed to Asian Americans at the end of the 20th century (Huang, 2011).
Black Gangster Movies
Starting with Birth of a Nation the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) consistently complained to Hollywood about the stereotypical depictions of African Americans and the lack of diverse, less stereotypical depictions of blacks in film. Hollywood filmmakers resisted. “One of the reasons Hollywood kept African American actors in smaller supporting roles was so that prejudiced audiences would not have to watch an entire movie about a Negro, or worse yet, see a black character who was smart, strong, and independent” (Benshoff & Griffin, 2009, p. 83). On the other hand, black “race” movies, designed for black audiences, had none of these limitations because they were produced for all-black audiences.
Dating back to the late 1910s, the subject matter of black race movies varied widely. By the late 1920s and the early 1930s what was once an underground movement gave rise to a group of independent black filmmakers who were flourishing (Bogle, 2016). Many black filmmakers attempted to promote more positive images of African Americans to black audiences hungry for films about their lives. Most black-owned film companies, however, did not survive the industry’s transition to the more costly talkies and these companies were taken over by white entrepreneurs. White-backed film companies targeting black audiences, however, produced “escapist fare,” including black gangster films (Benshoff & Griffin, 2009). But it was the short-lived black-owned Cooper-Rinaldo Production Company that in 1937 released Dark Manhattan, the first all-black-cast gangster film.
Shortly thereafter Cooper left Cooper-Rinaldo to form Million Dollar Production Company with two white Americans. Cooper wrote and sometimes directed other all-black-cast gangster films, like Bargain with Bullets (1937), Gang Smashers (1938), and Gang War (1940). These films introduced African American film audiences to primarily Northern-based stories about black gangster life. During this period Herald Pictures released the mystery gangster film Miracle in Harlem (1948) “considered a technical landmark in the history of the race movie” (Bogle, 2016, p. 96).
African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, whose filmmaking career spanned from 1918 to 1948, generally produced films about black middle-class life and aspirations. But his Lincoln Motion Picture Company also produced a few crime films. One of his earliest crime films was Spider’s Web (1926), a film about gambling in Harlem. In Harlem after Midnight (1934) Micheaux “developed a thicker sociocultural description of black organized crime” (Reid, 2005, p. 41), as he did in Underworld (1937), which is modeled heavily on white director Josef Sternberg’s 1927 all-white-cast film of the same name. But in Micheaux’s version Chicago’s socioeconomic conditions are a major factor contributing to the criminalization of a young southern college student. All-in-all, the themes of black race crime and gangster films tracked the themes of mainstream films and the characters looked like mainstream crime films, except they included a wide range of African American characters.
Post–World War II Hollywood Crime Films
Following the end of World War II there was a slow, but gradual, coloring of the silver screen, reflecting a relaxation of the rigid racial attitudes toward nonwhites in the United States. Race issues often were raised in so-called social problem films. Often overlooked, the film adaptation of the William Faulkner novel Intruder in the Dust (1949) is a crime-drama film that revolves around a murder of a white man in a southern community. A black man, Lucas Beauchamp, played by the Afro-Latino actor Juano Hernández, is charged with the crime. Although a criminal defendant, Beauchamp is not a passive figure like the more famous black criminal defendant Jim Robinson (Brock Peters) in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Unlike Robinson, an innocent sharecropper who is ultimately killed, Beauchamp, a landowner, actively participates in his defense, even securing, with the help of a young white boy, his own legal counsel. Beauchamp’s persistence on his own behalf results in his release as the true killer is identified. The storyline focuses on Beauchamp’s white lawyer and a white woman who comes to the defendant’s aid. Nevertheless, the notion of a black man as a featured character, exercising agency in a drama or crime film marketed to a mainstream audience is unusual for this era.
Almost a decade later another social problem crime film, The Defiant Ones (1958), features a black actor in a co-starring role. In the film two escaped convicts, one white and the other black, work together, ultimately unsuccessfully, to avoid capture. Although the black convict, played with great dignity by Sidney Poitier, is a criminal, a stereotypical depiction, the character displayed a humanity lacking in other film depictions of black criminals. The black and white pairing in the film released four years after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education carried the message that blacks and whites could work together. The film also could be characterized as another forerunner of the black and white buddy films of the 1980s and 1990s.
Don Mankiewicz’s anti-communist themed Trial (1955) is another atypical crime film. Well-known white actors Glenn Ford, Arthur Kennedy, and Dorothy McGuire play the major characters in this film. Kennedy, who plays a communist-leaning lawyer, won a Golden Globe as best supporting actor and was nominated for an Academy Award. The focus of the film, however, is the trial of a Mexican American criminal defendant, Angel Chavez (played by the Dominican-born actor Raphel Campos) for the murder of a white girl. The suggestion that Mexican Americans are criminals was a well-established stereotype by this time. What makes this drama-crime film noteworthy is that the judge, Theodore Motley, was cast as a black man. Judge Motley, played by Juano Hernàndez, is perhaps the earliest portrayal of a nonwhite judge in a mainstream American film.
The film takes place in California, and that probably influenced that casting of the defendant as a Mexican American. But location alone does not explain the presence of a black judge, a real-life rarity in California and other parts of the country during this period. Perhaps Mankiewicz’s casting of Hernàndez was influenced by the Brown decision and the hope that racial barriers were dropping in all areas of life. After all, most of the lawyers who represented the plaintiffs in Brown were African Americans.
The demise of the Motion Picture Production Code also allowed films to deal more openly with miscegenation; this change was apparent in the critically praised and independently produced 1959 film The Crimson Kimono. It featured an interracial romance between a Japanese American police detective, Joe Kojaku (played by James Shigeta), and a white woman, Christine Downs. Kojaku’s white partner is his war buddy, Charlie Bancroft. Given that Japanese Americans fought in segregated units during World War II, this background is a little far-fetched. Charlie also is in love with Christine, triggering a romantic triangle, but Kojaku gets the girl in the end. This ending, however, triggered lurid poster taglines like “Why does she choose a Japanese Lover?” (Arnold, 1968).
Despite the lurid racially tinged film posters and the miscegenation theme, the film does not touch directly on racism. Instead there are references to the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, and the cultural differences between Kojaku, a Nisei (second-generation Japanese American), and a Kibei (Japanese American-born but raised in Japan) woman he initially dated. Like Daughter of Shanghai and Phantom of Chinatown 20 years earlier, The Crimson Kimono attempts to normalize Japanese Americans as assimilated, respectable law-abiding citizens, an attempt to rehabilitate their sorely damaged reputation during World War II. The race and romance is a subplot, however; the main storyline focuses on a crime, the murder of a stripper. Thus a few postwar crime films had more fully developed nonwhite characters in major roles, a departure from the prewar era.
West Side Story (1961), a musical crime film during this era, features nonwhite characters. The plot line, a variation on Romeo and Juliet, features a dispute between two New York City gangs, one Italian American and the other Puerto Rican. There are socioeconomic and racial tensions underlying the dispute. But the Puerto Rican gang members, although American citizens, are depicted as foreign—outsiders and intruders. This othering is reinforced by the nature of the dispute, over physical territory (Sanchéz, 1997). Typical of the time, with the exception of Puerto Rican actor Rita Moreno, most of the feature Puerto Rican characters are played by white actors. The very popular film won an Academy Award for Best Picture and also earned Moreno an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
The gradual appearance of nonwhites in mainstream films as crime fighters, lawyers, and judges reflects the slow progress of the postwar black civil rights movement’s push for first-class citizenship for all. Full citizenship entailed participating in the fundamental institutions of the society and demonstrating respect for the rule of law. The absence of nonwhites in most of the heroic early post-World War II crime films suggests that many mainstream film-going audiences still did not see nonwhites as heroes. The conventional notion of hero in the United States is inextricably intertwined with notions of masculinity—which also explains the relative scarcity of women as crime fighters in earlier films. But crime films in the 1960s and 1970s increased, reflecting changing race relations and introducing new themes.
Crime Films in the 1960s and 1970s
Starting in the mid-1960s, major social and political changes were occurring in the United States, and popular film reflected these changes. In the 1960s Congress enacted several major civil rights laws aimed at addressing racial discrimination in almost every aspect of life. Enforcement of these laws opened new opportunities for many nonwhite groups. There was a corresponding demand for greater representation of nonwhites in Hollywood films. One byproduct is that “in American crime films since the 1960s black lawmen have been members of governmental policing agencies” (Reid, 2005, p. 44). The plot lines in films like In the Heat of the Night (1967), starring Sidney Poitier, and Beverly Hills Cop (1984), starring Eddie Murphy, revolve around black police officers. But the post-1960s crime films feature a vast array of nonwhite, primarily black, criminal types from thieves to drug dealers to pimps. Films like the black-directed Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) also include professional black characters like detectives, lawyers, accountants, and politicians, as well as other highly respected community members.
Gangsters in films made during the Motion Picture Production Code era had to be punished by the end of the film. This changed starting in the 1960s. With the removal of Code constraints a few films like Super Fly (1972) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) feature black street heroes. In some ways gangster films made for black audiences during the 1960s and 1970s differed from white-cast, studio produced gangster films. Black criminals were portrayed as “organized and well-dressed . . . with impeccable speech” like other African Americans from police to professionals to striving “poor but proud blacks,” images seldom seen in mainstream Hollywood films of this era (Reid, 2005, p. 52). These civil rights–era films also conveyed some of the social concerns found in earlier black gangster films. But the modern films reflected the “law and order” rhetoric of the time.
During this period there was concern in some quarters about a rise in urban crime triggered, some argued, by Supreme Court decisions that imposed restraints on law enforcement and gave greater protections to criminal defendants. The backlash to these rulings played out in the 1964 presidential election. Republican candidate Senator Barry Goldwater campaigning against then President Lyndon B. Johnson complained of “crime in the streets.” In response, Johnson, after his election, established the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. Concern about street crime continued and during the 1968 presidential election Richard M. Nixon repeatedly promised to wage a war on crime if elected. Shortly after Nixon’s election Congress enacted the Safe Streets and Crime Control Act to aid besieged local communities (Vorenberg, 1972).
Crime was on the minds of the American public and with the demise of the Code, Hollywood responded. Violent crime films returned to the big screen. But many of these films were different. The American cities of the 1970s looked different from the cities of the 1930s. The 1970s also brought the first group of black directors hired by film studios to produce films. There was the highly successful breakthrough film Cotton Comes to Harlem, directed by the well-known African American actor Ossie Davis. The film, a typical cops-and-robbers story, was different from earlier films of this type only because the director and most of the cast were black. The characters in this film looked a lot like the people in many large American cities. By the 1970s many East Coast and Midwest cities had black pluralities or majorities as a result of the migration of southern blacks and the flight of whites to the suburbs. African Americans won elective offices at the local and national level, but the material conditions of the poorest city residents remained largely unchanged.
In 1971 MGM released Shaft, about a renegade private detective. This commercially successful film also had a black director, Gordon Parks. Unlike past films, African Americans had a say in influencing the appearance of black characters in mainstream films. What excited studios about the film’s success was a prediction by Variety, the industry magazine, that “Southern exhibitors will want a piece of the action” (Bogle, 2016, p. 212).
But it was Melvin Van Peebles’s convention-breaking and controversial crime film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, that signaled the beginning of a significant break with the past. It marked the beginning of the Blaxploitation era in film—a time when Hollywood studios produced films for black urban audiences. Unlike early films with black casts like Cotton Comes to Harlem and Shaft, Sweet Sweetback was independently produced and directed by Van Peebles, who also played the lead character. It cost only $500,000 to make and grossed more than $10 million in its first year of release (Berry & Berry, 2001, p. 117), proving that crime films about and by African Americans aimed at a black urban audience could make money.
In some Blaxploitation films the drug dealer, a supporting character in earlier films about urban life, became anti-heroes. These films, while a decided departure from traditional Hollywood formulas in their glorification of drug dealers, “represented a defiant attempt to flaunt characters that, to the white world, represented the scourges of drugs and prostitution afflicting the black world” (Clarens, 1980, p. 295). Other films focused on real-life crime problems plaguing large poor urban areas, and still other films, like Hell Up in Harlem (1973) and Black Caesar (1973), seemed like clones of the gangster films from an earlier era. These crime films were popular with black audiences and ultimately crossed over to white audiences as well.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), other civil rights organization, and many middle-class African Americans objected to the images of violent black males in these films. Although Blaxploitation films provided increased employment opportunities for black actors, the images of African American in these films, opponents argued, tended to perpetuate negative stereotypes about black males and black urban communities in general. Partially in response to these concerns some filmmakers released several films featuring black women crime fighters. Pam Grier’s law-bending heroine in the escapist film Foxy Brown (1974) and Cleopatra Jones (1973) with Tamara Dobson as the high fashion drug enforcement officer featured glamorous superwomen who cleansed poor urban black neighborhoods of drug dealers and other criminal elements (Bogle, 2016). Criticism of these films continued. The Blaxploitation film era was short-lived (Rafter, 2006). The subgenre was effectively dead by the end of the decade.
Crime Films in the 1980s and 1990s
Crime films of the 1980s and 1990s that criticized the justice system like The Star Chamber (1983) had a few major or minor nonwhite characters casted mainly as police (Rafter (2001, p. 12, 18). During this era Hollywood produced numerous “gang and ghetto” films, remnants of the Blaxploitation era. These films focused on urban city life without the violence of the Blaxploitation films. Instead they contained anti-drug and anti-violence messages. But in some white-directed films like Bad Boys (1983) and Colors (1988) there are no black or Latino lead characters. There were some exceptions. White-directed films like Stephen Milburn Anderson’s South Central (1992) and Boaz Yakin’s Fresh (1994) have more racially diverse casts and nonwhite feature characters (Rafter, 2006, p. 39). In contrast, black-directed films like Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City (1991), John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991), and the Hughes brothers’ Menace II Society (1993) feature nonwhites in leading roles. Race still mattered in casting and storyline decisions.
The 1980s also signaled the arrival of the buddy crime-action film, a subgenre that remains popular today. There were black and white lead characters in films like 48 Hours (1982) and Lethal Weapon (1987) who, despite their differences, unite to successfully thwart the criminals. More recent examples include heist films like Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and The Italian Job (2003), which feature multiracial groups of thieves.
The 1980s also marked the reemergence, over the strenuous objections of Chinese Americans, of the “non-threatening, non-competitive, asexual ally of the white man” Charlie Chan (Kim, 1982, p. 18). Even more troubling, in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1982) Chan was played once more in “yellow-face,” this time by Peter Ustinov. Long after the end of white actors portraying African Americans in “blackface”, the portrayal of Asians by white actors in “yellow-face” persists. The film opened to largely positive reviews in mainstream newspapers (Canby, 1981).
During this period the 1932 gangster classic Scarface was remade in 1983 with the Italian American Chicago gangster, Antonio “Tony” Camonte, re-cast as Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant. Montana is portrayed as one of the Mariel boat people who enters Miami in 1980. But in typical Hollywood fashion the film starred Italian American actor Al Pacino in the title role. The few Latinos in the film are relegated to token roles.
By the 1990s there was a critical mass of well-known African American actors, but film studio remained reluctant to cast them as the sole lead of films marketed to a mass audience for fear that the public would not support them. One example is the minor controversy over casting African American actor Morgan Freeman as the forensic psychologist, Alex Cross, in the film version of James Patterson’s thriller Kiss the Girls (1997). In the novel the Cross character is a black man, but at least one studio wanted to cast Cross as a white man, claiming that a film with a black lead character would not be marketable. The film opened at number one at the box office (Bogle, 2016, p. 375).
Films in the 1990s continued to include African American criminals, although few were major characters, but there was a dignity to some of these characters not present in earlier films. In A Time to Kill (1996) Samuel Jackson plays the father of a ten-year-old girl raped by two white men who shoots them because he fears that they will not be convicted of the crime. Rather than representing the negative stereotype of the passive innocent black, Jackson’s character exercises more agency by trying to direct his lawyer during his trial. In The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Morgan Freeman plays Red, a long-term prison inmate who befriends a white prisoner. While the role reinforces the notion of African American males as criminals, the dignity with which Red is portrayed cuts against old stereotypes about black criminality.
Then there were a few throwbacks to old stereotypes like The Green Mile (1999), about an African American prisoner, John Coffey, on death row in Louisiana convicted of the rape and murder of two nine-year-old girls. But Coffey, portrayed as a gentle giant, has “magical” healing powers that he readily employs to save whites in need of healing. In the end filmgoers learn that Coffey was wrongfully convicted—the real culprit is a white man.
In the 1990s African American actor Will Smith made a series of action buddy police films like Bad Boys (1995) and Men in Black (1997). In the crime thriller Enemy of the State (1998), Smith plays a Washington, D.C., lawyer who inadvertently becomes the target of a corrupt politician. Some critics argue that the lawyer’s race was irrelevant to the plot, an important advance in casting nonwhite actors (Bogle, 2016). Smith went on to become a major film star. Around the same time Asian martial arts master Jackie Chan teamed with African American Chris Tucker in Rush Hour (1998). But Rush Hour and its sequels contained anti-Asian aspects that were treated as cultural clashes between the Chinese Hong Kong detective Lee and the black FBI agent Carter. Like the pairing of Asian and black characters in Charlie Chan in Egypt more than 60 years earlier, the black character in Rush Hour serves as comic relief. Some patterns from the past persist.
At the end of the 20th century crime films represented both a mix of older patterns of racial exclusion, marginalization, or denigration as well as positive change. Nonwhite, primarily black, characters had major roles in crime films as legal officers. These patterns persisted into the 21st century. There also were more non-white film directors, like Roberto Rodriguez, the Mexican American director who released El Mariachi (1991), an independent low-budget gangster film that was later remade as Desperado (1995) starring Spanish American Antonio Banderas and Mexican American Salma Hayek. But Asian Americans and American Indians remain almost totally invisible behind or before the big screen in crime films unless presented in stereotypical situations.
Early 21st-Century Crime Films
By the beginning of the 21st century film viewing started to change dramatically. Today film, no longer confined to the big screen, can be viewed in a variety of ways. Films can be accessed through cable services or online streaming services, some serving highly segmented markets. Films are viewed on smartphones, iPads, computers, or televisions. Thus movie house operators have much less influence on the types and casting of films released than in the past. Nevertheless, perceptions of the market remain, as do some casting patterns. Most notable is the exclusion or marginalization of Asian Americans on film
The 21st century also opened with some problematic crime films. In Traffic (2000) about drug traffic across the Mexican border, black drug dealers are portrayed as sexual predictors who target and drug young white women. A year later the noted African American actor Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the brutal and corrupt police officer in Training Day (2001). The film, directed by Antoine Fugua, an African American, “brought to mind other images of brutal, monstrous black men who deserved to be stomped out, shot down, obliterated from the face of the earth” (Bogle, 2016, p. 395).
On the other hand, the Oscar-winning film Crash (2005) depicts a multiracial and economically diverse Los Angeles. The storyline counterbalances old racialized stereotypes and realistic portrayals. For example, an affluent white couple is carjacked by black thieves, which is countered by a white police officer sexually assaulting an affluent black woman during a police stop in front of her powerless husband. Later the black woman faces the white police officer again, but this time he rescues her from a car in flames. There also is racial discord among nonwhite groups in the film. An even more complex crime film released the same year is Hustle and Flow, about a black pimp and his turmoil managing his prostitutes, one of whom is white, while dreaming of a singing career.
Legal Characters in Crime Films
Since the 1970s there has been an overabundance of black and Latino actors portraying pimps, whores, criminals, and drug addicts, most notably in films like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). Seldom were nonwhite legal officers—police, judges, and lawyers—present in crime films until the 1980s. There are two notable depictions of nonwhites as lawyers in crime films during the 1980s. The first is Captain Richard Davenport (Howard Rollins Jr.), the black Army lawyer in A Soldier’s Story (1984), who is assigned to investigate a murder in an all-black segregated unit. This film, directed by Norman Jewison, noted for his socially progressive films, highlights the racial discrimination black soldiers experienced in the military during and after World War II.
The second film, Action Jackson (1988), is reminiscent of Blaxploitation films. It stars African American actor Carl Weathers as Sgt. Jericho “Action” Jackson. But unlike most Blaxpoitation films the cast includes a mix of white and nonwhite, primarily black, characters. Tellingly, Jericho Jackson, a Harvard law graduate, is employed as a tough Detroit police officer. The combination of his elite academic credentials and non-lawyer job implies that in the 1980s there were limited employment opportunities for black law graduates, even graduates from elite law schools. The film received tepid reviews (Bogle, 2016).
By the 1990s legally trained nonwhite characters appeared in mainstream crime films. These characters, primarily black lawyers, when present, are secondary characters to the white characters. Alfred Woodard, for example, plays Judge Shoat in Primal Fear (1990), starring white actors Richard Gere and Laura Linney. Similarly, another black film judge, Larren Lyttle (Paul Winfield), appears in Presumed Innocent (1990) as a supporting character to lead stars Harrison Ford (Rozat “Rusty” Sabich), Brian Dennehy (Raymond Horgan), and Latino actor Raul Julia (Alejandro “Sandy” Stern), whose character, a lawyer by profession, is the defendant in a murder case.
Nonwhite television lawyers were a bit more numerous. In the late 20th century Victor Sifuentes (Jimmy Smits) on L.A. Law (1986–1992, series ended in 1994), is the only Latino lawyer at the LA-based McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, and Kuzak. The firm handles a vast array of cases including criminal cases. Later there is Eugene Young (Steve Harris) cast as the only black lawyer at the Boston firm of Robert Donnell and Associates on The Practice (1997–2004). Young, who seldom lost a case, believed the guilty should be punished (unusual for a criminal defense lawyer) and argued in a case that “racism was a ‘cancer’ that should be rooted out and destroyed” (Asimow, 2009, p. 138).
Ling Woo (Lucy Liu) on Ally McBeal (1997–2002) is the only well-known Asian American lawyer in 20th-century media, either film or television. She was added to the L.A. Law firm a year after the show started. Ling Woo, however, in many ways conforms to old stereotypical notions about ethnic Chinese women. She is portrayed as a stereotypical dragon lady—inscrutable and dangerous. The anti-Asian bias implicit in Woo’s character stands in stark contrast to other nonwhite lawyers on the show like African Americans Renee Raddick (Lisa Nicole Carson), a district attorney, and Ally’s law school roommate Judge Seymore Walsh (Albert Hall), who appeared sporadically throughout the series.
The contrast between the presence and depictions of nonwhite characters on the big screen as opposed to the small screen continues into the 21st century. Periodically complaints erupt when Oscar nominations are announced that nonwhites are seldom included among the nominees (Smith, Choueiti, & Pieper, 2016). The absence of nonwhite characters except in somewhat stereotypical roles is a pervasive theme in films, including crime films, made throughout the 20th century. Unfortunately, there seems to be little change in the first decade of the 21st century.
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