RTVF 410 | Prof. Lynn Spigel
Reading Report #1 | October 16, 2018
Julia P Guimarães
Inside the loop: African American Cinema, an ‘Archive of Feeling’
Mary Carbine retells a history of cinema placing at its center the construction of African American identity as the result of the tensions between authenticity and fabrication, both processes which underline the practices of motion picture exhibition in Chicago’s African American community prior to the Great Depression. These practices were characterized by: a specific mode of address to an African American audience in the theatre, the presence of live entertainment firmly rooted in African-American culture, and race as a crucial factor affecting access to mass entertainment. Carbine draws upon a vast archive, including newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements and historical documents. It could be argued that Carbine “demands a radical archive of emotion” (Cvetkovich, 241) in order to document intimate moviegoing practices, such as emotional and passionate responses to “race orchestras.” Carbine asserts that prior and during the Great Depression, picture houses allowed for the creation of a space for consciousness and assertion of social difference. Indeed, the author notes that there has been a tendency to neglect issues of African American spectatorship in film scholarship because “traditional” conceptions of mass culture blur class lines and ethnic distinctions, framing white-middle class tastes as the standard to which all should ascribe.
In this scenario, the conventional framings of mass culture and commercial entertainment were seen as forces that sought to integrate workers and immigrants into mainstream society. Carbine, however, argues that immigrant, African American and working-class individuals encountered mass culture under local and ethnic sponsorship that fostered community identification and reduced the homogenizing impact of capitalist mass entertainment. African American citizens from Chicago participated in commercial life by going to the movies and shopping at stores dedicated to ‘race’ products. These acts of consumption were means for African Americans to enact heightened independence and autonomy as a race. Citing John Fiske, Carbine differentiates between mass culture, or the distribution of mass-produced entertainment, and popular culture, emerging through the relationships between mass culture and everyday life practices. In this way, marginalized peoples could use mass cultural products to engage in oppositional activities that assert social difference, thus attacking hegemonic practices.
Thus, an audience and exhibition-based study, according to Carbine, must ground its analysis in a context dominated by African Americans not as abstract textual constructions or as victims of Hollywood racism, but as performers and spectators who invented and still invent their own cultural practices. In other words, Carbine is interested reclaiming agency within African American communities, by highlighting their impact on the development of cinema as a cultural and social institution. Carbine asserts that the many factors which motivated the Great Migration, such as the desire for better education, political franchise, equal treatment and a life free from violence and oppression, arose from a racially-centered worldview. In this way, the very process of migration strengthened aspects of southern Black culture, especially the importance of family and community. Although the African American population increased from approximately 30 thousand to over 200 thousand between 1900 and 1930 in Chicago, the borders of the Black Metropolis remained the same, and hostility by whites secured migrants’ gravitation towards the cultural and social matrix of Black institutions and family networks on the South side. In this context, Jacqueline Stewart notes that multiple forms of racist discourse produced Black responses from many cultural levels, including in the Black media and visual arts, in which these voices sought to champion African American self-perceptions. Therefore, in his era, the Black press became a unique discursive arena where African Americans could express themselves freely, and the Chicago Defender was a prime example, covering the achievements of the Black bourgeoisie, featuring news regarding white violence against southern Blacks, encouraging migration to the urban north, and offering for the first time a full section on African American entertainment. Carbine notes that South State Street became known as “The Stroll”, the center of nightlife, and it was the physical site of community expression and a renowned showcase for Black music. Although the majority of the theatres was owned by whites, they deployed advertising strategies clearly inflected with awareness of African American audiences. This is a major departure from traditional film historiography which has, to a large degree, failed to account for African American audiences’ mode of reception and engagement with films.
Accounting for African American audiences means departing from the premise that Chicago’s segregation also occurred in movie theatres, were best seats were given to whites and employment practices perpetuated a racial hierarchy dominated by whites. In this light, the Defender promoted South Side theatres as places where African Americans were welcomed and privileged. Theatre advertising in this moment thus focused on the encounter between mass entertainment framed with reference to racial discrimination and the desire for African American cultural autonomy. Black vaudeville and musical performances featured prominently in movie theatres, where there was a clear effort to identify the acts as African-American in posters and advertisements. The rise of blues artists also saw the increase in their performances in theatres. This is especially significant, Carbine notes, in that blues songs directly related to African American migrants’ experiences, thus bringing together southern musical traditions and the urban milieu. She notes that blues music came to be seen as a means of communication and expression oriented by group values, which stressed the interaction with the audience and frequently embodied elements of protest and resistance against whites. Blues musical performances shared the venue with mainstream Hollywood pictures, adding a culturally-specific and oppositional facet to the context in which a African American audience received and situated these movies. Thus, although exhibition and performance was on a larger scale inscribed in a white-dominated industry, Black Chicagoans brought their cultural practices and expectations to theatres. By attending picture shows in the same venue as blues artists, Carbine stresses, new migrants could reaffirm their ties to the South. In other words, the film reception context and thematic of Hollywood films were set against specific African American practices which specifically addressed the experiences of the Black community. Moreover, African American jazz musicians directly participated in the motion picture exhibition through the pit orchestra. Often, the musical component of theatre performances clouded the mass entertainment aspect, and the theatre became a center for the development and appreciation of popular Black music, offering a culturally autonomous space for jazz performance, where African American musicians played for African American audiences. Surprisingly, Carbine notes, the effect of “Race orchestras” on exhibition practices suggested that the need for musical accompaniment in the silent era provided more opportunities for Black musical performance, creative invention, and audience participation than did the sound era. The pit orchestra, due to its improvisational jazz performance, disrupted the mainstream reception context, defying middle-class notions of “proper” music and behavior.
In this setting, Carbine introduces the work of critic Dave Peyton, who had a regular column in the Defender, and whose writings speak to the struggle between notions of “respectable” and “popular” culture in the African American community in the space of the theatre. Peyton devised a dual strategy for amplifying African Americans’ opportunity and cultural identity: pursuing the legitimacy of European music and respectable behavior while simultaneously protecting Black musical invention from appropriation by whites. In Peyton’s view, Black musical expression should be fused with “standard” mainstream practices in order to achieve artistic legitimacy. Also, Peyton disavowed popular enthusiasm for what he deemed unsuitable musical performances, critiquing “noisy” and “frivolous” responses as disrespectful and inappropriate for what he considered a “highbrow” cultural context. However, Carbine argues, most picturehouse musicians in pit orchestras were described as “erupting into the spectator’s consciousness, visually and aurally in their improvisational performances, which did not strictly obey the narrative progression of the film. Performing in white-dominated commercial venues, African American musicians appropriated the place and role of the movie theatre orchestra for culturally-specific and even oppositional practices. Carbine also states that there is evidence to suggest that Race orchestras may have intentionally read films against the grain, undermining, through their performances dominant readings with satirical interpretations. Thus, as essential elements of African-American culture, jazz and blues were able to subvert the influence of mainstream entertainment, offering musicians and spectators alike the chance to counter the homogenizing tendencies of mass cultural entertainment. More specifically, Carbine defends, live performances by African American musicians may have singled out the exclusion and stereotypifying practices of Hollywood cinema, and white ideals of glamor, stardom and performance were understood in relation to the ideals embodied by African American entertainers who engaged with the audience in a different way than did the actors on the screen.
Therefore, Carbine’s study reveals that the exhibition context in Chicago’s South Side during the historical period of the Great Migration reveals a complex process of assimilation of African American workers and migrants into the mainstream mass culture. The picturehouse was a site of assertion of racial identity amidst popular mass culture and of forging of alliances between individuals of the African American community. Throughout the silent era, the theatre provided African American communities of the Black Metropolis with possibilities to build a distinct Black, urban, popular culture.
Carbine, Mary. “The Finest Outside the Loop”: Motion Picture Exhibition in Chicago's Black Metropolis, 1905–1928,” Camera Obscura (1990) 8 (2 (23)): 8-41.
Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, Duke University Press, 2003.
Stewart, Jacqueline. Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.