Forty-three years ago, Carlton Moss wrote “The Negro Soldier,” a wartime documentary film that many still regard as a milestone in helping to break down racial stereotypes.
But Moss, still an active film maker, and a Comparative Culture Program lecturer at UC Irvine, contends that Hollywood’s portrayals of blacks remain grossly distorted.
His bleak view is shared by other black critics, even though black-theme productions--such as Steven Spielberg’s movie “The Color Purple” and NBC-TV’s top-rated “The Cosby Show"--are flourishing as never before among major commercial studios.
“Nothing’s really changed in four decades. Little has been done in truly examining blacks and other minorities--their cultures, their differences, their struggles--to know what it is to be a minority in this society,” said the 77-year-old Moss, in a recent interview at his UCI office.
His assailing of Hollywood stereotypes is at the core of the “Minorities in Films” course Moss teaches each fall at UCI. (His other courses include those on documentary films and the current class, “The Motion Picture in Contemporary American Society.”)
The “Minorities in Films” class, which Moss started in 1969 at the height of the black studies movement on U.S. college campuses, remains one of the most popular courses in the Comparative Culture Program. The course draws up to 300 students, mostly whites, to its weekly evening lectures.
Says Dickran Tashjian, director of the program: “Carlton’s knowledge of the field is vast and that of the insider. He’s been at the forefront of this whole, long battle.”
A longtime maker of educational films, Moss has written and produced documentaries on such black heroes as abolitionist Frederick Douglass, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and educator George Washington Carver. His latest is on black leader W.E.B. Du Bois, and he also is preparing another on jazz pianists.
In the 1930s, Moss was a Harlem-based writer-actor with the acclaimed but short-lived Federal Theater Project in New York. During World War II, he was the only black to hold a prominent post in Frank Capra’s famed Army training film unit.
When Moss wrote the script in 1943 for “The Negro Soldier,” he sought to strike a delicate balance. “We were able to portray blacks as real human beings, not as Hollywood, minstrel-show caricatures. It wasn’t going to be ‘Green Pastures in the Army.’ ”
But, being an official War Department venture, Moss explained, the film could not suggest black militancy. “We couldn’t be seen as beating the drums over Jim Crow. I wouldn’t have lasted a day if we did that.”
When the 45-minute film (directed by the Capra unit’s Stuart Heisler) played on the national civilian circuit in 1944, some film and academic critics found “The Negro Soldier” too pallid a social document. The film, they argued, failed to portray clearly segregation in the Army or to mention the incidents of violence between whites and blacks in Southern camps.
But “The Negro Soldier” won praise from much of the Negro press and community organizations. These critics argued that the film avoided many stereotypes and offered a rare chronicle of black accomplishments. (Moss had dramatized scenes in a black church--Moss himself played the minister--and interspersed these with sagas of Negro heroes and with footage of blacks in World War II training.)
Last November, when “The Negro Soldier” was screened at an international film festival at D’Amiens, France, as part of a retrospective of American movies on blacks, the wartime documentary was cited as a turning point in black-film history.
Explained one admirer, Morgan State University historian Thomas Cripps, a major scholar on black films, in a recent interview, “If seen today and without regard to the context of the 1940s, ‘The Negro Soldier’ seems outdated. But it is still a landmark. Its societal impact was stronger than any (black-theme) movie today.”
Since World War II, some critics contend, Hollywood’s key black-theme works--such as “Intruder in the Dust” and “Sounder"--began to present black characters of dignity and depth, a far cry from typical pre-war roles of dim-witted menials.
But others say that they see no real change overall, despite more positive images in some films. Joseph White, a UC Irvine Comparative Culture professor and member of the Black Psychologists Assn., said, “There’s been some progress, but only minimally. The myths may be less blatant, but they’re just as pervasive and accepted.”
Mayme Clayton, founder of the Black American Cinema Society in Los Angeles, said Hollywood has continued to present “basically the same old stereotypes.” Nono Olu of the Coalition Against Black Exploitation, also in Los Angeles, said the stereotypes “are not only worse but also more subtly presented,” while the “few good images” are isolated, token efforts.
And Moss himself put it this way:
“Today, Hollywood still fails to deal with the central issue--racism--fully and intensely. There is little about the system of racism, its overwhelming, acculturating force. As a result, we are still left with the old myths--the thieving black, the welfare black, the super-sexual black and so on.”
Even movies made by blacks for black audiences suffer from the commercial mentality that characterizes Hollywood, Moss contended. While ultraviolent, “trashy” black exploitation movies have been box-office hits, he said, serious, evocative works like “Leadbelly,” based on the legendary folk singer, have languished from lack of promotion and proper distribution.
At the same time, Moss noted, some black-theme movies from the major studios have found box-office favor with white audiences.
“The general audiences find these (Hollywood black) films an entertainment. They go for them because everybody likes to root for the underdog--in these cases, the black heroes,” he said. “No one (in white audiences) is going to feel threatened or challenged. The blacks are still in their place, the system’s safe.”
This type of mass appeal, Moss contended, was crucial in what he called the failure of the 1985 movie “The Color Purple,” based on the Pulitzer Prize book about a black girl’s brutal coming of age in the rural South.
“The tragedy of the situation, the enormous poverty and inequality are so watered down,” Moss said. “There is unreality about that movie, a falseness of tone. Important scenes, even those of (racial) confrontation, are played as slapstick, as an entertainment contrivance.”
“The Color Purple” has provoked the strongest reactions among blacks to any recent Hollywood movie. Last December, Kwazi Geiggar of the Coalition Against Black Exploitation said the movie “degrades the black family” and that Spielberg failed to consult black sociologists while making the movie.
On the other hand, “The Cosby Show,” the hugely popular television sitcom about a black upper-middle class family, has been praised by many blacks as an outstanding role model.
“The (‘Cosby Show’) family is everything that people say blacks aren’t supposed to be--you know, very human, bright, close-knit and not on welfare,” said Bennett Terry, a UCI economics major who has taken Moss’ classes.
But Moss himself sees “The Cosby Show” as one more example of what he calls the “tragic void” in mainstream movies and television.
“To whites, Bill Cosby is a known--and safe--personality,” he said. “His TV character is very likable, engaging, funny. He loves children and that’s as reassuring as hell.”
“He’s an inoffensive image to whites. His show is another successful piece of entertainment. He’s not a character of attack. He’s not going to come up to whites and snarl at them.”
As for offering real exposure to the issues and realities involving today’s total black community, Moss said, “Don’t count on that. The Cosby Show isn’t about that. None of them are.”