The first forty years of cinema in the United States, from the development and commercialization of modern motion picture technology in the mid-1890s to the full blossoming of sound-era Hollywood during the early 1930s, represents one of the most consequential periods in the history of the medium. It was a time of tremendous artistic and economic transformation, including but not limited to the storied transition from silent motion pictures to “the talkies” in the late 1920s. Though the nomenclature of the silent era implies a relatively unified period in film history, the years before the transition to sound saw a succession of important changes in film artistry and its means of production, and film historians generally regard the epoch as divided into at least three separate and largely distinct temporalities. During the period of early cinema, which lasted about a decade from the medium’s emergence in the mid-1890s through the middle years of the new century’s first decade, motion pictures existed primarily as a novelty amusement presented in vaudeville theatres and carnival fairgrounds. Film historians Tom Gunning and André Gaudreault have famously defined the aesthetic of this period as a “cinema of attractions,” in which the technology of recording and reproducing the world, along with the new ways in which it could frame, orient, and manipulate time and space, marked the primary concerns of the medium’s artists and spectators. A transitional period followed from around 1907 to the later 1910s when changes in the distribution model for motion pictures enabled the development of purpose-built exhibition halls and led to a marked increase in demand for the entertainment. On a formal and artistic level, the period saw a rise in the prominence of the story film and widespread experimentation with new techniques of cinematography and editing, many of which would become foundational to later cinematic style. The era also witnessed the introduction and growing prominence of feature-length filmmaking over narrative shorts. The production side was marked by intensifying competition between the original American motion picture studios based in and around New York City, several of which attempted to cement their influence by forming an oligopolistic trust, and a number of upstart “independent” West Coast studios located around Los Angeles. Both the artistic and production trends of the transitional period came to a head during the classical era that followed, when the visual experimentation of the previous years consolidated into the “classical style” favored by the major studios, and the competition between East Coast and West Coast studios resolved definitively in favor of the latter. This was the era of Hollywood’s ascendance over domestic filmmaking in the United States and its growing influence over worldwide film markets, due in part to the decimation of the European film industry during World War I. After nearly a decade of dominance, the Hollywood studio system was so refined that the advent of marketable synchronized sound technology around 1927 produced relatively few upheavals among the coterie of top studios. Rather, the American film industry managed to reorient itself around the production of talking motion pictures so swiftly that silent film production in the United States had effectively ceased at any appreciable scale by 1929. Artistically, the early years of “the talkies” proved challenging, as filmmakers struggled with the imperfections of early recording technology and the limitations they imposed on filmmaking practice. But filmgoing remained popular in the United States even during the depths of the Great Depression, and by the early 1930s a combination of improved technology and artistic adaptation led to such a marked increase in quality that many film historians regard the period to be the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Era. With a new voluntary production code put in place to respond to criticism of immorality in Hollywood fare, the American film industry was poised by the early 1930s to solidify its prominent position in American cultural life.
Over the past seventy years, the American film industry has transformed from mass-producing movies to producing a limited number of massive blockbuster movies on a global scale. Hollywood film studios have moved from independent companies to divisions of media conglomerates. Theatrical attendance for American audiences has plummeted since the mid-1940s; nonetheless, American films have never been more profitable. In 1945, American films could only be viewed in theaters; now they are available in myriad forms of home viewing. Throughout, Hollywood has continued to dominate global cinema, although film and now video production reaches Americans in many other forms, from home videos to educational films. Amid declining attendance, the Supreme Court in 1948 forced the major studios to sell off their theaters. Hollywood studios instead focused their power on distribution, limiting the supply of films and focusing on expensive productions to sell on an individual basis to theaters. Growing production costs and changing audiences caused wild fluctuations in profits, leading to an industry-wide recession in the late 1960s. The studios emerged under new corporate ownership and honed their blockbuster strategy, releasing “high concept” films widely on the heels of television marketing campaigns. New technologies such as cable and VCRs offered new windows for Hollywood movies beyond theatrical release, reducing the risks of blockbuster production. Deregulation through the 1980s and 1990s allowed for the “Big Six” media conglomerates to join film, theaters, networks, publishing, and other related media outlets under one corporate umbrella. This has expanded the scale and stability of Hollywood revenue while reducing the number and diversity of Hollywood films, as conglomerates focus on film franchises that can thrive on various digital media. Technological change has also lowered the cost of non-Hollywood films and thus encouraged a range of alternative forms of filmmaking, distribution, and exhibition.
Native people have appeared as characters in film and television in America from their inceptions. Throughout the 20th century, Native actors, writers, directors, and producers worked in the film and television industry. In terms of characterization, Native employment sits uncomfortable beside racist depictions of Native people. From the 1950s to the present, revisionist westerns come into being, giving the viewer a moral tale in which Native people are depicted with sympathy and white Americans are seen as aggressors. Today, a small but important group of Native actors in film and television work in limiting roles but turn in outstanding performances. Native directors, writers, and documentarians in the 1990s to the early 21st century have created critical interventions into media representations, telling stories from Indigenous viewpoints and bringing Native voices to the fore. The 2021 television show Rutherford Falls stands out as an example of Native writers gaining entry into the television studio system. Additionally, we have several Native film festivals in the early 21st century, and this trend continues to grow.
Laura Isabel Serna
Latinos have constituted part of the United States’ cinematic imagination since the emergence of motion pictures in the late 19th century. Though shifting in their specific contours, representations of Latinos have remained consistently stereotypical; Latinos have primarily appeared on screen as bandits, criminals, nameless maids, or sultry señoritas. These representations have been shaped by broader political and social issues and have influenced the public perception of Latinos in the United States. However, the history of Latinos and film should not be limited to the topic of representation. Latinos have participated in the film industry as actors, creative personnel (including directors and cinematographers), and have responded to representations on screen as members of audiences with a shared sense of identity, whether as mexicanos de afuera in the early 20th century, Hispanics in the 1980s and 1990s, or Latinos in the 21st century. Both participation in production and reception have been shaped by the ideas about race that characterize the film industry and its products. Hollywood’s labor hierarchy has been highly stratified according to race, and Hollywood films that represent Latinos in a stereotypical fashion have been protested by Latino audiences. While some Latino/a filmmakers have opted to work outside the confines of the commercial film industry, others have sought to gain entry and reform the industry from the inside. Throughout the course of this long history, Latino representation on screen and on set has been shaped by debates over international relations, immigration, citizenship, and the continuous circulation of people and films between the United States and Latin America.
Matthew Christopher Hulbert
Representations of the 19th-century South on film have been produced in America from the Silent Era to the present. These movies include some of the most critically acclaimed and influential in American cinematic history—Gone with the Wind (1939), Glory (1989), 12 Years a Slave (2013)—and have produced some of the most iconic onscreen characters—Scarlett O’Hara, Josey Wales, Uncle Remus, Django Freeman—and onscreen moments—Rhett Butler not giving a damn, Mede boiling to death in a giant cauldron—in all of American popular culture. Depictions of the 19th-century South on film have also accounted for some of American film’s most notorious offerings—see the section entitled Anti-Slavery: Blaxploitation—and some of its biggest financial disappointments, such as Raintree County (1957) or Gods and Generals (2003). The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) set standards for how southerners and other Americans would imagine the 19th-century South and subsequent films have been responding ever since. Prior to the apex of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s, Lost Cause themes dominated at the box office. After integration, the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), and the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, movies about the 19th-century South gradually shifted toward African American and female protagonists. Films also became increasingly graphic, violent, and sexualized in the late 1960s and 1970s as the pendulum swung fully away from the moonlight and magnolia, pro-slavery narratives of Gone with the Wind. In the 1990s, Hollywood began to carve out a middle position; however, neither extreme—exemplified by The Birth of a Nation and Mandingo, respectively—ever completely disappeared. Filmic coverage of the antebellum (1820–1860) and war years (1861–1865) dominates portrayals of the 19th-century South. These movies home in on major themes involving the legacy of slavery in America, the legacy of the Civil War, American territorial expansion, and American exceptionalism. Moreover, the South is habitually depicted as unique compared to the rest of the nation—for its hospitality, pace of living, race relations, mysteriousness, exoticism—and southerners are represented as innately more violent than their northern counterparts. Generally, the messaging of these films has been untethered from contemporary academic interpretations of the region, slavery, or the Civil War—yet their scripts and visuals have played, and continue to play, an outsized role in how Americans imagine the South and use the South to forge regional and national identities.
Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905–February 3, 1961) was the first Chinese American movie star and the first Asian American actress to gain international recognition. Wong broke the codes of yellowface in both American and European cinema to become one of the major global actresses of Asian descent between the world wars. She made close to sixty films that circulated around the world and in 1951 starred in her own television show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, produced by the defunct Dumont Network. Examining Wong’s career is particularly fruitful because of race’s centrality to the motion pictures’ construction of the modern American nation-state, as well as its significance within the global circulation of moving images. Born near Los Angeles’s Chinatown, Wong began acting in films at an early age. During the silent era, she starred in films such as The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first two-tone Technicolor films, and The Thief of Baghdad (1924). Frustrated by Hollywood roles, Wong left for Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several films and plays, including Piccadilly (1929) and A Circle of Chalk (1929) opposite Laurence Olivier. Wong traveled between the United States and Europe for film and stage work. In 1935 she protested Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s refusal to consider her for the leading role of O-Lan in the Academy Award–winning film The Good Earth (1937). Wong then paid her one and only visit to China. In the late 1930s, she starred in several B films such as King of Chinatown (1939), graced the cover of the mass-circulating American magazine Look, and traveled to Australia. In 1961, Wong died of Laennec’s cirrhosis, a disease typically stemming from alcoholism. Yet, as her legacy shows, for a brief moment a glamorous Chinese American woman occupied a position of transnational importance.