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date: 22 January 2021

The (In)visibility of Race in Twentieth-Century Crime Filmslocked

  • Taunya Lovell BanksTaunya Lovell BanksSchool of Law, University of Maryland

Summary

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.

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