Cedric J. Robinson's Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film Before World War II is a haunting and in-depth examination of the status of race relations in America in the early twentieth century, through the analysis of the film and theater of the day. Through his analysis of themes, trends and motifs in the films of the era, Robinson concludes that a number of social, economic and political forces present in these films established a firmly entrenched and prejudicial portrayal of the black experience in American cinema and Black cinema in particular.
Robinson's study of the subject at hand parallels the growth of capitalism and racial institutions, as greed is shown to be one of the ultimate factors in advancing the negative and stereotyped portrayal of African-Americans in cinema. For example, in the early days of Hollywood, the need for profit was so great that successive regimes of white-centric films were established, and the genres of plantation and jungle films showed blacks as servants or savages. Robinson explores the exploitation of motion pictures for commercial profit, and its parallel timing with the onset of Jim Crow, as one of the primary impetuses for negative Black representation in film. "This coincidence of the manufacture of an embryonic mass culture and a profound restructuring of race relations serves as one critical rationale for the transfer of blackface minstrelsy and other icons of Black inferiorization to the emerging filmic culture" (318). These representations of blacks were effectively all that existed in this era, with the exception of the black resistance to these negative portrayals, which did not have the same kind of financial support.
One thing that Robinson does especially well is compare the standard Hollywood practices of portraying blacks in film with attempts to subvert and resist those practices by black filmmakers. D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) portrays a noticeably pro-Ku Klux Klan message, with blacks being shown as minstrel-like stereotypes and romanticized the origins of the Klan as coming from a place of protection for white women (145). "Darkey stories" were seen as a genre unto themselves, with films like Who Said Watermelon? (1902) and Wooing and Wedding a Coon (1907) being common film titles in that genre. On the other hand, Oscar Micheaux and other black filmmakers of the day resisted this by creating films that not only uplifted the black experience, but also critiqued the national myth of America in prescient and fascinating ways.
Its ultimate relation to African American Studies is significant, as it covers an oft-ignored aspect of early black history: blacks in early American cinema. Society is often reflected through its art, and so the cultural attitudes behind that society can be found by examining it. In this era, however, we find two opposing forces: Jim Crow-inspired early Hollywood and the black film resistance led by figures like Oscar Micheaux. The factors that led to the profiting of one of these schools over the other is presented in great detail by Robinson, and the contexts and frameworks for these patterns are elucidated upon. Overall, by assimilating and engaging with the material in Robinson's work, one gains a greater understanding of the added cultural struggle that blacks had to go through with the advent of the motion picture industry, and the ways in which they resisted.
Robinson, Cedric J. Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Film Before World War II. UNC Press, 2007. Print.