Ralph Ellison, “The Shadow & the Act

1964

In this short essay, Ellison considers several new films about Negroes. He compares the adaptation of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust to the classic D.W. Griffith Birth of a Nation, the racist film of “predigested dramatic experience.” We talk about Griffith’s film as technical advancement, but like naval technology, it was used in the service of degrading Negro life. How did this country square democratic ideals and racism? First by denying the Negro humanity, and now it is by working out white questions about that humanity in films that are ostensibly “about” Negroes, but are not for them at all.

Hollywood is but “the shadow” of “the act” that is real racism. It manipulates what is already an extant cultural image. These recent films make explicit how Hollywood focuses on whether Negroes should ‘pass,’ whether they should intermarry, and whether they have ruined the south – white questions for a white audience which still do not afford black characters full human rights.

One of the special dramatizations is of ‘passing,’ which dramatizes how the black community rejects mulattoes, which is simply not true, Ellison argues. Furthermore, it paints the black community as a locus one is condemned to. It would seem in Hollywood that “only white Negroes suffer – or is it merely the white corpuscles of their blood?”

Ellison is particularly fascinated by how moving these pictures are, especially to whites – they are cathartic, they touch a deep nerve despite “their slickest devices.” As an antidote, Ellison suggests watching the films in Harlem, where audiences laugh with a disjointed experience of how far the characters on screen seem from themselves. “Each of us must become the keeper of his own,” Ellison concludes.

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