Believing Is Seeing II: Blackface, Adaptation, and Race

When you read this passage from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriett Beecher Stowe’s landmark abolitionist bestseller from 1852–

He was a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man, of a full glossy black, and a face whose truly African features were characterized by an expression of grave and steady good sense, united with much kindliness and benevolence. There was something about his whole air self-respecting and dignified, yet united with a confiding and humble simplicity.

–what do you see? This?


Or this?

James Lowe as Uncle Tom in 1927's Uncle Tom's Cabin
James Lowe as Uncle Tom in 1927’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Hopefully, not this, from 1936’s Dimples (William Seiter), starring the biggest movie star of the day, Shirley Temple. The movie supposedly tells the story of the first stage adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The conflict in the movie is not over the anti-slavery message of Stowe’s book—abolition doesn’t figure into the movie at all—but whether theater acting is a “moral” activity. Here, Temple plays the title character, Dimples Appleby, in turn playing the character of Eva on stage, encountering a blackface Topsy and later her grandfather, Eustace Appleby (Frank Morgan) also in blackface as Uncle Tom (well, one of two Uncle Toms):

So which is the “real” Uncle Tom as described by Stowe? In last week’s entry, I took the occasion of President Obama’s moving eulogy in Charleston and the debate over the Confederate battle flag to make a point about how what we think shapes what we see, an idea that has resonance for how we think about our screen experiences in general and about the fraught history of racism in American in particular. This week, I want to continue that discussion by applying the axiom of “seeing is believing” to the example of the many Hollywood adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to think about what the process of adaptation from book to the screen tells us about the construction of what we call “race” and how central screen experiences have been to our beliefs about seeing race.

In one of the online Case Studies for Chapter Three of Screen Ages, I offer the many movie versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a way of charting the development (“progress” might be too linear a term) of how Hollywood represented race in the movies during the first half of the 20th century. In her disturbing blackface performance in Everybody Sing! that I wrote about last week, Judy Garland was specifically drawing on the character of Topsy from Stowe’s novel, an enslaved child whose rebelliousness and hijinks have been read as both an example of egregious stereotyping (as in Garland’s performance) and as an example of a subversive challenge to white supremacy. In the scene from Dimples, we see yet another actor from The Wizard of Oz, Frank Morgan, the wizard himself, in blackface. Blackface was such a central part of American popular entertainment from the 19th century on that it appears with a shocking casualness in much of Hollywood history as an accepted form of comic relief.

But blackface was also central to all adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from 1852 on, whether comic or not. All the early screen versions of the novel, starting with Edwin S. Porter’s 14-minute version in 1903

were in blackface. William Robert Daly’s 1914 Uncle Tom’s Cabin was significant for featuring a black American actor, Sam Lucas, as Uncle Tom.

But while clearly part of how racism operates, blackface turns out to be strangely difficult to define. Even though the Wikipedia article on blackface seems simple enough—“Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used by performers to represent a black person”—this definition begs the question, just what do we mean by a “black” person? Blackface is an imitation that actually creates the original that it claims to duplicate. It is also a form of visual representation that evokes and depends upon a set of beliefs, beliefs we can “see” in Stowe’s verbal description of Uncle Tom above, with her references to Tom as “full glossy black” (a human skin pigmentation found nowhere in nature) and his “truly African” features, which means . . . what, exactly?

Such descriptions have and remain a point of contention for readers of Stowe’s novel, but they underscore the complexity of any verbal description of a character as “white,” “black,” or any other racial signifier. As both Garland’s performance in Everybody Sing! and the excerpt from Dimples show us, blackface was also not meant to be “realistic.” We were to understand that the audience members in the movies and the audience members watching the audience members in the movies recognized that the characters on stage were “really” white, that blackface was a kind of shorthand, almost (but not quite!) as if they were wearing signs that said “I am black.”

This elasticity of racial identity is even the source of it’s own ambivalent comedy in this excerpt from the silent comedy Uncle Tom’s Gal from 1925 (directed by William Watson). The plot involves a movie crew showing up in a farm town to shoot a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin starring a local farm girl (Edna Marian). Here, Marian’s character switches from Eva to Topsy, from white to black, after the filming of Eva’s “tragic” death:

Uncle Tom’s Gal

Here’s an example of the instability of comedy, as racist humor also acts at the same time as a way of exposing the absurdity of race, showing how the creation of visual representations of characters originally created in words depends not on accurately depicting what race “really” looks like but in activating the beliefs—prejudices, stereotypes, and biases—about what race “means,” just as Stowe relies on cultural beliefs about what it means to be “truly” African.

The absurdity of blackface—and the fact that “believing is seeing”—does not mean race—and racism—isn’t “real.” Quite the contrary. The reality of race as a belief system rather than as a stable visual and physical property actually helps explain the persistence of racism, especially when racism is linked to maintaining a particular power structure. What screen adaptations of Stowe’s novel demonstrate is how any visual screen experience starts with our beliefs about what we are going to see. In creating race on screen, moviemakers are always reinforcing, challenging, or adapting to those complicated beliefs. Neutrality is not an option.

For a fascinating overview of Hollywood’s treatment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, visit the Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture website at the University of Virginia.