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Lecture 6: Ethnic Assimilation Hollywood Style. Professor Michael Green. Body and Soul (1947) Directed by Robert Rossen. Previous Lecture. Feminist Film Theories “Is the Gaze Male?” Race and the Female Star in the 1930s” Writing about Film: The Thesis. This Lecture.

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Lecture 6: Ethnic Assimilation Hollywood Style

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Lecture 6 ethnic assimilation hollywood style

Lecture 6:Ethnic Assimilation Hollywood Style

Professor Michael Green

Body and Soul (1947)

Directed by Robert Rossen

Previous lecture

Previous Lecture

  • Feminist Film Theories

  • “Is the Gaze Male?”

  • Race and the Female Star in the 1930s”

  • Writing about Film: The Thesis

This lecture

This Lecture

  • What is Assimilation?

  • Blackface and Social Problem films

  • Body and Soul: Jewish Politics and Masculinity

  • Writing about Film: Gathering Ideas for Your Argument

What is assimilation

What is Assimilation?

Lecture 6: Part I

Body and Soul (1947)

Directed by Robert Rossen

Definition of assimilation

Definition of Assimilation

A process of socialization by which members of an (ethnic) minority group lose cultural characteristics that distinguish them from the dominant cultural group and take on the characteristics of that group.


Political goals

Political Goals

Assimilation is often used with regards to immigrants to a new land. Assimilating new immigrants is often a political goal.

Turn of the century immigrant name changes

English only propositions on ballots


Assimilation continued

Assimilation (Continued)

Assimilation does not just affect the assimilated group. The dominant group invariably takes on characteristics of the assimilated group, or alters in response to it.

Assimilation is sometimes contrasted with multiculturalism, a social state in which ethnic and other diversity is tolerated and even encouraged without the pressure for one group to give up its customs or traits.


U s assimilation

U.S. Assimilation

Assimilation is a bedrock goal of the American value system. Many believe that minorities should “…change their ways to conform to those of the dominant culture.”

Typical American stereotype

Rejects Ethnic Distinction

Aspires to be White

Becomes White

Advanced by Hollywood in such films as Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and others.

Contemporary reality

Contemporary Reality

Over the past decade, the number of U.S. residents for whom English is a foreign language has increased by 38%.

Nationwide, of the 43.6 million children attending public school, 2.6 million (or 5%) don't speak English as their first language—an increase of 76% in the past decade.

In New York and New Mexico, as many as 25% of students don't speak English.

David M. Newman, “Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life”

Contemporary reality continued

Contemporary Reality (Continued)

In one elementary school in Brooklyn, 40% are immigrants whose families speak any one of 26 languages.

Schools in Arlington, Virginia, now need to offer bilingual education or other language support for children in as many as 100 different languages.

David M. Newman, “Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life”

Summary who counts as white

Summary: Who Counts as White?

This is a historical question.

The case of Jewish Americans

The case of Italian Americans

The case of Latino/as

The case of Native Americans

How about Arab and Persian Americans?

It’s also a question of assimilation.

Losing culture

Participating in white racism

Acting/performing as White (Passing)



Assimilation ideology

Assimilation Ideology

“Most people believed that opportunities for inclusion into the larger society, as well as high-paying, stable jobs, could come about only if people from different cultures gradually lost their differences and adopted the lifestyle of the majority.”

David M. Newman, “Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life”


Final point

Final Point

“… the inherent trap of assimilation is that although it may signal an ethnic or racial group's inclusion in mainstream society, it also requires the group to transcend its status as a disliked minority by conforming to the dominant—in our society, European-American—way of life.

David M. Newman, “Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life”


Blackface and social problem films

Blackface and Social Problem Films

Lecture 6: Part II

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Directed by Alan Crosland

Al jolson

Al Jolson

Al Jolson was the most popular entertainer of the first half of the 20th century and the first Jew to become an American mass idol.

He belonged to the white immigrant group that was most involved both in the struggle for Civil Rights and in the dominant American mass-entertainment forms, black- face and motion pictures.

He specialized in Blackface musicals.

Pause the lecture; watch the clip from The Jazz Singer


What is blackface

What is Blackface?

Blackface is a performance tradition in which white actors don black make-up to impersonate black people, usually in a negative or stereotypical manner.

Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrelsy played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide.


Popularity of blackface

Popularity of Blackface

Blackface was extremely popular in the United States for more than 100years, retaining its popularity well into the 1940s.

Many films from both the silent and sound era featured white actors in blackface. It was commonly featured in musicals.

Such films included The Birth of a Nation (1915), The Jazz Singer (1927), Swingtime (1936) Babes in Arms (1939), Holiday Inn (1942) and This is the Army (1943).


The jewish black alliance

The Jewish/Black Alliance

Jews were the immigrant group most identified with blacks in America.

Blackface, such as performed by Jolson, is one form of that identification.

Another form of identification is the Jewish-black Civil Rights alliance.

This appeared on the Hollywood screen in the form of a genre that came to be known as the Racial Social Problem Film.


Racial social problem film

Racial Social Problem Film

Blackface came under serious criticism as a result of the emergence of the American Civil Rights Movement during World War II.

Race as a subject began to be handled in the Social Problem film, which featured stories of racism as a social and cultural “problem” that could be solved.

Social Problem films nominally advance tolerance, but most advocate passing and assimilation into Whiteness.


The height of social problem films

The Height of Social Problem Films

Between 1947 and 1949, when the left-leaning Popular Front overlapped with early Civil Rights, Cold War liberalism, Hollywood produced six hugely popular films exposing racial prejudice.

Crossfire and Gentleman’s Agreement (both 1947) were Hollywood’s first two movies about anti-Semitism.

Four 1949 movies on anti-black racism followed: Pinky, Lost Boundaries, Home of the Brave, and Intruder in the Dust.


Displacing anti semitism

Displacing Anti-Semitism

“These Civil Rights movies are the stepchildren of the generational-conflict films. Unwilling to show nativist hostility to immigrants, the earlier motion pictures displaced anti-Semitism in the wider society onto generational conflict within the Jewish family; in The Jazz Singer, resistance to the Jew becoming American comes from the Jewish father, not from gentiles.”

Michael Rogin, “Democracy and Burnt Cork: The End of Blackface, the Beginning of Civil Rights”


Tackling racism and anti semitism

Tackling Racism and Anti-Semitism

“The Holocaust turned Hollywood attention to anti-Semitism [which in turn] called attention to the racial oppression of African-Americans. Racism and anti-Semitism, the unacknowledged condition for blackface musicals and generational-conflict films from The Jazz Singer to Jolson Sings Again, are made visible on the screen in the Civil Rights movies.”

Michael Rogin, “Democracy and Burnt Cork: The End of Blackface, the Beginning of Civil Rights”


Differences in race movies

Differences in Race Movies

Eventually there would be a split in the Jewish-Black alliance, because Jews could more easily pass and assimilate.

Social Problem films of the time, such as Pinky, subtly reinforced segregation for African-Americans, while films such as Gentlemen’s Agreement advocatedassimilation into Whiteness for Jews.

Pause the lecture and watch the clips from Gentlemen’s Agreement.


Body and soul jewish politics and masculinity

Body and Soul: Jewish Politics and Masculinity

Lecture 6: Part III

Body and Soul (1947)

Directed by Robert Rossen

The movie

The Movie

  • Released in 1947; was a critical and commercial success.

  • Directed by Robert Rossen (The Hustler) and written by Abraham Polonsky.

  • Stars John Garfield and Lilli Palmer.

  • Was renowned for its realistic take on boxing and influenced Martin Scorsese’s boxing classic, Raging Bull.

Ideological background

Ideological Background

Rossen, Polonsky and Garfield were all Jewish Americans (Rossen and Garfield had changed their names so they could work in Hollywood).

Polonsky and Rossen were members of the American Communist Party and Garfield was involved in liberal politics.

Their Jewish backgrounds and political ideology would inform their movie-making, including Body and Soul.


Huac and the blacklist

HUAC and the Blacklist

The House Un-American Activities Committee, concerned that Hollywood was disseminating Communist propaganda, launched several waves of investigations aimed at outing Hollywood Communists.

In 1947, “The Hollywood Ten” were jailed for one year for refusing to answer questions and name names.

Many other film industry people were black-listed from Hollywood.


Body and soul filmmakers

Body and Soul filmmakers

Between 1951 – 53, Rossen, Garfield and Polonsky were called before (HUAC) and blacklisted for their refusal to name names.

Polonsky’s and Garfield’s careers were essentially ruined for their refusal to cooperate with HUAC.

Rossen eventually testified but his career was basically over as well; he and Garfield both died a few years after they testified.


Jews and boxing

Jews and Boxing

From the 1890s until WWII, Jews played a significant role in American prizefighting.

Although first generation Jewish immigrants had religious and cultural issues with it, second generation Jews saw boxing as a way to make money, combat stereotypes and find acceptance.

By the 1920s, there were a number of Jewish boxing champions.


Poor representation

Poor Representation

Despite the significant role of Jews in boxing, they were under-represented in movies, plays and novels about boxing.

Boxers in the movie continued to be played by actors of other ethnicities, such as Irish and Italian.

Champion (1949)

Directed by Mark Robson


Body and soul as exception

Body and Soul as Exception

“One exception to this cultural denial of Jewish achievement in prizefighting is Body and Soul . . . Set in New York City during the Depression, [the movie] offers the experience of its main character . . a young fighter from a Jewish family, as justification for parental dislike of boxing, seeing it as a physically dangerous activity that is exploitative of others and controlled by criminals.”

Aaron Baker, “Midtown Jewish Masculinity in Body and Soul”

Exception continued

Exception (continued)

“Yet Body and Soul also validates Charlie’s desire to put forward a strong, assertive masculinity and earn a living at a time when there were few other opportunities. By tempering the individualism of Charlie’s identity with the responsibilities implied by the older generation’s critique of boxing, Body and Soul attempts to define an American hero for working-class Jews.”

Aaron Baker, “Midtown Jewish Masculinity in Body and Soul”

Themes of the film

Themes of the Film

  • The movie explores the positive and negative consequences of assimilation.

  • The movie believes in upward mobility but criticizes the capitalist idea of pulling yourself up by any means possible

    • It associates violence with greed and certain kinds of business with crime, dehumanization and ruthlessness.

      Pause the lecture and watch clip #1 from Body and Soul.

Subverting hollywood mythos

Subverting Hollywood Mythos

  • A strong traditional connection exists between Judaism and communitarian politics – socialism – such as those endorsed in Bodyand Soul.

  • Polonsky’s socialist politics influenced the deviation in the movie from Hollywood’s mythology of utopian self-reliance, which emphasizes heroes who reflect America’s doctrine of individualism and manifest destiny – often dramatized in the Western.

Boxing as capitalist metaphor

Boxing as Capitalist Metaphor

  • Jews who leaned toward socialist politics such as Polonsky, Rossen and Garfield made boxing into a metaphor for capitalism.

  • The promoter controls the resources and capitol, exploiting the labor of the fighters, and consolidates the profits, rather than distributing them to the greater community.

  • This metaphor and the underlying ideology made the filmmakers targets for HUAC.

    Pause the lecture and watch clip #3 from Body and Soul.

Visual style

Visual Style

  • Baker argues that the realistic visual style – more mobile, handheld camera, harsh lighting (noir) work to:

    • Emphasize the stark differences between good and evil, as well as the tough environment.

    • Emphasize the brutality which helps convey the impact of Charlie’s moral choices.

    • Show Charlie’s emotional state in the ring, particularly his pain and bewilderment in the climactic fight – his ideological conflict.

      Pause the lecture and watch clip #3 from Body and Soul

Final point1

Final Point

While Polonsky wants to celebrate the toughness and charisma of the Jewish prizefighter in Body and Soul, he also shows how masculinity defined through assertions of superiority over others undermines the egalitarian politics valued by family and community.

Aaron Baker, “Midtown Jewish Masculinity in Body and Soul”

Writing about film gathering ideas to make your argument

Writing About Film: Gathering Ideas to Make Your Argument

Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947)

Directed by Elia Kazan

Lecture 6: Part IV

Summary of interpretive writing

Summary of Interpretive Writing

  • An interpretive claim presents an argument about a film’s meaning and significance.

  • These kind of claims address a film’s themes and abstract ideas, its social relevance, its historical context, and its influence, among other topics.

  • But they do more than identify themes; they go further, making an argument about what a film does with those themes.

Summary the thesis statement

Summary: The Thesis Statement

  • A thesis statement is the central claim of your paper - an assertion or argument that you try to prove through evidence. You must support the thesis statement in every paragraph and section of your paper.

Outline segmentation of the film

Outline/Segmentation of the Film

  • We experience a film scene by scene, but if we want to know how the scenes work together, we need an idea of the film’s overall structure or shape.

  • You should make an outline that reflects structural elements.

Structure of body and soul

Structure of Body and Soul

What principles of development connect Body and Soul from one scene to another?

  • Flashback/non-chronological narrative.

  • Fight scenes at crucial junctures in the life of the protagonist.

  • Alternation between the worlds of family and boxing.

  • A build to a final match designed to resolve the protagonist’s moral conflict and bring him squarely into one world or the other.

Noting outstanding formal techniques

Noting Outstanding Formal Techniques

  • As you watch a film, you should also jot down brief, accurate descriptions of the various film techniques used.

  • Once you have determined the overall organizational structure of the film, you can identify salient techniques, trace out patterns of techniques across the whole film, and propose functions for them.



  • For example, Body and Soul makes strong use of:

    • Harsh lighting contrasts

    • A more realistic acting style than was customary for Hollywood film

    • Mobile cameras during the fight scenes

    • A great deal of dialogue

Purpose meaning in structure and techniques

Purpose/Meaning in Structure and Techniques

Once you have a solid idea of how the film is structured, and have carefully noted any outstanding use of film techniques, you can begin to make a case for the purpose of the structure - in other words, what meaning is being produced as a result.

This exercise can also help you if you want to be a filmmaker yourself.


Identifying salient techniques

Identifying Salient Techniques

  • At any moment in a film, so much is going on that it is easy to be overwhelmed by all the technical elements.

  • Often, film analysts are unsure as to what techniques are most relevant to their thesis.

  • This is where planning your paper’s thesis in advance helps you. Your thesis will make some techniques more pertinent than others – although this process can often just as easily lead you to a thesis.

Identifying salient techniques1

Identifying Salient Techniques

For example, if your thesis asserts that Body and Soul advances the idea that economically depressed neighborhoods create a criminal class, than you may want to concentrate your formal analysis on elements of the film’s mise-en-scene – props, setting, costumes and lighting.

You can then refine your identifications from there, perhaps bringing in analysis of other film elements and how they work together.


End of lecture 6

End of Lecture 6

Next Lecture: The Drama of Race Passing

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