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2003 Annual Meeting . . . The Question of Culture

Multimedia Portrayals of a Communications Center: Race and Film in Atlanta

Third in a series of articles highlighting the sociological context of ASA’s next Annual Meeting location . . . Atlanta

by Dana White and Alex Hicks, Emory University

From its establishment in 1837 as a regional railroad hub named “Terminus,” Atlanta has functioned as a center of transportation, communications, and distribution. The city re-emerged from its 1864 burning by the forces of General William T. Sherman, again as railhead nexus for the Southeast, hosting international expositions in 1881, 1887, and 1895. During this era, Atlanta promoted itself ceaselessly, shamelessly, as the capital of a New—albeit segregated—South.

Booker T. Washington’s apparent acceptance of this “separate but equal” doctrine in his address at the 1895 Cotton States Exposition came to be called the “Atlanta Compromise.” But slowly, with accelerating force from the early 20th century, numerous Black Atlantans—from Washington’s contemporary W.E.B. Du Bois to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.—would reject this politics of accommodation, challenged it in the courts and in the streets, eventually overturning racial segregation.

No Time for Hate

As the civil rights movement unfolded, Atlanta presented itself to the nation as “The City Too Busy to Hate.” Unlike other Southern cities, its leadership preached and practiced controlled change. Atlanta could embrace relatively progressive racial policies because, as political scientist Clarence N. Stone has demonstrated in Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-1988 (1989), a cohesive coalition of business leaders and governmental officials assumed civic leadership during the 1940s and 1950s. Late in the 20th century, Atlanta would become the transportation and communications center for the Southeast, broadly defined as an area stretching from Savannah to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico to the Mason-Dixon line.

By century’s end, Atlanta would house regional offices for most major American corporations, as well as many international ones, and serve as corporate headquarters for Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, and the Turner Communications division of Time-Warner Corporation. It would become the site, along side Emory University, Georgia State University, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, of the six-member Atlanta University Center, the world’s largest concentration of historically Black institutions of higher learning. A cosmopolitan center for the South, it would become a center of Afro-American prosperity and political empowerment. However, “relatively progressive” and “cosmopolitan” hardly precluded an era of social conflict and tumultuous change stretching across much of the 20th century.

Film Chronicle

The history of changing race relations, prominent in chronicles of the national civil rights movement, is receiving a new and telling analysis in the work-in-progress of Emory film scholar Matthew Bernstein and Emory urban historian Dana F. White. This work investigates cinema across the color line in Atlanta, from 1895 through1996.

Their study has four foci. One is directed toward the construction of “theater biographies” of Atlanta’s major movie palaces, its segregated White theaters and its so-called “Colored” theaters as well—their locations, their ownership and management policies, and their popularity among Atlanta’s Black and White moviegoers.

A second focus considers the movie business in Atlanta, which has been a profitable business. Atlanta has been a major distribution center for Hollywood films across the Southeast and Atlanta’s “Film Row” is the site where national companies maintained regional offices with complex distributional policies. In Atlanta itself, movies were sent to individual theaters only at particular times; and within this system, Black theaters were considered to operate quite on their own. Thus, the popular Imitation of Life (1934), one of the first Hollywood films to deal seriously with racial themes, which premiered at the Fox movie palace for three weeks in December 1934, was pulled from distribution in White-only theaters after two months. Significantly, during the hiatus, the film played for a full week at Bailey’s Royal Theater, the premiere Black theater on Auburn Avenue.

Censorship

Bernstein and White, in the third and fourth legs of their work, will focus on film reception, both audience response and censorship. Concerning the latter, an official City Censor operated in Atlanta from 1914 to 1962, paying close attention to matters of race, as well as general propriety, in films shown throughout the city. (Bernstein and White have acquired a copy of all the extant records of that office’s operations.) Atlanta censors, for example, ensured that White Atlantans would never see Warner Bros.’ 1937 film about the notorious Leo Frank case, Mervyn LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget, much as they had assured that no Atlantans ever saw Universal’s big-budget version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927). Such bannings reflected the views of the local cultural custodians about what types of topics were appropriate for film viewing in the city. However, they have been just one part of the history of film going in Atlanta, along side demand and supply and popular cultures, White and Black, local and national.

At the 2003 ASA Annual Meeting, Bernstein and White will participate in a special session, titled “Black Movie Fandom in Atlanta, c. 1935.” This will center on the presentation by White of “Reception by the Numbers: A Headcount of Movie Fans in Black Atlanta” and by Bernstein of “‘And the envelope please’: Analyzing the Atlanta Daily World’s 1935 Movie Contest,” plus commentary on these papers by sociological discussants. In addition Bernstein and White will, with the cooperation of Turner Classic Movies, assist the ASA in the presentation of a two-evening film festival/symposium, titled “Warner Bros. versus Atlanta.” This will combine showings of that studio’s I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Oscar winner of the National Board of Reviews award for best picture of 1932, and its 1937 lynching drama They Won’t Forget. Each showing will be introduced by Bernstein, followed by discussions, facilitated by Bernstein and White, on the sometimes-tumultuous interactions among the national film producers and disparate groups within the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia.