On November 8, 1947, The Norfolk Journal and Guide published an article regarding controversies surrounding a new film, Hazard, based on a Roy Chanslor novel. The film would have featured Jerry, an exceedingly intelligent black porter and Sunday school teacher, but Paramount Pictures pushed an agenda to delete the character. According to Paramount, “Negroes have objected frequently to depiction of members of the race as menials in films.”132 However, according to Chanslor, Jerry was deleted because Paramount wanted to avoid a negative Southern reaction. The leading lady, Paulette Goddard, voiced her disappointment with this edit, “I was most perturbed over the recent deletion of the character ‘Jerry’... simply because he is a Negro who is portrayed in a sympathetic role.”133
This article provides an important case study for considering racial representation in the mid-twentieth century. In order to fully understand issues of racial representation during this time period, one has to look at how minstrel shows, the first nationwide popular entertainment form, were so integral to American society.134 Minstrel performances included, but were not limited to, musical acts and comedic skits. The shows made fun of black men and women through degrading characters and the use of blackface. One character, for example, was Jim Crow. He was presented as a “slow-thinking, slow-moving, country and plantation darkey.”135 Because of this history, I can understand if Paramount Pictures was afraid of a potential uproar from southerners. There was so much fear that there was even the suggestion to make Jerry’s character white. This portrayal of a white man wouldn’t challenge how the majority of the nation viewed white men.
I did not understand, at first glance, Paramount’s quote saying that black folks didn’t like films portraying black characters as “menials.” From what I’ve learned in previous courses, a porter was one of the most highly respected jobs for a black man to have. Porters got the chance to travel the country and interact with all different types of people, of all classes and races. They possessed specialized skills, class, and grace in all of their endeavors. They were integral in the Great Migration of black folks out of the South by bringing word about potential opportunities.136 Finally, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was crucial in the organization of the bus boycotts of 1955–1956.137 I would describe porters as anything but “menial.”138
Even though the deletion of one character from one movie may not seem to provide a monumental commentary on society, it does provide a place for a larger conversation surrounding how we can use pop culture as a lens into cultural dynamics. Society’s treatment of black people, both during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is reflective of society’s view and furthermore humiliation of them.”139 Jerry did not reflect any poor sentiments towards black folks at the time. Maybe seeing him on screen could have done a service to society. His removal, however, says that perhaps this nation was not ready for this shift in more positive black depictions in film. This struggle is alive and well today, particularly with a stark lack of diversity in recent Oscar and Academy Awards nominations. In the past few years “#oscarssowhite” has trended when awards are distributed to a consistently overwhelmingly white pool of nominees. There is increasingly, however slowly, more representation of people of color on the big screen every year.140 I just hope that shows that this nation will continue moving forward in deconstructing our perpetual “race issue.”