Tuesday, September 27, 2011

UC Research Brings Focus to Portrayals of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on the Silver Screen

From UC News:

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the best-selling novel of the 19th century, has had an enduring impact on film and popular culture. In a year when we observe the 200th anniversary of author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s birth, a UC researcher is presenting on the novel’s impact, interpretation and reinterpretation on the silver screen.

Date: 9/26/2011 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824

UC ingot   “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, and almost immediately upon its publication in 1852, it made its way to stage, vaudeville, music and minstrel shows. In fact, it gave birth to an entire genre of minstrel shows called “Tom Shows.”

And, appropriately enough, it was the subject of one of the earliest films, a 12-minute motion picture made in 1903 by mechanic-turned-movie director Edwin S. Porter, which introduced the first black character – though played by a white actor in blackface – ever depicted in American cinema. VIEW a short clip, just below, from this first filming of Stowe's novel.

University of Cincinnati researcher Sharon Dean, associate professor of English and women’s studies, has studied the impact of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in film and popular culture for decades and points out that while more than 100 films, plays and musicals have recreated and reinterpreted the novel, many more reference its characters, plot and themes in some way.

According to Dean, “The 1915 silent movie ‘The Birth of a Nation’ borrows characters and the slave-cabin setting from Stowe’s novel. Bugs Bunny cartoons from the 1930s and ‘40s reference the novel. The musical ‘The King and I’ also contains a subplot from Stowe’s book. And even the 2002 film ‘Gangs of New York’ contains a scene where characters are at a stage play of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’”

She will present on her research during a Sept. 30-Oct. 2 conference, the Stowe Bicentennial Commemorative Conference, held in Cincinnati, Ohio, one-time home of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Dean will present at 1:45 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 1, at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in film or as popular culture objects – like advertisements, comics, Sambo coin banks and Topsy Turvy dolls – reflects the arc of racial attitudes and equality over the decades, explained Dean.

She added that in the early part of the 20th century and even well into the 1930s and '40s, Hollywood films were actively demeaning of and toward African Americans, largely because Hollywood tapped into the already popular formula of the Tom Shows. There was a brief respite from these characterizations, provided by the 1920s and '30s race films. Race films were movies produced by, directed by and starred in by African Americans for an African American audience.

In the 1950s, Hollywood began to react to the growing civil rights movement and to attract more diverse audiences. Thus, films took more care, generally, in depicting diversity and with characterizations of diverse groups.  Stated Dean, “The ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ scene in ‘The King and I’ would exemplify this much more sympathetic treatment of African American characters, with a harsher judgment delivered regarding the practice of slavery.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, films of and entertainment industry references to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” largely disappeared due to the civil rights movement. Interpretations of and references to the book’s narrative did not return until a 1987 television movie depicting the book. The more modern versions and references to the work generally employ it as a vehicle to explore and depict racial and economic injustice.

“The story, its characters, stereotypes and themes continue to be the lens through which we define America’s history of slavery and our interpretation of the struggle for equal rights. And while interpretations and reference to the book have certainly evolved, some elements have remained both consistent and intriguing,” said Dean.

For instance, two girl characters in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” are Eva and Topsy. Eva, a white child, is intelligent and angelic, while Topsy, a black child, is the opposite. (The current focus of Dean's research is the history and representation of Topsy.)

“Yet,” according to Dean, “from the earliest film versions, these characters were consistently played by twins. This brought in a subtext to these movies that didn’t exist in the book. The films were bringing a new dimension, looking at our duality as human beings, the multifaceted sides one individual can have.”

Other UC researchers participating in the conference are
  • Deb Meem, professor and chair of the Department of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies (WGSS), served as conference organizer.
  • John Douglass, associate professor of history at UC Blue Ash College, will present “Slavery vs. Freedom: The Wharton Jones vs. John Van Zandt Case and the Fugitive from Service Act of 1793.” He will present at 3:45 p.m., Friday, Sept. 30, at the National Underground Freedom Center, 50 East Freedom Way.
  • Lisa Marie Hogeland, associate professor of English and WGSS, will present “The Problem of Feeling Right in Your Heart” as part of a session titled “Sentimental Stowe.” She will present at 2 p.m., Friday, Sept. 30, at the National Underground Freedom Center, 50 East Freedom Way.
The Stowe Bicentennial Commemorative Conference is sponsored by Friends of Harriet Beecher Stowe House, Cincinnati Museum Center, The Mercantile Library, National Underground Freedom Center and the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County. For information about conference registration, call 513-751-0641 or 800-847-6075, or e-mailStoweConference@gmail.com

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