Material History of American Religion Project

Religion in American Film

We are surrounded by the media, which shape the way we understand the world. But how? Project scholar Judith Weisenfeld suggests that the process is far more complex than first appears. In her book for the project Weisenfeld is looking at images of religion, race, and gender in American film from 1929 to 1950. She discussed her work with the project staff.

Q: How did you get interested in film?

A: I have always been interested in movies, but it is only recently that I came to believe that I could turn my love of movies into a productive research project. I grew up watching old movies. My mother shared her love of Hollywood with me; she introduced me to all of the mainstream Hollywood films she grew up watching at Saturday matinees in the 1940s in Trinidad and Tobago. She knew all the biographies and the gossip about the stars and I acquired all of this very useful information from her at a young age. I came to college in New York in the days when the revival theaters were still in full swing and when one could see a double feature of old movies any day of the week. I think it is very significant that my introduction to many of these movies came in a theater. When I was young I had as close to the original experience of these films as one could have years after they were produced, but now, with the demise of most revival theaters, I rent old movies from the video store or see them on cable.

Q: When did you first connect your interest in the movies with your study of American religion and culture?

A: I came to this in a roundabout way. I never really intended to write about film, much less religion in film. On my first day of graduate school I came upon a book in the library called Black Film as Genre by film historian Thomas Cripps, in which he has a chapter on black religious films. He was interested primarily in 1940s films made by independent black filmmakers. Many of these films were actually religious melodramas intended to cultivate a particular kind of religious experience in the viewers. I started to think about those movies, and also to look at representations of African Americans in Hollywood films. I noticed that in the Hollywood films representations of African Americans were often situated in a religious context. In one of the first all-black cast movies, Hallelujah (1929) by King Vidor, or in the later example of Vincent Minnelli's Cabin in the Sky (1943), there's always this subtext of religion in relation to people of color, in particular African-Americans. I realized that nobody had really taken up these questions in the field of religious studies. Over time I have broadened my view to think not just about African Americans, but to think about how religious themes become part of larger narratives about American identity in the films.

Black film, black religion

Q: Do see more religious themes going on in black film than in more mainstream films? I know there is a stereotype that black people are more spiritual than whites.

A: There are two answers to that. In mainstream Hollywood films, religion is associated with people of color and marks them as simpler, more primitive and, often, as feminized in relation to whites. An example of the use of religion to feminize blacks is The Oxbow Incident (1943), with Henry Fonda, which is about a lynching of a white man accused of cattle rustling. The black character is deeply feminized because he is the only one in this crowd of people searching for the rustlers who is religious; he makes explicitly religious objections to the lynching and, as a result, is marginalized in the narrative and understood to be weaker than the non-religious white men. I see that a lot. Black films try to overcome this stereotype of blacks as naturally religious by trying to show a wide range of religious perspectives. Many of these films contain a very strong critique of the black church, sometimes accomplished by ridiculing ministers. You can see a very protracted and sometimes heated debate over the place of religion in black communities across these race films, which were produced from the 1910s through the late 1940s; religion is an important theme in race movies but it's impossible to say that it functions in any singular way, as is often the case in Hollywood films that represent black religiosity.

Q: Can you give us an example that would show us how it worked in a couple of different ways?

A: One of my favorite examples is Within Our Gates (1919) by Oscar Micheaux, the dean of the black filmmakers, who produced films through the late 1930s. The film is most remembered for portraying a lynching in a quite graphic manner, which generated a great deal of controversy in 1919. With regard to his analysis of the impact of religion in African-American communities, Micheaux has two pivotal characters in this film. One is a minister who founded a school in the south and is trying to raise money to keep the school going. He is a morally upright and well-educated man trying to uplift the race. Micheaux sets him against Old Ned, an illiterate country preacher, who delivers a sermon in a wonderful scene that Micheaux recapitulated a number of times in different ways in other films. He delivers a sermon on "Abraham and the fatted calf" and, in the course of preaching, he extracts a great deal of money from the congregation. In another scene we see Old Ned operating as the stooge of some wealthy white men in this Southern town. So he has betrayed the race many times over in different ways. In the film it's all tied to the way he manipulates the congregation through his own manipulation of the little he knows of Bible. Micheaux is known as a critic of the church, but once you get into the real content of the film you can see how he positions characters against one another to say, this is when the church does the best for the community and this is what we should avoid. You find this pattern in a number of his films and others as well.

Q: It is like the Atlanta Convention all worked over again in film.

A: Right. Micheaux is very dualistic in his portrayal -- here's what we should do and here's what we shouldn't do. He is an advocate of Booker T. Washington, whose portrait appears on the wall in Michaux's 1924 film Body and Soul. This was Paul Robeson's film debut, in which he plays a con man preacher who steals money and rapes a woman. There's an intense scene in the film in which Robeson’s character visits a congregant to find the money; in the background is a portrait of Booker T. Washington, again, as a counter example to the minister’s actions. We see this theme in many other race films, across genres, including comedies. The Black King (1932) is a spoof of Marcus Garvey in which a church deacon leads people on a back to Africa movement. His eventual downfall, the result of his own stupidity, provides a negative model of black religious leadership.

Artists and agency

Q: Unlike a novel, which is usually created by a single individual, in a film there are lots of people and ideas involved. Even when the director is the principal writer, there are studio decisions that get made. What are the larger forces that bring these religion and race, religion and gender films into being?

A: That is one of the more difficult things for me to figure out, as someone just entering the field of film history. You have to figure out when the director is a prime mover as in the case of some of the black independent filmmakers like Spencer Williams or Oscar Micheaux, who were constrained mostly by money, but also sometimes by censors. In the Hollywood studio system, however there's the director, the producers, or the studio moguls who might decide to take up a particular issue. Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox, for example, decided to make Gentlemen's Agreement (1947) in order to make a statement against anti-Semitism. He was very hands on and shaped the film’s production in relation to his larger social concerns. The other major player that I've become interested in is the Production Code Administration (PCA), the censors. In the period that my project covers, 1929 through the late 1940s, the producers, the director, the writers, the actors, the costume designers, and the songwriters all had to deal with the censors before going into production and needed the PCA’s seal in order to distribute their films. The censors are important figures in American film history from 1930 on and proscribe presentations of crime, sex, nudity, profanity or vulgarity. Filmmakers were prohibited from ridiculing religion as well. In reading PCA reports on film scripts, I have found them to be very attentive to the representation of the clergy in film at this period. So all of these things come together, and articulating precisely how the final product came into being is complicated. Especially in the early years, state censorship boards could decide to have cuts made; you might see a different version in New York from what someone would see in Pennsylvania or Ohio or anywhere else. I have been able to go through the studio production files for films and look at all the versions of the script and memos about the whole process of production. I have also read through the censorship files and the comments that people from the Production Code Administration made on the scripts, the costumes, the sets, advertising and music.

Q: We need to look at movies as very complex cultural artifacts. We can't look only at individual moviemakers. There are also consumers of these movies, and there are production boards. How do you read this rich cultural product as a religious historian? Where do you start?

A: The most difficult questions have been those of agency and of reception. I try to balance my reading of the film, which is necessarily my reading from my historical moment, with what the results of wide-ranging research can tell me about the filmmaker and production staff, the sensibility of the studio, who was assigned to the film in the censorship office, all to get a sense of the range of people involved in the production of a particular film. It has been more difficult to come at the reception side. Much of the literature about religion in film does not provide useful models for thinking about this aspect of film studies because it tends to read the film merely as a self-contained text. I find that many scholars don't go beyond that very often, to flesh out the actual context and figure out who is involved and what kinds of concessions one group made to another. That takes a lot more time and I think it is truer to the moment of the film.

Q: Do you read reviews?

A: Yes, I do read reviews and utilizing them also involves learning about the various reviewers for newspapers and trade magazines. In looking at production files, I also get to read the letters that come in to the producers after the release. People are sometimes very annoyed about something or other they have seen in the film. One production file contained a vehement letter about Lauren Bacall's hairstyle; it must have bothered this woman considerably that she was moved to send a letter to the effect that, "I loved this movie but hated her hair." These kinds of letters give another important perspective on audience reception.

Q: Most historians write about books or articles or sermons. To interpret those you need to know something about the author and maybe the editor or publisher. But here you have so many more layers involved, to get it from the beginning of the creation to the audience. A production has to go through so many hoops; you have to identify how each of those hoops affected the final product.

A: Not all those factors may make it into my book or be that significant, but I am interested in getting at the audience side. I'm going to start some casual conversations with people who grew up watching the films of the thirties and forties, to get a sense of what it was like to go to the Saturday show and what the people thought about the newsreel, and the relationship of the detective serial to the feature film. Did the features really loom as large as they seem to us now or should we also be looking at the short films that preceded the feature? The advertising campaigns are also very interesting -- the marketing of a film, the products that may have been distributed around it, the things people took home, the fan magazines people may have kept in their houses. This is where some of the material aspects of film will come in.

Shaping a world

Q: How important do you think movies were in the formation of total religious and moral worldviews?

A: I’ve read that in the 1930's somewhere near 85 million people attended movies each week -- a huge number. So Saturday night and Sunday morning were the two big assemblages for children and adults in America in these years. A great deal of literature in the early thirties theorized about the effect of movie-going on children; there was a series in the Christian Century in 1933 on "movies and your children" that synthesized and summarized these studies. The conclusions generally argued that, left uncensored, movies would ultimately lead to delinquency in young Americans. The author of the Christian Century series argued for a more stringent production code in order to affect the shape of the final product from very early on the process, rather than trying to limit the release of the films.

Q: When does the Legion of Decency come in for Catholics?

A: The Legion of Decency is founded in 1934 with the goal of promoting rigorous enforcement of the Production Code. Frank Walsh's recent book, Sin and Censorship, on Catholics in the movies, argues that the Legion of Decency didn't just emerge as a cultural force in the early 1930s, however; Catholics had been interested over a long period of time in the impact of film on American religious sensibilities. All of these studies are saying that the movies are teaching your children to think about and ultimately lead them to engage in crime, alcohol consumption and sex. The various studies include interviews with teenagers where girls say, "Yes, I went to the movies; it made me feel like I wanted to kiss a boy." A boy would say, "I'd like to be a gangster because I saw it in the movies." There was a strong sense in the thirties -- and there are similarly problematic arguments today -- that young people model themselves on what they see in the movies. In the end I cannot say definitively that movies provided a model for young peoples’ religious beliefs. I'm not arguing that these movies are religious. I am interested in moments at which issues related to religion, religiosity, and religious institutions are part of the narrative. Why is it that a major character who provides a turning point for the star of the movie is a religious figure? Why are people praying? Why are these things part of the narrative? What do they say about race, gender, and American identity? My favorite example of this is Preston Sturges' 1941 film, Sullivan's Travels, in which the main character is a director of serious political films and is sent out by his studio without any money to find the real world. He eventually ends up on a chain gang. One evening the prisoners are taken to see a movie being shown in a black church. They come in at the end of the service and the congregation finishes singing "Go down, Moses, let my people go." They all then watch the movie, which is a Disney cartoon projected on a white sheet in front of the church. This experience leads the director to an epiphany: people don't want serious movies to tell them about social problems, people need entertainment to distract them. My work has led me to ask a number of questions about this central scene in Sturges’ film. Why does this happen in a church? Why couldn't this scene take place in the prison? What exactly is the function of this particular religious community and the racialized community in the film? I think Sturges is providing a layered representation of escapism. The stereotype of black religiosity is that it is escapist, that it diverts people's attention from social questions. Layered on top of that is the issue of viewing a Disney cartoon as the war was going on in Europe. Before I started thinking about the place of religion in film narratives, it just would not have occurred to me to ask those kinds of questions of this material. There are a lot of films that I had seen too many times to admit without embarrassment, but I never noticed the functions of images of religion in them.

Q: Do you use film in your teaching?

A: I do sometimes. Just last spring I taught a course on religion and social constructions of race as a survey across American history, and I used a number of films. We did a unit on Gentlemen's Agreement (1947) to look at the post-war period, to see how Americans were trying to chart out what pluralism in the post-war period would look like. I tend to use a lot of documentaries. I show them for the factual information that they carry, but we also talk a lot about the construction of documentary as a genre. I try to give students a sense of how one narrates a particular historical event in ways that are manipulative -- not in the negative sense of the word -- but to think about the structures of documentaries and what kind of footage evokes different kinds of emotions. I use a 1980s cinema verite film on the Christian white supremacists associated with Christian Identity that has been very useful for this kind of discussion. I've been thinking about how to incorporate documentaries from the 40's into this project as well. I’ll also be teaching a new course on Religion and American Film in the spring semester of 1999.

Q: What would interpreters of American religion, both historians and contemporary observers, miss if they don't pay attention to this particular kind of evidence?

A: This is not like reading a sermon, these are not religious texts. I've always been particularly interested in talking about religion in America in ways or places we would not necessarily think of -- in non-institutional locations, where religion happens in between the clear lines of institution or practice. I think film is a great source for such an approach. Again, I am interested in how religion becomes part of narrative -- in film, in ways of thinking about American history, in ways of constructing American identity. It's a very subtle way of looking at religion in America. Given the large numbers of people going to the movies during the first half of the 20th century, it's a significant venue for people to obtain tools or information to think about religion in relation to race, gender, nation, and community. It's difficult to gauge the impact in a very clear way, but religion is a strong theme in many of these films. I have a long list of films that contain some kind of attention to religion; it's prominent and it's present in a consistent way. I think it is a very significant arena for consideration and scholarship. It is very different from a kind of institutional history that I did in the last project and very, very challenging.

B movies

Maria Montez in Cobra Woman (1944)Q: One of the things I have enjoyed about your work is that while some of the movies you are investigating are films -- important movies of our era -- with a lot of them, you're being charitable if you call a movie. That helps us, as you say, to find religion in all kinds of places, not just in places where it plays an important symbolic role.

A: I think today most of us who are not film historians don't have any sense of just how many movies were produced during Hollywood’s classic era. People today have a good sense of A movies -- these are the films one can see on TV on a regular basis -- but the huge range of B movies from the 30's and 40's are in some ways the most interesting to me. Cobra Woman (1944) which is just a throwaway, wartime, Technicolor, campy romp, is one of the films I have written about. Although it would never be mistaken for an A movie, I would not ignore it because it says some interesting things about religion. People are obviously getting tools and ways of thinking about issues from all of these kinds of productions. Then there are newsreels and serials, neither of which I have space to address. I think it would certainly be a mistake to ignore the range of popular films in favor of the more polished Hollywood products.

Q: Unlike either a sermon or a documentary, Cobra Woman allows you to hint at a lot of things that you might never say in a pulpit or an editorial. Is that is one of the gifts of film to the making of meaning?

A: Definitely. This film is in many ways a meditation on fascism and the relationship of what the film calls religious fanaticism to fascism, and it's all presented under a cover of romance and millions of costume changes for Maria Montez. These are films that contravene, in subtle ways, the oft-quoted Hollywood dictum, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." These films were absolutely sending messages, couched in all sorts of covers. It surprised me to find such a strong message in a campy, Technicolor, musical romp; you can imagine how powerful that might have been for an audience in 1944.

Q: Do you have any sense of how those audiences received those messages, or is that just too difficult to get at?

A: I haven't been able to say definitively for something like Cobra Woman. In the film there is a hand motion that the worshipers of the cobra make. When I show that movie to people, the first thing they say is that it is a Nazi salute. I cannot imagine that people in 1944 wouldn't recognize that as well. But I don't have any concrete evidence on reception. I am looking into a study that was done around the release of Gentleman's Agreement, a movie about American anti-Semitism. People were polled about how the film affected their attitudes toward Jews, and more than 50% said they had left the film with a more favorable attitude and something like 30% said their attitude was negatively influenced by the film. But those kinds of studies are rare, although there are more generalized studies from the period about audiences in relation to different genres of films. I don't think in the end that my work turns on being able to say this film influenced peoples' beliefs and behaviors in XYZ ways, however.

Angels in America

Q: I can't resist going from B movies to their equivalent on television today. Lots of people have remarked about the resurgence of supernatural and religious themes on TV from Touched by an Angel to Sabrina the Teenage Witch. What's up and how do you evaluate this resurgent theme in contemporary culture?

Q: In the case of Touched by an Angel and the spin-off and the copycat shows in that genre, I have noticed how incredibly formulaic they are -- someone is reduced to prayer by the death of a loved one, the near death of a loved one, or the serious injury of a loved one, in almost every episode I have seen. It's always the same, and I don't find that message interesting at all. I'm not sure why that's much more popular than 1980s angel shows, for example. Obviously, it is something about our moment looking toward the millennium and a general desire for some kind of individualized protective presence. It is significant that the angels in these shows are unaffiliated roving angels. They are clearly grounded in a Christian context, but they don't play religious favorites on Touched by an Angel, for example. It is not a Christian show to the exclusion of everything else. I think that it is part of the spirituality turn of our moment, and a general dissatisfaction with institutions.

Q: How do these supernatural shows compare in their treatment of religious themes compare to some of the hospital shows where themes of life and death come up -- Chicago Hope or E.R.

A: In the hospital shows you get to work character development over a long period of time. The angel shows try to do that, but it seems incongruous that you have an angel who is undergoing character development and struggling with all sorts of general life issues. The hospital and legal shows try to set questions of ethics in a much broader context. The hospital shows and many of the legal shows right now really do take up questions of religious ethics on a consistent basis and have characters struggling with them over longer periods of time. The angel shows deal with a kind of Love Boat, special-guest-star model that doesn't allow for that.

Q: Here at the seminary I can hear faculty talk about either a cop show or a hospital show seriously, but I have never heard anyone discuss one of these angel shows. There is no moral question at stake that's got you still going at 9:00 the next morning.

A: That's because the formula works. You reduce this person through tragedy and they pray, but you are not sure what happens after that because next week there is a new crew of guests. But, in the cop show you can see these characters who are already set up as complicated, fragile people having to deal with a whole range of relationships and events over a period of time. That's infinitely more satisfying than guest appearances every week.

Q: How does your work change or enrich our understanding of American religion and film?

A: First, I hope to demonstrate some ways of taking popular culture, including film and television, seriously as sources for doing work on religion in America. Obviously, viewers and scholars are interested in how to understand the appearance and uses of religion in recent movies and on television shows like Touched by an Angel. Margaret Miles, in her book Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies, has provided one model in her examination of a number of movies produced in the 1980s and early 1990s. Other people are writing about film as a mythical template. This kind of work takes films with no explicit religious content, like Aliens or Rocky, for example, and analyzes the ways in which they reveal archetypal religious structures. I'm not doing either of those things. I'm not interested in making any kinds of evaluations about whether movies are good or bad or in reading them through any particular template derived from religious studies. I'm trying to think about where they fit in the particular historical moment as part of popular culture, part of an American sensibility about religion. It is very unfortunate that very little of the religion and film literature examines films released before the 1970s. I'm looking at the period in which Hollywood made itself and established all the narrative conventions that we so take for granted now. How you tell a story on film, what elements must be included, in what order, what kinds of effects certain kinds of editing decisions have, how we understand film and TV -- all are shaped largely in this period, the classic Hollywood period of the late 1920s through the 1940s. None of the literature takes this approach and, although I'm lucky in some ways to be alone in the field, it also makes the project more difficult.

Q: Out of the massive list of movies you could examine, how do you pick which ones to pay attention to-the one that grab your attention most or the ones that you can make the most out of?

A: Choosing which films to write about is very difficult because there are so many movies that include religion in some way. I have spent a number of years just watching movies and sketching out the major themes that emerge from casual and then more focused viewing. So I determine whether a particular film contains representations of religion and whether these images are connected to images of race and gender. From there I look for what seem to be the films that can best illustrate some of the themes I’m interested, such as the construction of community, racial boundaries, or masculinity. Also I've had to think about which films will provide the best contextual sources. For instance, I have to determine whether production files are available. That's hardest with independent black films. I can contextualize them through newspapers of the period that mention the films or filmmakers, but there is very little to work with otherwise. I had originally intended to do a section of the book on silent movies, which I love and are very rich sources for exploring my interests but I had to limit myself by time period. There’s so much to do just in the 1929-1950 period I'm doing now. I hope to include an appendix in the book that will list the films I’ve viewed and find interesting but could not fit into the final product.

UF - book - essay - based - John R May - analysis - journals - articles - papers.

Judith Weisenfeld is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion at Barnard College in New York City. She was interviewed by Project director James Hudnut-Beumler and associate director Daniel Sack.

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