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Whitewatching : cinema, race and regulation in the progressive-era United States Olund, Eric Nicholas

Abstract

Cinema emerged during a period of enormous social change in the United States. Gender relations were changing as the "New Woman" asserted her place in public life on more individualistic grounds, and ethnic relations were changing as vast numbers of Catholic and Jewish "New Immigrants" were changing the face of the growing industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Urban reformers, many of whom were themselves New Women as well as professionals characteristic of the corporate capitalism emerging at the time, saw cinema as an opportunity to assimilate immigrants to the self-governing ideals of white, middle-class American subjectivity. They formed the unofficial National Board of Review of Motion Pictures in New York City to review films prior to distribution in voluntary cooperation with the manufacturers. While Progressive era reformers often advocated increasing state intervention in other spheres of activity, they sought to pursue what they termed a constructive agenda for cinema in order to develop its educational and artistic potential and limit the police power of the state to regulating exhibition conditions and prosecuting obscenity. This experiment in governmentality had a racialized geography that went well beyond either the New Immigrants or New York, however. African Americans were moving in large numbers to these same cities from the South, yet these reformers remained willfully ignorant of their new neighbors. Drawing on archival case studies of Atlanta, Minneapolis and New York, with their very different racial, class and sexual politics, this project explores the variable geography of Progressive era cinema regulation and its production of whiteness.

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