One thing that is sometimes overlooked is who was seen as appropriate to portray various racial minorities. In many cases, it was a group of people who were very, very mixed in background and were not perceived as a unified race. You get the same thing in movies today.
In 1939 when The Maltese Falcon was re-released, most people knew who Marlon Brando was. People who knew him in 1939, they saw things much differently about him now. People who were really familiar with who Brando was, he was a little different. For instance, I don’t know if you know, but his character was an African-American prisoner in New York. I’m very grateful to have that movie. It’s like someone brought a little piece of history to my childhood.
If you were in the position to look over some old newsreel footage and you wanted to understand a particular part of history, what sort of racial groups would be ideal to portray?
In order to find that sort of thing, you have to do a little research and you have to be at least as interested in history as most people today are. It goes back a long way. For instance, there was a time when white people believed that black people could not know the English language, and the way they could explain things to black people was to tell them that there were only white people on the planet. One thing the media has never taught us, which is incredibly important—you can learn very quickly if you are interested in a topic.
Do you have any plans in the future to start work on a project on race-conscious cinema?
I’ve been working on a collection of interviews with people who worked on a number of films about racism. There’s a new exhibition at The New Museum in New York City called Color Changing, and it is the first show in a long while that is about this issue. I am just starting on the film I’ve been working on for a couple of years, which is called Black Like Me: Conversations with Hollywood Colorists,” with the kind of documentary style that I think should be more popular nowadays.
I’m hoping that someday that there will be a show about color-conscious cinema. That’s the thing that should be happening right now. We should do studies on color-conscious film and what our methods and theories are, not only about color itself, but also what we do when it comes to representation. I’m sure we would find many things to discuss