How The Godfather Saved/Changed Hollywood

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The Godfather ushered in a new era,” claimed Dr. Darl Larsen, professor of Theater and Media Arts. Hollywood film studios changed their structure because of the success of Fancis Ford Coppola’s blockbuster hit, The Godfather (1972). Throughout the 40s and 50s, Hollywood studios experienced significant strength and stability, but new media such as television began to threaten their dominance as well as the more experimental and thematically frank foreign films that made their way to American theaters throughout the 50s and 60s, American audiences wanted to see things that were more complex. Foreign films were not under any obligation to self-censor sex and violence, so they were marketed towards Americans as being more titillating, although whether the content was actually more explicit is up for debate according to Larsen. American audiences were drawn to these more challenging, foreign films because of the more extreme cultural circumstances of the 60s, including race riots, the war in Vietnam, and a myriad of political assassinations around the world. Movies, they thought, should reflect the darkness of real life and the news.

Hollywood was slow on the uptake. Westerns had more or less wandered into the setting sun and musicals were soon to follow. After the success of The Sound of Music in 1965, the studios thought that they could pour money into big musicals again, but after three massive flops including Doctor Dolittle (1967), Star! (1968), and Hello, Dolly! (1969) the days of the Hollywood musical came to a close as did the doors of MGM Studios. Hollywood needed to fundamentally change in order to survive. “The Godfather was directed by nobody,” Larsen joked, “That’s not true. It was directed by a nobody.” Francis Ford Coppola, as opposed to the Hollywood directors who preceded him, went to film school as opposed to having worked his way slowly up the ladder after working every job on the lot. 

In film school, which was relatively new, Coppola studied film both practically and critically. He watched all the great American and foreign films from the festivals and learned how different lenses, angles, sounds, etc. affect audiences. Despite rather disliking the novel, Coppola was sought after to direct The Godfather in part because he himself was Italian-American and because the studio knew they needed some fresh new vision. The Godfather became the first Hollywood blockbuster. It was a book. It was a movie. It was a soundtrack. All of these elements were mass marketed to push each other for greater sales and the film opened not in hundreds but in thousands of theaters to massive critical and audience acclaim. 

Because of The Godfather’s success, the studios shifted to center more around these blockbusters or “event films.” Studios also started looking for their next directors in recent film school alumni. There would be no Jaws (1975), no Star Wars (1977), no Taxi Driver (1976) were it not for Coppola and The Godfather.

Representing Blackness in American Cinema

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“Racism is racial prejudice plus power,” said Dr. Kristin Matthews of the Department of English. Matthews gave a lecture before a screening of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019) and touched on two other films in our Representing Race series: Green Book (2018) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).

She began with a short overview of some of the ways people of color have been represented and marginalized in American film history. Early American cinema showed blackness in a very limited way, usually through caricatures. Classic films like Birth of a Nation (1915) showed people of color as being criminalistic, savage, and violent. They were presented as threats to society, the nation, and white women specifically. A typical stereotype was the “bumbling, ignorant negro” who is used as comic relief in movies such as Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Judge Priest (1934) or for black women, characters like Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) in Gone With the Wind (1939), a house slave to a wealthy white family to whom she shows great affection. “The Wise Negro” is yet another stereotype of black people in American film in which an older, black person gives sage advice to the struggling white protagonist without any desires for themselves. Films like Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) employ this trope to paint black people as a tool or mechanism rather than as fully realized human characters. These and other stock characters were continually used to subjugate people of color and to reinforce race relations in terms of white supremacy: an instance of racial prejudice being elevated with power.

Another common and persistent representation of blackness in film was through blackface. Blackface is when a non-black person paints their skin to mimic a grotesque caricature of a person of color. We see this in such famous films as Othello (1965) and The Jazz Singer (1927). Blackface is used as a sort of power fantasy by non-blacks to reinforce harmful stereotypes. 

People of color have also been mistreated by the American film industry through the “White Saviour” narrative. This is when a white character saves the black characters or helps them to understand what it is to be black, thus giving power again to white people and subjugating black individualism and power. Some examples of “White Saviour” films include The Help (2011) and Green Book (2018). Contrary to reality, racism in these films is presented as a personal problem. A few bad apples of extreme racism in these films make white viewers (who may not understand how their privilege has benefitted them) feel safe, secure, and certainly not racist themselves. These stereotypes also double down on white supremacist notions of power consolidation under whiteness as ultimately beneficial for people of color. 

The author Toni Morrison wrote in this world of stereotypes which were—and are—prevalent in both film and literature. She challenged these notions of blackness as lesser-than in her own writing and in her work as an editor. “She published books that were deliberately black,” according to Matthews, and her work “corrects false stories and offers a range of black individuals” as opposed to the white imagination of blackness and black people as monolithic. 

Matthews left the audience with a number of questions to ask oneself when watching a film that may help to recognize the degree to which blackness is being fairly represented. Who benefits from the film? Who makes money off of this production? Does it maintain the status quo or challenge systemic institutional oppression? Who is empowered? Are the people of color characters or caricatures? And, does the film work to make white audiences comfortable?