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Lee Grieveson. Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth-Century America.

Lee Grieveson. Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth-Century America. University of California Press, 2004. 361 pages; $60.00.

Seminal Work

When one is barraged daily with media coverage (some critics use the term "media circus") of trials such as O. J. Simpson, Scott Peterson, and Michael Jackson, one may be tempted to feel that this is a modern phenomenon. By the same token, when one sees some of the idiotic manifestations today of what has come to be known as "political correctness," one may likewise be tempted to feel that this, too, is a modern phenomenon. In his excellent book, Lee Grieveson shows that these phenomena existed in early 20th-century America.

Policing Cinema comprises five main chapters: "Policing Cinema," "Scandalous Cinema, 1906-1907," "Reforming Cinema, 1907-1909," "Film Fights, 1910-1912," and "Judging Cinema, 1913-1914." The Introduction is also a worthy contribution to the history of film. For example, Grieveson gives information about the history of such current terms as cinema, plus those that have gone by the wayside (examples are nickelodeon and photoplay). The endnotes (given as a unit after the main text) are copious and consist of almost 100 pages. The author has clearly researched his topic carefully and extensively. Some controversial films are The Unwritten Law, Johnson-Jeffries Fight, and Birth of a Nation. The 1907 drama, The Unwritten Law, was based on a sensational trial, that of Harry Thaw for the murder of Stanford White. Thaw's wife, the lovely Evelyn Nesbit, confided to her husband after their marriage that she had been "ruined" by dating White. (Today we would call it date rape.) Thaw's attorney based his defense on the so-called unwritten law, which said that a husband, father, or brother had a de facto right to exact revenge on a man who had sex with his wife, daughter, or sister, respectively. There were two trials, one resulting in a hung jury and the second finding Thaw to be insane.

Johnson-Jeffries Fight appeared in 1910. Jack Johnson, the great African-American boxer, was as controversial in his time as Muhammad Ali was later to become in his. Whereas Ali's unpopularity with whites stemmed from his opposition to the war in Vietnam and resulting avoidance of the draft, Johnson's resulted not only from racism per se, but also from his relationships with white women. Even intellectual figures like Jack London made statements in support of Johnson's white opponent, Jim Jeffries, such as "Jeff, it's up to you. The white man must be rescued."

The Birth of a Nation (1915) gave the southern view of the excesses of Reconstruction, but sadly engaged in racial stereotyping in doing so. Although no less a figure than President Woodrow Wilson praised the movie (it was the first film shown at the White House) and the director, D. W. Griffith, offered to pay the president of the NAACP the then princely sum of $10,000 if he could cite any historical inaccuracies in the film; it was to become one of the most controversial movies in film history. (An example of Grieveson's meticulous research is his mentioning that protestors in New York City threw eggs at the screen when a black villain attempted to rape a white woman.)

Policing Cinema is a solid contribution to the history of American film, and Grieveson is to be commended for his study of movie censorship in the first decades of the 20th century. Policing Cinema should prove to be a seminal work for students of the American movie and culture.

Charles Wukasch
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Author:Wukasch, Charles
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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