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Photograph by Gordon Schmidt

What was your goal for the book?
To show how popular culture is worthy of study in this realm. Everyone went to the movies. So what they were able to see at the movies was actually really important. I think it’s a factor that’s been looked over — this idea that the state can use popular culture to regulate its citizens the same way that it uses laws to regulate citizens. For this project it was really African-Americans, but also women. People were really concerned with what any woman was doing on screen. 

What was the censorship board’s objective?
Essentially, it was just to regulate to ensure that things it considered inhuman [such as race riots, miscegenation, or sex] were not on screen. That’s the word that they used — not “inhumane” but “inhuman.” They were very concerned about people that they called “vulnerable citizens” — to them that usually meant children or African-Americans. They were just really concerned about having no power over people piling into these movie theaters, seeing this potentially salacious movie, and who knows how that would affect them?

How was the board able to censor films?
Movies didn’t have the free speech protection that they do today; that’s why the board ended in 1965. [A series of Supreme Court decisions relating to free speech starting in 1952 marked the decline of film censorship.] So they would censor a race riot that an African-American movie producer might have in his film by saying, “This will incite violence.”

How did the public feel about censorship?
It was front-page news at the time. People seemed very split on this. Some people talked about wanting to protect children, wanting to not have really scandalous things being shown on screen, while others talked about self-regulation. It is the same debate — you could take it pretty much word for word — that we have about video games and violent movies. These are the same debates they were having 100 years ago. How influential is popular culture?

Did you find any notable films in your research?
I think one of the most interesting ones that they never censored was Birth of a Nation (1915). It was considered a technological feat at the time because it was a feature-length film. But it was incredibly racist. The NAACP would continually write to the board to censor this film because it perpetuated African-American stereotypes of being criminals, of being ignorant — the worst stereotypes you can think of. And it was shown constantly. But the board would never have a conversation about it. Given their goal and who they were, there would be no reason to censor it.