Ellen Scott spends most her of free time at an archive desk, studying 80-year-old film scripts about slavery to determine how the institution’s cinematic image evolved over the years.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named Scott, the assistant professor of cinema and media studies at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, a 2016 Academy Film Scholar. She received a grant of $25,000 to continue her project, “Cinema’s Peculiar Institution”, which focuses on cinematic depictions of slavery, specifically in the Classical Age of Hollywood and onwards.
The Daily Bruin’s Nate Nickolai talked with Scott about her archival research, her experiences as an academy scholar and her hope for the future of cinematic representation.
Daily Bruin: What inspired you to research the image of slavery in Hollywood?
Ellen Scott: It’s a topic that has been massively ignored, and it’s been massively ignored more broadly culturally in the United States. We really have not reckoned with this past, to the point where people think slavery is an era rather than a constituting part of American history …
There have been a few recent studies that have shed some light on this topic, so I thought it was important to do a production-side history that looked at the particular investments of Hollywood filmmakers and, looking at slavery, the framework that they offered for understanding slavery.
DB: Why did you focus on the Classical Hollywood period?
ES: I am focusing on Classical Hollywood in many ways because I think it was a formative moment for American media and also because I think it was actually a really generative moment for representations of slavery … Especially the period of the 1930s and early 1940s, before America really entered (World War 2), became a time of intense ideological battle about what slavery was going to mean in the American system of signification, for lack of a better term.
DB: What do you think about today’s representation of slavery?
ES: There’s a rich representational field; we’re seeing some interesting images come out that really do break with a lot of what we saw in previous eras — particularly in the Classical Hollywood era — and it’s part of what the book will take on.
But, one thing I would point to specifically is just the rise in the number of images of rebellious enslaved people. The idea that slavery was a state of constant rebellion rather than a state of servitude is kind of one of the interesting things that’s coming out of this cycle, and I think in that way it’s seeking to speak to the generation of Black Lives Matter and to suggest a set of historical continuities in terms of how African Americans have been treated.
DB: How did you become an Academy Film Scholar?
ES: I just applied… I was very inspired by other scholars of color who did amazing work on questions of classical Hollywood that really changed the paradigm, and my hope is that future scholars who are interested in questions of race in Hollywood, questions of power and looking at leftist representations in classical Hollywood… will apply as well and will be successful in getting the grant …
I’m glad the academy is supporting this type of research because it’s a part of history that needs to be told in order for I think, in many ways, the industry to move forward. They have to reckon with that past. In the same way, in order for America to move forward, maybe it has to reckon with the past of slavery.
DB: What do you think needs to be done in the future to wholly address this issue of representation?
ES: When it comes to representation, there’s no single fix. One (potential solution) would be to open up the gambit to a wider range of filmmakers interested in this topic who have something to say about it, and who might not address it directly but might do it through kind of indirect means that show us something new or different about it…
What I always worry about when I worry about terms of representation, and civil rights too, is that it becomes this sort of nostalgia for the emancipation moment or the moment of freedom, which belies the fact we still have a long way to go.