Turning a negative into a positive

Selling is too simple a word for our needs. The circumstances and complexities of the civil rights movement in the United States are not going to be sold to the people of Africa . . . What is required is understanding . . .[through] a vigorous and unending communication with curious people of other lands. For this task the motion picture is eminently qualified.

George Stevens, Jr., Director of the USIA Motion Picture Service, at the American Film Festival, April 19651

This chapter shifts our focus away from the commercial Hollywood feature film intended mainly for domestic consumption, to the government-produced documentary aimed at audiences overseas, particularly those located in the developing world. This is an area of Cold War propaganda that hitherto has been largely overlooked, yet which formed a key weapon in the American government's publicity arsenal. The chapter is the first of a pair dealing with the role of film during a new and turbulent decade for both the Cold War and the United States internally: the 1960s. Several issues dominated sixties America, but fewer caused more social and political strife than the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Here I'll address the first of these issues, and demonstrate how American domestic affairs could often impact on the nation's Cold War policies and image overseas. My analysis will also highlight the subtle skills that Washington often employed to produce cinematic counter-propaganda during the Cold War.

As we shall see, during the 1950s and 1960s American policy-makers identified the nation's so-called 'Negro problem' as their Achilles heel in the Cold War's war of words. Consequently, race was the one theme that official propagandists probably spent more time on than any other. As coordinator after August 1953 of the nation's overt international propaganda activities, the USIA carried the chief burden of this task, seeking to counter allegations made by critics at home and overseas that the conditions American blacks suffered were utterly inconsistent with the United States' claim to be the land of the free and equal. As part of the agency's multi-million-dollar media campaign designed to cast America's racial problems in a positive light overseas, one film stands out in particular: Charles Guggenheim's Nine from Little Rock.

Released in 1964, this documentary cleverly repackaged an event that had played a defining role in international perceptions of race in America in the late 1950s into an American success story. The film not only won an Oscar, but was translated into more than a dozen languages and distributed in almost 100 countries. Nine from Little Rock was produced during a halcyon period for documentary filmmaking at the USIA, and capped US government efforts to manage foreigners' perceptions of the race issue during the Cold War. What follows is an analysis of the political, diplomatic and cultural contexts that shaped the creation and reception of Nine from Little Rock, together with an evaluation of the USIA's overall contribution to the battle of film images fought during the Cold War.

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Film Making

Film Making

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