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Black hands and white hearts: Italian immigrants as ‘urban racial types’ in early American film culture


Through the concept of ‘character’ or ‘urban racial type’, traversing literature, science and metropolitan life, Bertellini reconsiders early American cinema's colour-based biracialism epitomized by D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915). In the New York-based film industry race also emerged from the city's dense intermingling of ‘white ethnics’ and broader shifts in epistemological emphasis – from inheritance to the environment. If Italian immigrants were racialized as innately violent in early gangster films, after 1915 heartbreaking melodramas of destitution and misfortunes adopted instead a combination of still othering and universal characterizations.

Half the people in ‘the Bend’ are christened Pasquale…When the police do not know the name of an escaped murderer, they guess at Pasquale and send the name out on alarm; in nine cases out of ten it fits. Jacob Riis, 1890

I like to play the Italian because his costume, his mannerisms, his gestures, and his unlikeness to the everyday people of the street make him stand out as a romantic and picturesque person. Actor and director George Beban, 1921

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Urban History
  • ISSN: 0963-9268
  • EISSN: 1469-8706
  • URL: /core/journals/urban-history
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