This essay examines the political meanings of John Ford and Dudley Nichols's film The Hurricane (1937). The Hurricane appears at a pivotal moment in American history, a moment when Ford and Nichols set out to make films for a “new kind of public.” This new audience was forged by new political forces, including the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the Popular Front, and Roosevelt's New Deal. Building on previous work that documents Nichols's affiliation with Popular Front organizations, and Ford's own political cinema (including The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and How Green Was My Valley (1941)), I argue that The Hurricane offers a fundamental critique of European imperialism, and imperial “whiteness.” At the same time, the energies for that critique come from a paradoxically “progressive” orientalism that represents South Seas “natives” as inherently wild and independent. It is this projected hunger for independence that allows Ford and Nichols to argue against colonial “whiteness,” while, almost simultaneously, they portray African Americans as servile and dependent, thus justifying white supremacy and racial oppression in the United States. Finally, by way of conclusion, I suggest that this dyadic representation – natives as independent, blacks as dependent – continues to structure the politics of Ford's post-World War II cinema, allowing him to normalize white supremacy at home, while at the same time justifying American military adventures abroad in the name of freedom for “the world's afflicted races.”
(Online publication October 01 2009)
I would like to thank Mark P. Worrell, Dave Roediger, and Troy Rondinone, and the anonymous reviewer at the Journal of American Studies for commenting upon early drafts of this paper.