Hollywood's Golden Age of Racism | Sojourners

Hollywood's Golden Age of Racism

How early cinema nativism led an Asian American actor to success—and how the church helped crash his career.
Sessue Hayakawa in Daughter of the Dragon / Getty Images

IN THE EARLY days of Hollywood, Japanese-born actor Sessue Hayakawa (1886-1973) was an icon. In the context of racist U.S. policy and increasing nativism in Hollywood, he was arguably the first non-Caucasian actor to gain international fame and the first person of Asian descent to become a leading man in the movie industry.

His overall career, however, is a story of race’s shadowy relationship with success. Orientalism, Yellow Peril, and America’s fear of Japan both helped and hurt his career. The Catholic Church’s eventual oversight of Hollywood also played a part in his troubles. The only way Hayakawa thrived in the industry was by playing into the structures of racism that set up his stardom.

“Such roles are not true ...”

IN 1915, WITH actress Fannie Ward, Hayakawa had the first on-screen interracial kiss.

Well before the Motion Picture Production Code outlawed interracial romance in 1930, the silent film The Cheat (1915) shows Edith Hardy (Ward) as a wife who takes money from the Red Cross, loses the $10,000, and then struggles to repay her debt. As she reels from the news of her loss in a semiconscious state, an acquaintance, Hishuru Tori (Hayakawa), assaults her and steals a kiss before she comes to her senses.

The silent film continues as Hardy describes her debt to Tori. Tori writes a check from his exorbitant wealth—he is described by title cards as a Japanese ivory trader—but not for free. He expects something from Ward.

When Hardy goes to repay Tori after her husband makes a hefty return on an investment, Tori locks the door and assaults her a second time. He brands Hardy with a circular seal; after she falls to the ground, the camera focuses on the stark black mark on her white shoulder.

The branding scene caused uproar in the Japanese American community. A Japanese newspaper in Los Angeles denounced Hayakawa, his sinister character, and the character’s appearance as a harmful stereotype. (Hayakawa reportedly had asked Cecil B. DeMille, the director of The Cheat, to change the clothing and mannerisms of his character, but DeMille disregarded him.) The backlash was enough for the film to be re-released in 1918 with Hayakawa’s character changed to a “Burmese king,” presumably because the studio believed Burmese people would have less volume to their voices of dissent.

“Such roles are not true to our Japanese nature ... They are false and give people a wrong idea of us,” said Hayakawa in 1916. “I wish to make a characterization which shall reveal us as we really are.”

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