Scarlett in Cairo, Mammy in Damascus: Race, Colonial Economy, and World War II Propaganda

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 2:30 PM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Elizabeth F. Thompson, University of Virginia
 Early in World War II, “Gone With the Wind” was screened as war propaganda in the Middle East.  Britain staged a Cairo gala premiere that featured top Egyptian, British, French and American officials.  Newspapers wooed Cairene elites with ads for luxurious beds, dresses, teas, and chocolates like those enjoyed at Scarlett O'Hara’s Tara.  Under British rule, Egyptian elites had amassed similar landed estates. The film's message about steadfastness on the home front and the loyalty of slaves took on particular meanings in 1941 Egypt, where many raised questions about whose liberation the Allies fought for.  The British pressured Egypt to provide more support to the war effort than required by their 1936 treaty.  The King demurred, demanding that Britain first promise independence at war’s end.  He pointedly did not attend the gala premiere.  Other Egyptian officials begged Britain for inclusion in the alliance on equal terms.  The movie’s ambiguous, racial messages are underlined in a rare description of a 1942 Damascus showing of the film:  Wives of French clients kissed Mammy's face on the screen, even as they were attended by their own slaves.  At a minimum, this incident reveals France’s tolerance of domestic slavery as a tool of rule in its colonial empire.    It also raises interesting questions about the gap between intention and reception in film propaganda and the racialized context of Americans’ alliance with colonial powers.  The paper concludes with a look at propaganda that accompanied Americans’ landing in North Africa in late 1942 and that year’s release of “Casablanca,” where no Moroccans speak and the African-American pianist Sam is sold to a rival café owner.   The loose cannon of racial images in American film complicated the intention of the Office of War Information to teach North Africans “the American way of life.”
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