For Robert Jackson M.A. ’96, Los Angeles in the ’90s was a fascinating combination of allure and struggle. He was a graduate student in LMU’s English Department during the O.J. Simpson trial, which was not too long after the riots in South Central.
“I found it impossible not to think about the tragic imprint of racial oppression on the city. At the same time, and rather paradoxically, I really fell in love with Los Angeles, and discovered it to be a warm place, and full of lovely people from many backgrounds. In these ways, it has a lot in common with the South,” says Jackson.
These contradictions, coupled with LMU’s proximity to the film industry, first sparked Jackson’s interest in the role of the South in film history. “Many important films and industry players had southern origins,” says Jackson. “It’s a pretty amazing list: D.W. Griffith, Howard Hughes, ‘Gone with the Wind,’ Louis Armstrong, Joan Crawford, Betty Grable, Ava Gardner, ‘Night of the Hunter,’ William Faulkner, and Langston Hughes.”
Jackson quickly discovered that little scholarship on the relationship between the South and Hollywood existed. The wheels for an ambitious project to tell the story of film history and the South up to World War II were set in motion. Ten years of research and writing on the subject manifested itself into the book “Fade In, Crossroads: A History of Southern Cinema,” as well as the article “Hollywood Caste,” which appeared in the winter 2017 issue of LMU Magazine.
“Hollywood Caste” explores how segregationist attitudes were brought to early Hollywood by migrants from the U.S. South and reflected in the film industry. At the National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards hosted by the Los Angeles Press Club on Dec. 2, 2018, it received the award for best TV/Movie feature.
“I wrote about this important topic, in part, because I care about the future of the film industry, and especially about its potential to contribute to constructive new ways of imagining race in American life,” says Jackson. “I am happy to have this award bring attention to such an important issue. And, of course, it is fun to bring some attention to LMU.”
Other nominees in the TV/Movie feature category included pieces from the Los Angeles Times and Variety.
“This is an important article about race, justice and ethics in a city that LMU Magazine, LMU and the university’s alumni are deeply rooted in,” says Joseph Wakelee-Lynch, editor of LMU Magazine. “I’m proud that the LA journalism community recognized the quality of Robert Jackson’s work and our magazine’s ability to meet the same professional standards that are held by every serious media outlet in Los Angeles.”
Jackson, who is the James G. Watson Professor of English at University of Tulsa, is taking a cue from Hollywood and already working on his sequel. His current project looks at the experiences of Lena Horne, James Baldwin, and Julian Bond and their utilization of film and media resources to promote collective interests and values of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement.