A Stark World View — America in the Forties
By Elizabeth Williamson, Associate Artistic Director
American society was undergoing some major shifts in the 1940s. Only three weeks after the end of World War II, as soldiers were beginning to return from the front, America was hit by the largest wave of strikes in the twentieth century, which lasted well into 1946. At the same time, the new fear of the atom bomb was impacting post-War international relations, and casting a long shadow domestically as well. The civil rights movement was slowly starting to gather steam. McCarthyism was on the horizon, and the economy was not as strong as it could be, causing widespread concern.
The emergence of the noir novel and film noir in the 1940s reflects these societal fears. As Richard Lingemann writes in his book The Noir Forties, “Films noir are a key for unlocking the psychology, the national mood during those years” when the world had “become cynical about the phony heroics of the propagandistic war movies.” Noir depicts a changed America post-war, rougher and disillusioned, with a stark world view. Stylistically, noir films were heavily influenced by German Expressionism, which was known for its dark aesthetics and subjects. Noir took those characteristics, such as low-key lighting, inverted frames, and gloomy landscapes, and expanded them. Noir heroes were often anti-heroes, like the embittered private detective portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.
Murder-for-hire gangs were big news in New York in the 1940s, especially the gang known in the popular press as “Murder, Inc,” which was brought to justice at the beginning of the decade. New York’s police force was widely praised for rounding the gangs up, but there was growing concern over police treatment of African-Americans. Unlawful searches were common. In the summer 1943, a white policeman shot an African American soldier, leading to the Harlem Riots of 1943.
There was increasing racial tension across the country. African-Americans who volunteered after Pearl Harbor had been placed in segregated divisions, or side-lined into combat support roles. It wasn’t until July 26, 1948 that President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which ordered the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces. While this would feed into the growing civil rights movement, conditions for African Americans in the 40s were bleak. One of the worst examples was the case of George Stinney, a 14 year-old African American arrested for murder.
In March, 1944, in Clarendon County, South Carolina, George Stinney was arrested for having allegedly murdered two young white girls. Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames had been found beaten to death in a ditch. He was arrested without a warrant and questioned without a lawyer. He wasn’t allowed to see his parents after his arrest, and the only evidence against him was the word of the local police chief who claimed he had confessed during questioning. His trial lasted three hours, and the all-white jury convicted him within ten minutes. As the New York Times reported at the time, the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP protested his execution to the governor, to no avail. Within three months, he’d been tried, convicted, and electrocuted, the youngest person to be executed in the US in the twentieth century.
Seventy years later, in 2014, Stinney’s surviving family petitioned for a new trial. After hearing evidence, South Carolina Circuit Judge Carmen Tevis vacated the conviction, calling it “a great and fundamental injustice.” She also threw out the evidence of his confession, saying it couldn’t be relied upon “due to the power differential between his position as a 14-year-old black male apprehended and questioned by white, uniformed law enforcement in a small, segregated mill town in South Carolina.”