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Virginia Board of Censors sought to enforce Jim Crow on the big screen

Three women sit at a table and hold pieces of film.
In 1958, the Virginia State Board of Censors included Mrs. Herbert Gregory (from left), Mrs. Russell Wagers and Mrs. Irving Whitehead. (File photo: Courtesy Richmond Times-Dispatch)

A century ago, Virginia lawmakers created the Virginia State Board of Censors with the goal of keeping a close eye on what the public saw on the big screen.

The all-white board — later renamed the Division of Motion Picture Censorship — required edits to more than 2,000 movies between the 1920s and 1960s, and it was especially concerned about depictions of race and sexuality. 

The board’s targets included:

  • The pioneering Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux 
  • The Birth of a Baby,” a 1938 educational film about childbearing 
  • The 1939 film “Hitler: Beast of Berlin,” which depicted underground resistance to the Nazis. The board warned the film could incite “racial hatred” and called it an “inflammatory and inhuman dramatization of events.” 
  • La Vérité,” a 1960 film starring Brigette Bardot in which she has casual sex and is depicted semi-nude

Melissa Ooten, gender research specialist at the University of Richmond, wrote Race, Gender, and Film Censorship in Virginia, 1922–1965, a book about the board. She sat down with VPM News’ Ben Paviour to discuss her research.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Paviour: You’ve studied the State Board of Censors. Can you talk a little bit about what that is how it came about?

Ooten: So, the State Board of Censors originated in 1922. And it was in play until 1965. And it was a board of three people who viewed all films before they could be shown in the state of Virginia legally. So, they had the power to determine that a movie cannot be shown, or more commonly, that certain scenes had to be cut out of it before it could be shown in the state.

What were they looking out for? What did they find objectionable?

Especially in the 1920s and 1930s, they were concerned about race relations. So, they looked especially at films in which you saw more equal treatment of people of color. That would be something they did not want shown, to be clear. And then anything dealing with sexuality, women's sexuality, in particular. Some violence, but that was less — there were a few states that had these boards. New York's was more concerned with violence, particularly gambling — those issues. But Virginia was really looking for things that they thought bordered on obscene in terms of sexuality and then race relations.

Why did they ultimately disband?

Because of Supreme Court decisions giving movies greater and greater freedom of speech rights. And they were never well funded. 

When the movies switched from being silent to sound, they went for years without having the equipment to hear the sound. So, they would ask these film distributors to send them the transcript. It's not like it was some well-funded machine, right? It was three people, often loyal to the Democratic Party, which was in control of Virginia at the time. And often older white women. There were some women who served for decades for their 60s, 70s and 80s. 

Do you see any parallels to contemporary movements to censor books, to take them out of schools, to restrict the sales of books? Or do you think these are very different issues?

I think they're connected. But I think what is interesting about the censorship board is that most of what they censored was not aimed at children, right? It was movies children really wouldn't be watching, period. And I think what we're talking about today is very much around kids. Or that's how it's being portrayed. But I mean, all these are part of broader culture wars. 

What, if anything, do you think the State Board of Censors tells us about the era in which it operated in Virginia?

So, this was passed in 1922. It is around the same time Virginia passes an anti-miscegenation law. It is around the same time other sorts of regulations around race and around sex and sexuality [were passed]. So, it was meant as the cultural arm as they're doing these other regulations. How can we also regulate this medium that they see as potentially problematic? Because who knows what Hollywood is producing? 

This at a time when Virginia is primarily rural. There is very much a strain of, “The liberal radicals in Hollywood are doing [something objectionable] and now they've come to show their fare in Virginia.” But then it also shows how that dissipates over time because most of their power is in the ’20s and ’30s.