This is the first part in a series of blog posts on classic Hollywood films related to World War II. For the inaugural entry, I’ve chosen to write about Bad Day at Black Rock, a 1955 film directed by John Sturges.
Hollywood – and America in general – has had a hard time grappling with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. It’s rarely mentioned, taught, or depicted. I first learned about it not through a school curriculum but through the American Adventure children’s book series. But still, in 1942, over 100,000 Americans were forcibly removed from their homes, often losing their personal belongings and property in the process.
Bad Day at Black Rock in one of the few times Hollywood has confronted this chapter of American history. After the end of the war, John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) goes to the small town of Black Rock looking for Komoko, the father of a man who saved his life in Italy. But something is wrong, and he can’t find him or his property. I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it, but the anti-Japanese sentiment surrounding and leading up to the war naturally plays a huge role in the unfolding mystery.
There are no Japanese American or Asian American actors or characters in this film. Instead, there is a sort of constructed absence. They should be there, and the fact that they’re not is disturbing. As such, despite Macreedy being the central character with his own emotional arc, the missing Komoko can’t help but dominate the film.
Hollywood would make only a few more movies related to the internment and its aftermath, most notably Come See the Paradise (1990) and Snow Falling on Cedars (1999). While both feature Japanese American characters, the films still centred their narrative around a white male protagonist and how the mass interment affected him and his love life. Bad Day at Black Rock, despite being an older film, seems to have a better understanding of the issue than its successors. The mass internment of Japanese Americans wasn’t the result of an illogical prejudice or the inescapable tide of history. Anti-Japanese racism wasn’t a kneejerk reaction to Pearl Harbor or to losing loved ones in the Pacific theatre. Those were just the excuses. Ultimately, it was a land grab. Plain and simple.
Komoko should be here, but he’s not. His land should be his, but it isn’t. There’s something wrong about that.
If you want to learn more about the internment of Japanese American during World War II, be sure to check out the following books from the 2AD Memorial Library:
- Japanese American Internment During World War II: A History and Reference Guide (Wendy Ng, 2002)
- Democraticizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment (Brian Masaru Hayashi, 2004)
- The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-46 (Delphine Hirasuna, 2005)
- The Internment of Japanese Americans During World War II: Detention of American Citizens (John C. Davenport, 2010)
- Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II (Richard Reeves, 2015)