Eric Avila

DARK CITY: White Flight and the Urban Science Fiction Film in Postwar America



Classic Hollywood Classic Whiteness

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. pgs. 52-71


I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man


At the outset of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison seeks to dispel white perceptions of black people. Such perceptions, he realized, often drew upon the vast array of images that saturated the cultural life of mid-twentieth century white America. Writing in the early 1950s, a time when American movie audiences reveled in the spectacular images of alien invasions, Ellison took strides to deny his similarity to "Hollywood movie ectoplasms." Although he painfully recognized his invisibility as a black man in cold war America, he also protested his visibility in cultural productions like the urban science fiction film of the 1950s. Ellison, like other black intellectuals discouraged by the misrepresentation of black Americans in popular culture, recognized the ominous affinity between the alien Other of science fiction film and the racialized Other of American history. Invisible Man draws upon the painful awareness that racialized minorities in the United States are usually invisible as human beings and often visible only through the disfiguring lens of American popular culture.1


       Ellison's commentary upon the cultural milieu of cold war America resonated within a material context in which the racial divide between black America and white America widened. Such disparities were most visible in the cities, where the force of suburbanization furthered the distance between white and black. "White flight" names the process by which American cities of the postwar period saw increasing racial segregation and socioeconomic fragmentation. As racialized minorities concentrated in American inner cities during the late 1940S and throughout the 1950s, millions of "white" Americans took to new suburban communities to preserve their whiteness. Through the postwar collusion of federal policy, local land development strategies, and the popular desire to live in racially exclusive and homogenous neighborhoods, "chocolate cities" and "vanilla suburbs" became the spatial and racial paradigm of American life during the 1950s.2


 Typically, white flight refers to political practices and economic processes that enforce the racial divide between the suburbs and the city.3 However, there is a cultural dimension to this process that has been overlooked. As an ideology rooted both in a historical preference for private rather than public life and in contemporary anxieties about subversion and deviance, white flight penetrated the sphere of American popular culture and affirmed whiteness often at the expense of racialized minorities. The rise of Hollywood science fiction paralleled the acceleration of white flight in postwar America and not only recorded popular anxieties about political and sexual deviants, but also captured white preoccupations with the increasing visibility of the alien Other.


 Historically, science fiction film and literature have posited the city as the object of both Utopian and dystopian fantasies about modernity. The urban science fiction film of the 1950s, figuratively and literally, emphasized the darker side of urban life. Films such as Them! (1954) and War of the Worlds (1953) emerged at the height of postwar suburbanization, a time when millions of white Americans reaped the privileges of affordable housing in the suburbs and rejected the city as a viable way of life. The perceived threat to the American city underlies both cultural constructions like the urban science fiction film and material processes' such as white flight. Indeed, such films confirmed the suburban suspicion of city life through spectacular representations of the alien Other and its violent onslaught upon the city. Within the changing racial geography of the postwar, postindustrial metropolis, the urban science fiction film provided a cultural arena where suburban America could measure its whiteness against the image of the alien Other. In their representational emphasis, visual style, and promotion, films such as Them! and War of the Worlds recorded popular perceptions of racialized minorities in the age of white flight.




Conventional understandings of 1950s science fiction film have looked to the political climate of the cold war to explore the deeper meanings of science fiction cinema. Martians, monsters, giant insects, crawling eyes, fifty-foot women, blobs, pods, various "its" and other "things" were all commonly understood as cinematic apparitions of Communists and the "Red Menace." And rightly so, Science fiction film offers a window onto the political culture of postwar America, a time when Americans built bomb shelters in their backyards, practiced disaster drills with a religious devotion, and gazed fixedly upon the televised witch-hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Through films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), It Came From Outer Space (1953), and Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), Americans could work out their obsession with Communist subversion and catch a glimpse into the nexus between politics and culture in postwar America.4


       Communists, however, were not the only subversives in postwar America.  As it had throughout American history, the presence of racialized minorities continued to trouble white Americans. The "race question," however, seemed all the more poignant in the age of Brown v Board of Education. Before, white Americans could confront their racial anxieties in a separate but equal world.  During the 1950s, however, the lines between black space and white space increasingly blurred, particularly in the cities, where racialized minorities, blacks in particular, concentrated in unprecedented numbers. Although cities have historically functioned as points of contact between diverse social groups, the nature of sociodemographic upheaval and economic change proved so pronounced that it forced white Americans to confront the darker face of the city in postwar America.


       The urban science fiction film emerged within this racial climate. Because this brand of cinematic science fiction took as its subject the plight of the city, its meaning is further illuminated by an understanding of the spatial transition from the industrial city of the nineteenth century to the post-industrial metropolis of the twentieth century. Implicit in this transition is the concentration of racialized minorities in the inner city and the subsequent racial polarization of the city between its dark core and white suburbs. As black Americans secured housing and employment in the older, industrialized cores of such cities as Detroit, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles during the postwar era, white Americans secured housing and employment in newly developed suburban communities. Within this context, the popularity of films about alien invasions suggests that mainstream white audiences may have viewed the movement of blacks and other racialized minorities into the cities as not so much a migration, but rather an invasion of what had previously been white space. "Invasion" became a key metaphor, central to understanding larger social processes in postwar America, including the urbanization of African-Americans.


       The urban science fiction film coincided with the rise of the black ghetto as the dominant feature of urban life in postwar America. U.S. mobilization for World War II and the postwar economic boom initiated a dramatic spatial shift in the nation's black population. The urbanization of African-Americans entailed the migration of blacks from the South to the Northeast and West.  The largest decennial black migration occurred between 1940 and 1950.  Overall, between 1940 and 1970, more than 4 million blacks left the South for Northern and Western cities. On the eve of World War II, 70 percent of American blacks lived in the South, whereas only 53 percent lived there thirty years later.5 The number of black urbanites, moreover, increased dramatically in the United States between 1945 and 1960. During that period, New York's black population increased two and one-half times, and the number of blacks tripled in Detroit. The West, however, experienced the greatest growth in its African-American population. Los Angeles, a city with a relatively small black population until 1940, saw an 800 percent increase in its black population, from 75,000 to 600,000.6


       Given the white response to black urbanization, the ghetto became the dominant experience of African-American life in postwar America. Many whites deployed violence against the encroachment of African-Americans upon white space. Throughout the postwar era, white aggression toward blacks and other non-whites increased, particularly in such public spaces as buses, schools, restaurants, and, to a larger extent, in private spaces such as the residential neighborhood. For example, in Levittown, Pennsylvania, a planned community of 60,000, a Confederate flag-waving crowd threw stones at the one house that belonged to a black family in I957.7 In 1945, the Ku Klux Klan firebombed the Fontana, California, home of a black family that refused to move from a white neighborhood, killing the wife and only child of civil rights activist O'Day Short.8 The Cicero Riots of 1951, similarly, demonstrated the extent to which white Chicagoans would go to protect the whiteness of their neighborhoods. There, a crowd of six thousand invaded and wrecked the home of a black war veteran, hauling his furniture into the street and setting his apartment on fire.9 As blacks became more visible in postwar American cities, many white Americans fought, by any means necessary, to uphold the barriers between black space and white space.


       Most whites, however, found a less violent yet more thorough means of enforcing the color line. Although the suburbanization of the United States began in the 1920s, it was not until the postwar era that the process gave way to white flight through the collusion of public policy and private practices.10 Federal legislation during the Roosevelt administration established the means for postwar suburbanization, particularly through the creation of the Homeowner's Loan Corporation (HOLC), the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), and the Veterans Administration (VA). The FHA and the VA adopted the underwriting practices of the HOLC, which devised a racially discriminatory system of financing home loans. The FHA and VA, in turn, influenced the lending policies of private financial institutions, which avoided investment in "affected" areas. By severely limiting the flow of capital into the inner city, the FHA and VA significantly enhanced the impoverishment of those areas and encouraged the selective exodus of working-class and middle-class whites to the suburban periphery."


       Policy making at the local level bolstered these federal attempts to facilitate suburbanization. The innovation of municipal incorporation strategies influenced the course of suburbanization throughout the American Sun Belt and ensured the reproduction of white space. The infamous "Lakewood Plan" shaped the socioeconomic geography of southern California and the American Sun Belt during the 1950S and i96os. In 1950, developer Ben Weingart, along with two partners, purchased 3,375 acres of farmland in the southwestern portion of Los Angeles County. There they built Lakewood, a community of seventeen thousand homes, including the nation's largest shopping center.  Rather than incorporating into the county, the residents of Lakewood contracted county services for minimal costs, while remaining an independent municipality. Following Lakewood's example, twenty-five municipalities in southern California adopted the Lakewood Plan between 1945 and 1960.12


       The invention of the "contract city" ensured tighter control over the social composition of southern California suburban communities. Lakewood Plan cities could effectively direct the makeup of a local population to exclude service-demanding, low-income, or renting populations, usually blacks and quite often Latinos as well. Judged by the sociospatial character of suburban southern California during the postwar period, the Lakewood Plan was an overwhelming success. In 1950, there were thirty-eight cities in southern California with less than one percent black populations; these cities contained 24 percent of the metropolitan area's population. In 1970, by contrast, there were 58 cities with less than one percent black populations, containing 33 percent of the regional population. Both the number of segregated cities and the population living within those cities increased. Essentially a white political movement, the Lakewood Plan defined white resistance to black urbanization during the postwar era. By enacting more privatized methods of city government, Lakewood Plan cities ensured the reproduction of white space in the suburban Sun Belt of postwar America.13




       The racial character of the postwar suburban boom emerged from wartime anxieties about the "alien invasion" of American cities. In Los Angeles, for example, the local media generated mass hysteria with its wartime rhetoric directed against the Japanese and Japanese-Americans. The "Great Los Angeles Air Raid" demonstrated the level of anxiety in Los Angeles regarding such an invasion. At 2:25 A.M. on February 26, 1942, the U.S. Army announced the approach of hostile aircraft, activating the city's air raid warning system for the first time. The February 27 issue of the Los Angeles Times reported:


       Roaring out of a brilliant moonlit western sky, foreign aircraft flying both in large formation and singly flew over Southern         California early today and drew heavy barrages of anti-aircraft fire—the first ever to sound over United States continental soil       against an enemy invader.


       Despite the fleeting moment of panic, no one reported the dropping of bombs or the sighting of enemy aircraft. In fact, the "air raid" never occurred, but the incident revealed the extent to which the people of Los Angeles psychologically anticipated the kind of "alien" invasion dramatized in films such as Them! and War of the Worlds.14


       Popular anxieties about invasion did not subside with the end of the war, but rather increased as the influx of other racialized groups displaced the Japanese as the alien invaders. U.S. News and World Report, for example, alarmed its readers in 1956 with a report of a black invasion of Los Angeles. An article, entitled "West Coast. Too, Has its Race Problem," labeled the influx of Southern blacks to Los Angeles as a "race problem" to its white readership. As the mere presence of blacks in post-emancipation America constituted a "race problem," their increasing visibility in postwar American cities illustrated the heightened poignancy of that "problem." This was especially the case in Los Angeles, which absorbed a greater number of African-Americans than any other city of the postwar era. "At every hand," reported the magazine, "in the factories, offices and schools of Los Angeles, you find growing numbers of the 'new negro' in America—ambitious and aggressive in his demands."15


       Certainly, U.S. News and World Report did not possess any special expertise about the changing racial demography of a city like Los Angeles. The magazine, however, recorded popular perceptions of urban life during the 1950s. Millions of Americans who identified as white looked upon the "darkening" of the city as nothing less than a crisis. That crisis took shape in the national culture not only in such alarming reports of the growing numbers of "ambitious and aggressive Negros," but also in science fiction thrillers about the alien invasion of American cities. At a time when blacks concentrated in inner cities in unprecedented numbers and when "whites" fled older portions of the city for the suburban periphery, urban science fiction thrillers such as Them! and War of the Worlds confirmed popular suspicions of American urban life.




       Hollywood faced its own crisis in the age of white flight. Suburbanization shifted the locus of American popular culture during the postwar era and emptied downtown movie theaters in cities across the nation. Still reeling from the turmoil of the HUAC witch-hunt, Hollywood suffered another blow when movie attendance sharply declined during the late 1940s and continued to fall in the early years of the following decade. Among other factors, the postwar retreat from the public arena and the concurrent emphasis upon private life played no small part in that decline. One astute critic observed in 1950 that "tall grass will be shortly growing amidst the ruins of Rialtos, Criterions, Granadas and other abandoned landmarks from coast to coast."16


       As the cultural component of suburbanization, television also challenged the hegemony of Hollywood in the cultural landscape of postwar America.  While white suburbanites retreated from the real world of increasing complexity and diversity, television offered a glimpse into an alternative world that reflected and reinforced a white suburban worldview. That world had little place for minorities, save the few stereotypical references to the jungle natives of Tarzan films and the manufactured Indians of TV westerns. Television, moreover, afforded the opportunity to "go out," without compromising the privacy of the single-family home. The advent of this medium radically changed the spatial context of popular culture, underscoring the postwar retreat from public life. Manufacturers marketed television as a way of "bringing the world to people's doorsteps," emphasizing the security and convenience of home entertainment. As a privatized cultural experience, television pulled suburbanites away from older sites of public amusement and accelerated the fragmentation of what had once been the diverse multitudes of urban audiences.17


       Unable to compete with the convenience and availability of television, Hollywood struggled to maintain its sovereignty in the cultural terrain of postwar America. Innovations in special effects became a strategy for luring spectators back to the movies, and science fiction film became a major venue for marketing these special effects technologies. Thus, a film like War of the Worlds could draw huge audiences without the names of major motion picture stars. "What starring honors there are," wrote one film critic for Variety in a review of War of the Worlds, "go strictly to special effects, which create an atmosphere of soul chilling apprehension so effectively audiences will take alarm at the danger posed in that picture."18


       Special effects alone, however, do not explain the immense popularity of science fiction thrillers like Them! and War of the Worlds. To spark an audience "comeback" to the movies, Hollywood needed more than just technical innovations such as rear projection and miniature sets—it needed to connect, almost psychically, with its audience, recording its hopes and aspirations, as well as its despair and anxiety. Given the social, political, and cultural climate of postwar America, Hollywood emphasized the dark side of the collective conscious, projecting the concerns that dominated public discourse. Thus, anxieties about Communism surfaced in films such as Double Indemnity (1944), which exposed the "evil within," and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which stressed the external threat from abroad. Similarly, films like Mildred Pierce (1945) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) revealed American anxieties about powerful women and the sexual threat to domestic stability in postwar America. Such films articulated the concerns that preoccupied postwar Americans.


       While sexual and class anxieties inform the meaning of these films, race was a dominant factor. Science fiction films like Them! and War of the Worlds named racial anxieties about "alien" invasions that troubled suburban Americans of the 1950s. Of course, these films are open to multiple interpretations and clearly allude to other anxieties of the day, but it is their urban settings that complicate any facile interpretations of the Martians of War of the World or the giant ants of Them! as exclusively Communists. Cold war anxieties, after all, were neither urban nor rural. Racial anxieties, however, emerged from a prevalent perception that American cities were really under "attack" during the postwar period. In their narratives of alien invasion and their emphasis upon the difference between "us" and "them," the urban science fiction film effectively reached the suburban audiences that had largely forsaken the city as a satisfying way of life.


       Both War of the Worlds and Them! are narratives about alien invaders and the destruction they wrought upon American cities. Central to these narratives is a visual distinction between "us," a homogenous citizenry, and "them," the alien Other. Them! depicted the invasion of Los Angeles by giant ants, enlarged by overexposure to radiation from atom bomb testing sites in the desert.  Although an allegory for the dangers of atomic energy, the film presents creatures as ordinary as ants transformed into hideous aliens who invade vulnerable cities and attack their innocent citizenry. The giant ants, with bulging eyes and deadly mandibles, recall historic stereotypes of racialized groups as animalistic and especially alien. Such stereotypes ran rampant in times of international or domestic crisis. Japanese-Americans, for example, became rats in the political cartoons of the early 1940s. In the late nineteenth century, similarly, when California suffered from economic depression and high unemployment, Chinese-Americans bore the brunt of racist stereotypes, depicted in visual and literary media as bats with sharp claws and gnarled fangs. African-Americans have suffered such vicious kinds of representation throughout their history, stereotypified in the national culture most often as simian creatures. At various points in American history, racialized groups have been likened to monkeys, bats, rats, ants, and other creatures, reinforcing the perceptual affinity between nonhuman and nonwhite.19


       War of the Worlds takes such representation a step further, as Martians replace ants as the alien Other. The Martians of War of the Worlds land upon Earth in search of a more hospitable climate for procreation. Though we know the Martians only by their sleek metal saucers that hover above the ground, a few scenes reveal a grotesquely inhuman Other. In one sequence of images, the noted scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester, and his companion, Sylvia Van Buren, take refuge inside an abandoned home. Although Sylvia is rarely seen apart from the company of men, she is momentarily separated from Forrester, distracted by a hunch that the invaders are nearby. As Van Buren searches the quarters alone, audience suspicion is heightened: the encounter with the Martians seems dreadfully imminent. With the camera behind her, Sylvia is unaware that an alien is watching her every move. The camera mimics the alien's predatory gaze, targeting the white woman as the object of the alien's (and by visual implication, the audience's) desire. As the bright, slimy green arm of the Martian reaches toward her, the whiteness of her skin contrasts sharply with the alien physiognomy. The Los Angeles Herald Express noted this graphic scene, remarking upon the "skinny tentacles" of the Martians, with "vacuum cups at the end of each finger" and "flesh which looks like a piece of pulsating raw liver."20


       War of the Worlds draws upon a common trope of the urban science fiction film. The alien lust for the white woman is evident not only in the narrative content of the urban science fiction film, but also in its publicity materials. For example, the garish advertisement poster for Invasion of the Saucer Men captures some of white America's deepest anxieties about the alien Other. In the central image of the advertisement, a scantily clad white woman with heaving breasts flails in the clutches of a hideous green alien monster. In the background is the metropolis, under attack by flying saucers. Again, the alien bears a familiar resemblance to cultural stereotypes of racialized minorities, blacks in particular. With their bulging round eyes, enormous heads, and dark, almost black skin, the saucer men seem more familiar than alien, recalling lurid representations of "coons," "sambos," and "pickaninnies" in American popular culture. The blackness of the aliens contrasts sharply with the milky whiteness of the woman's skin. She is helpless in the grips of an alien predatory sexuality, naming historical anxieties about black male lust for white women.  Such anxieties, of course, are not unique to the urban science fiction genre, but draw upon the racist practices of early filmmaking.


       The films of D. W. Griffith, for example, often emphasize nonwhite male lust for white women, a lust almost always motivated by an attempt to rape. The character of Gus in Birth of a Nation (1915) epitomizes then-prevalent white perceptions of a ferocious black male sexuality and its threat to white women. His lust for Elsie Stoneman culminates in a famous chase scene in which she leaps to her death to avoid sacrificing her virtue to the mulatto sexual predator. Prior to the release of Birth of a Nation, The Girls and Daddy foreshadowed Gus's behavior. The film narrates the story of two thieves, one white and one in blackface, who, unlike the white burglar, lustfully chases after two white women. Although Griffith did not invent the cinematic stereotype of black or mulatto men as lustful monsters preying upon the virtue of white women, he popularized those stereotypes, which, in turn, informed the work of subsequent generations of filmmakers.21


       During the postwar period, a time when the national culture reemphasized the sanctity of the nuclear family, the urban science fiction film echoed the work of former generations of filmmakers like Griffith and reiterated the alien threat to white women. Some historians have illuminated the ways in which suburbanization reasserted the nuclear family as the most fundamental unit of American society. The many threats that preoccupied postwar Americans—Communists, homosexuals, racialized minorities—were viewed as dangers not so much to the individual or to the society at large, but rather to the stability and coherence of the American family. The national culture, moreover, almost always coded the family as white. In the racialized climate of postwar America, white flight could be viewed therefore as a collective attempt to maintain the hegemony of the white nuclear family.


       In their representations of the alien threat to white womanhood, urban science fiction films such as Them! and War of the Worlds also implied the vulnerability of the white family. As their narratives dramatized alien invasions of the city and their occupation of urban space, the films emphasized the direct threat to the dominance of the white American family. In Them!,  that threat is realized as the ants kill the white father of a family and take his two sons hostage, leaving their mother in despair. The whiteness of the two boys is visually enhanced when the ants hold their young captives in the darkness of the city's sewer system. The threat to the nuclear family in Them! again recalls an earlier discourse of the white family in the films of Griffith, where stories of the family usually involve a racial component that casts nonwhite males as a threat to the dominance of white patriarchy. The aim of such stories, of course, is to segregate the races and uphold the unity of the family, the purity of the white woman, and the power and divinity of the white family.  Them! extends that message into the postwar era of U.S. history, emphasizing once again the nonwhite/nonhuman threat to the stability of the American family.


       War of the Worlds, similarly, asserts the divinity of the white family while exposing the potential threat to that institution. In the climactic scene of the film, as masses of Los Angelenos take refuge inside a church shortly before the imminent holocaust, a white family—mother, father, son, and daughter-huddles together in prayer, gazing up toward the image of Christ at the altar.  As the camera hones in upon their faces, the audience is reminded exactly who the victim is in this narrative of alien aggression. Lighting, thrown upon their faces at a 45° angle, highlights the fair skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes of the family members. The sanctity of this image is reinforced through editing, which cuts from images of the white family to the image of a white Christ at the altar, the supreme embodiment of Western humanity. Such editing supports a visual association between Christ and the family within a racialized context of whiteness.22


       Yet, while these films exalt the white woman and the white family, they simultaneously emphasize the deadly potential of alien motherhood. Them!, for example, is a film about alien motherhood run amok, depicting the nightmare of uncontrolled, mindless reproduction of the Other. The film's climax is loaded with sexual tension, as the "queen" ant takes shelter in the "egg chamber" deep within the sewers of Los Angeles. The queen ant represents the nativist's worst nightmare: alien procreation gone mad, uncontrollable and unstoppable. Such representations of endless reproduction do not simply resonate with postwar anxieties about maternal domination. Rather, they underscore popular fears about alien motherhood in particular. The antagonist, after all, is an insect. Ultimately, climactic tension is resolved as the phallic bazookas of the army incinerate the queen and her eggs, thereby securing the city for white supremacy and against the reproduction of the alien Other.23


       Another way in which these films lend themselves to the construction of whiteness is through racial censorship. James Snead argues that "omission," or exclusion, is the most common form of racial stereotyping, but also the most difficult to identify because its manifestation is absence itself. In other words, the absence of black characters in film is a form of stereotyping, one that reinforces the idea that blacks and other non-white groups are obscure, marginal, and dependent. Both Them! and War of the Worlds feature white scientists, white generals, white presidents, white policemen, white pilots, white ministers, white nurses, white doctors, and other racialized figures of authority. Blacks, however, play neither major nor minor roles in either film, positing a polarized landscape in which the only Other is the alien Other. 24


       Racial images are coupled with urban images in such science fiction films, dramatizing the political and cultural conditions of the United States in the age of white flight. Just as the term "white flight" implies the movement of white masses away from the city, films such as Them! and War of the Worlds depict the flight of a homogenous white citizenry from the violent onslaught of the Other. In Them!, for example, "UFO reports" confirm that "flying saucers shaped like ants" are heading west toward Los Angeles. Subsequent images cut to urban crowds in frenzied preparation for the imminent arrival of "them."  A state of emergency is declared and the National Guard is called upon to protect the white citizenry from the "savage and ruthless" invaders. Panic ensues prior to their arrival as, with what must have been a startling similarity to the actual tests of the Emergency Broadcasting System, radio and television broadcasters announce:


       By direction of the President of the United States, in full agreement with the Governor of the State of California, and the Mayor     of Los Angeles, the city of Los Angeles is, in the interests of public safety, hereby claimed to be under martial law... curfew is at    1800 hours. Any persons on the street or outside their quarters after 6:00 P.M. tonight will be subject to arrest.


       Similarly, in War of the Worlds, the prospect as well as the reality of doomsday maintains the air of suspense. Though the aliens initially descend upon a small California town, it is their slow, yet steady approach toward the metropolis that constitutes the suspense of the narrative. The path of the Other from the small town to the metropolis recalls the great migration of blacks during the 1940S and 1950S, in which masses of black rural Southerners migrated to cities like Los Angeles. Migration becomes invasion in War of the Worlds as the Martians draw nearer to the city. The skies darken upon their arrival and panic descends upon the hoards of Angelenos, who flee in desperation. Police cars patrol the streets of downtown to maintain what little social order remains, their loudspeakers blaring, "Everybody listen carefully!  We must evacuate the city! All major highways have been marked to lead you to shelter and welfare centers in the hills." The very anticipation of doomsday in the urban science film corresponded to the sense in the postwar American city that someone or something was about to bring crisis and destruction.


       As panic ensues, the masses flee the city. The exodus is a significant part of War of the Worlds. As people jam the freeways with their possessions bundled atop their cars, others take flight on foot, seeking refuge in the hills above the city. A voice-over narrates the spectacle of catastrophe, implying the historical process of white flight itself:


       As the Martians burned fields and forests, and great cities fell before them, huge populations were driven from their homes. The     stream of flight rose swiftly to a torrent. It became a giant stampede—without order and without goal. It was the beginning of the route of civilization—of the massacre of humanity.


       Finally, the aliens arrive, and it is doomsday for the city. Special effects recreate the holocaust. "See Los Angeles Crumble Before Your Very Eyes!" runs the headline of the Los Angeles Herald Express on November 11, 1953. The realism of such images of destruction are enhanced not only through innovations in special effects, but also through the use of real and recognizable buildings and landscapes, which promote audience identification with the crisis upon the screen. In War of the Worlds, for example, a spectacular scene depicts the obliteration of the Los Angeles City Hall, a symbol of municipal authority and civic order exploding in a brilliant burst of flames. In other science fiction films, the use of the Empire State Building, Times Square, the Washington Monument, or the Golden Gate Bridge serves to name the urban scene and to deepen our familiarity with the events taking place in the film. In each instance, the result is the same: total eradication of the most poignant symbols of Western progress and American civilization.


       Susan Sontag identifies a certain kind of poetry in such images, which she describes as the "aesthetics of destruction." Images of aliens and their onslaught upon the city held an ambiguous fascination for postwar white suburban audiences, who not only recoiled in horror from such a vision of their own destruction, but also took a certain delight in that vision. Urban, industrial audiences have historically held mixed feelings toward the macabre, the alien, and the exotic, drawing upon ambivalent feelings of shock, terror, curiosity, and even delight. The urban science fiction film, with its emphasis upon disaster, disorder, and the grotesque, inherits its appeal from carnival sideshows and dime museums, which drew thousands who paid admission fees to ogle at such curiosities as "the Fee Jee Mermaid" and "What is it?"25


       The postwar popularity of films like War of the Worlds and Them! revealed the extent to which this fascination persisted, even among suburban, post-industrial audiences of the 1950s. Although suburban audiences found themselves increasingly regimented into racial, sexual, and economic hierarchies, they maintained a lurid attraction to the baser elements of the culture.  Through terrifying spectacles of disaster and horrific representations of the alien Other, the urban science fiction film may have offered an arena where American audiences could sublimate the attraction to, or even love of, the Other. Recalling the intense popularity of Orson Welles's 1939 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, one film critic anticipated a similar reception of the film adaptation in 1953, "just as listeners willingly mesmerized themselves into being scared half to death by the Welles broadcast, so will viewers take vicarious pleasure in the terror loosened in the film."26




       While films such as War of the Worlds and Them! represent the city in the age of white flight, other urban science fiction films portray the city after the exodus. In her study of the urban science fiction film, Vivian Sobchack identifies images of a "dead" city, devoid of people, as another common trope of the genre. New York, for example, is an empty concrete canyon in Five (1951), where nothing moves save a slowly moving car in which the two main characters ride. In On the Beach (1954), San Francisco is equally lifeless, as submarine crewmen search for the source of a mysterious radio signal. Similarly, in The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959), a single character roams through the vacant cityscapes of Times Square and Wall Street. This is the post-white flight city: "cars eternally stalled on a bridge, newspaper blowing down a city street caught up in some ill-begotten draft, street lights and neon often blinking on and off in a mockery of animate existence," writes Vivian Sobchack, "this is the iconography of the post-holocaust city in the 1950S to the mid-1970s." 27 As white suburbanites turned their backs upon the old downtowns and retreated to the suburbs, images of empty cities reflected and reinforced the symbolic "death" of the city in postwar America.


       The ultimate post-white flight city, however, emerged after the heyday of the urban science fiction film. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner returns the science fiction audience to Los Angeles in the year 2019, after the flight of ex-suburbanites to the "off-world" colonies in outer space. Electronic advertisements hover above the noxious hypersprawl of twenty-first century Los Angeles, promising the good life in the depths of outer space: "a golden land of opportunity awaits you in the off-world colony!" Such campaigns recall the turn-of-the-century booster promotions of Los Angeles, in which people of adequate means fled the over-industrialized, immigrant-ridden cities of the eastern seaboard. Scott's Los Angeles is not far from that history. His city represents a negative melting pot, where nonwhite immigrant groups are left to scavenge over the scraps of a deindustrialized landscape. An ugly street language, a hybrid dialect of Spanish, Japanese, and German, has replaced English. This is Los Angeles after alien colonization (most likely Japanese investors), where whiteness is a historical figment of an ancient civilization.


       Images of the post-white flight city projected the racial anxieties that surfaced in such postwar blockbusters as Them! and War of the Worlds. While these films are not exclusively about white anxieties, the spatial emphasis of Them! and War of the Worlds, that is, their use of the city as setting and subject, suggests that it is essential to understand the spatial transformation of postwar America in order to grasp the multiple meanings of these films. Americans suburbanized in unprecedented numbers during the post-World War II era, abandoning older portions of the inner city. By and large, that process was a privilege afforded to those who could identify themselves as white, while nonwhite, racialized minorities "filled in" the decrepit spaces left behind, moving us toward Ridley Scott's ominous vision of the twenty-first century city. As white flight and suburbanization promoted the racial polarization of postwar America between "chocolate cities" and "vanilla suburbs," cultural productions such as the urban science fiction film represented that polarization in graphic images of alien invaders and the spectacular disintegration of American cities.


The racial politics of suburbanization in postwar America drew not only upon material processes, such as the Lakewood Plan and the racially-biased lending policies of the FHA and VA, but also upon the production of cinematic spectacles such as the urban science fiction film. Although such films did not create white flight, they dramatized the anxieties that undergirded the racial politics of suburbanization. The urban science fiction film created a space in which white Americans could imagine themselves and their predicament in the years following the conclusion of the Second World War. The invasion and ultimate obliteration of the city so graphically represented through the advanced technology of special effects corresponded to the very real rejection of urban life by white America. The urban science fiction film conjured a realm of dreadful possibilities that heightened the sense of urgency with which white Americans abandoned the older portions of cities like Detroit and Los Angeles and sought refuge in homogenous communities like Lakewood. Just as it was not difficult for white suburban Americans to sympathize with the terrified masses of films such as Them! and War of the Worlds, so it was not difficult for black inner-city writers such as Ralph Ellison to suspect that they might have been the "Hollywood movie ectoplasms" of 1950s science fiction.


1. My thanks to James Cook for pointing out this citation from Invisible Man to me.

2. These terms were introduced by Reynolds Parley, Howard Schuman, Diane Colasanto, and Shirley Hatchet, "Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs: Will the Trend Towards Racially Separate Communities Continue?" Social Science Research 7 (1978): 330. George Clinton, with Parliament-Funkadelic, also recorded a song entitled "Chocolate Cities, Vanilla Suburbs" in 1978.

3. The literature on the spatial and racial organization of the postindustrial metropolis is extensive. See Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998). And Arnold Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998). See also Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Urban Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), and Reynolds Parley and Walter Alien, The Color Line and the Quality of Life in America (New York: Russell Sage, 1987).

4. Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing: How America Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), and Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, The Movie (Berkeley: University of California, 1987).

5. Arnold Hirsch, "Black Ghettos, "in The Reader's Companion to American History, ed. EricFonerandJohnA. Garrity (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991), ii2.

6. Gordon de Marco, A Short History of Los Angeles (San Francisco: Lexikos, 1988), 164.

7. Richard Polenberg, One Nation Divisible: Class, Race and Ethnicity in the United States Since 1935 (New York: Penguin, 1980), i62.

8. Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990), 400.

9. Paul Gilje, Rioting in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), i65.

10. George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit •from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).

11. Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford, 1985), 195-203.

12. Gary Miller, Cities by Contract: The Politics of Municipal Incorporation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981).

13. Ibid., 22.

14. Jack Smith, "The Great Los Angeles Air Raid," in Los Angeles: Biography of a Metropolis, ed, John and LaRee Caughey (Berkeley: University of California, 1976), 364.

15. "West Coast. Too, Has its Race Problem," U.S. News and World Report, July 14, 1956, 36.

16. John Houseman, "Hollywood Paces the Fifties," Harper's, December 2, 1950, 50.

17. Lynn Spiegel, "Installing the Television Set: Popular Discourses on Television and Domestic Space, 1948-1950," Camera Obscura 16 (1988); 14-20.

18. Variety, November 3, 1953, 6.

19. Marion Riggs, Ethnic Notions (San Francisco; California Newsreel, 1986), videocassette.

20. Los Angeles Herald Express, November 26, 1953.

21. Daniel Bernard!," The Voice of Whiteness: D. W. Griffith's Biograph Films," in The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema, ed. Daniel Bernard! (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University, 1996), 122.

22. For a discussion of cinematic lighting and whiteness, see Richard Dyer, White (London: Routledge, 1997), 116-42.

23. Charles Ramirez Berg, "Immigrants, Aliens and Extraterrestrials: Science Fiction's Alien 'Other' as (Among Other Things) New Hispanic Imagery," CineAction/18 (fall 1989).

24. James Snead; Colin MacCabe, ed.; and Cornel West, ed., White Screens, Black Images: Hollywood From the Dark Side (London: Routledge, 1994), 6-7.

25. James Cook, "Of Men, Missing Links and Nondescripts: The Strange Career of P. T. Barnum's 'What is it?' Exhibition," in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of Extraordinary Body, ed. Rosemarie Garland Thompson (New York: New York University, 1996), 139-57.

26. Variety, March 3, 1953.

27. Vivian Sobchack, "Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science Fiction Film," East-West Film Journal i, no. 3 (December 1988): n.