James Wong Howe: How Oscar-Winning Movie Pioneer Suffered Under Racist Laws
Google commemorated the life of Chinese-American film pioneer James Wong Howe on Friday, who pioneered filming techniques like deep-focus cinematography over a filmography spanning over 130 films. Howe was celebrated by the American film industry, winning two Academy Awards during his career, but he faced racist discrimination from anti-Chinese laws.
Howe was born in Guangzhou, China, in 1899. He moved with his parents to the United States when he was five years old, growing up in Washington state where his father worked on the Northern Pacific Railroad. In his early years he tried professional boxing and other jobs, before starting work as an assistant cameraman to Cecil B. deMille before his 20th birthday. Just five years later, he became chief cameraman for the Famous Players Film Company, and his career started to take a meteoric rise.
Actresses loved working with Howe because his talent with light manipulation helped bring out their best features. He told Reger Ebert in a 1970 interview that his big break “came about as an accident. As a sideline, I started taking publicity photographs of actors and actresses, and selling them the prints. One day I asked Mary Miles Minter, the silent star, if I could take her picture. She said ‘Sure, go ahead.’ “So I did, and a day after she got the prints she invited me to her dressing room. She said she wanted me to be her cinematographer. I asked why. She said because I made her eyes look dark.”
Throughout his career, he pioneered techniques to shoot films like Body and Soul and He Ran All the Way. One such technique was deep-focus cinematography, which involved keeping the background and foreground in focus at the same time. Another was using dark backgrounds to create dramatic effects in the days of black-and-white films — which he credited for bringing out Minter’s eyes. Howe received 16 Oscar nominations during his career, receiving one for Hud and one for The Rose Tattoo.
However, Howe faced racial discrimination during his life in the United States. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the country, Howe was unable to apply for American citizenship. It was only after the Magnuson Act passed in 1943 that he was able to naturalize.
Howe’s marriage to his wife also went unrecognized due to racial laws of the time. He married novelist Sanora Babb in Paris in 1937, but due to numerous state-level anti-miscegenation laws, the marriage was not legally binding back at home. It wasn’t until 1948 during the case of Perez v. Sharp that the Supreme Court of California ruled the state’s ban on interracial marriages violated the 14th amendment. Howe and Babb married in the state the following year.
Howe passed away in Hollywood in 1975, aged 76. His wife died in 2005 aged 98.
Don Lee, Howe’s nephew, shared his thoughts on his uncle with Google:
I was eleven years old when I first met my uncle Jimmie, known to many as the cinematographer James Wong Howe. Even though I had never seen any of his films, I was in awe of him and his accomplishments. Upon meeting him, he quickly put me at ease with his warmth, humor, and tendency to be a jokester.
Two years later, my mother, sisters, and I traveled from Washington state to Hollywood to visit Jimmie and his wife, author-poet Sanora Babb. They embraced us as family. I’ll never forget our brief visit with them: we went to Disneyland, dined in Chinatown, watched home movies, and visited the sets of major studios. Several years later, I moved to Los Angeles to attend college. While there, I often spent time with Jimmie and Sanora at their home and got to know him as an avid reader and storyteller who loved dogs, baseball, golf, and most of all Sanora.
While Jimmie had a reputation for being very serious and dedicated, he was also known as a willing listener and collaborator with his peers. That’s how I most remember him. He encouraged me in my studies, introduced me to film students he was mentoring, and took my college friends and me out for Dim Sum in Chinatown and to Angels baseball games. Jimmie proved, over the time I knew him, to be a consummate artist, valued friend and affectionate uncle. He is, and will always be, very much a part of my life.