Michel Foucault’s analysis of the evolution of the western penal system resonates with the 1932 national Burns-inspired urge to abolish the chain gang. Foucault recounts the replacement of the chain gang in France in 1837 “by inconspicuous black-painted cell-carts.” Thus, “punishment gradually ceased to be a spectacle” (Foucault 8-9). However, the lack of visibility of brutality does not displace the sinister effects of a now ambiguously-motivated penal system. Foucault argues that discipline’s growing absence of tangible sources renders the system all the more insidious. For, “punishment, then, will tend to become the most hidden part of the penal process… [and] as a result, justice no longer takes public responsibility for the violence that is bound up with its practice” (9). The chain gang in Georgia was indeed subsequently supplanted by a less visible means of penal correction.
Foucault’s concern regarding the penal system’s move toward discretion reflects national fears of Southern racial integration that the chain gangs both facilitated and made visible to the public. The chain gangs evolved out of an antebellum convict labor system designed to prolong the racial, economic, and cultural dynamics established through slavery. Thus, Warner Brothers responded to national anxieties provoked by whites’ conspicuous subjection to a mode of punishment perceived to be designed for blacks.
However, the film for the most part ignores arguments that address these racial tensions. Might Hollywood have relished portraying the chain gang as a hyper-visible site of injustice in order to facilitate its manipulation of pre-existing national fears surrounding chain gangs? In other words, the chain gangs – which arguably embodied a tense conflict between Southern modernity and lingering effects of its post-slavery economy – rendered racial tension and physical violence spectacles, thereby generating national anxiety which posed threats to established cultural and economic hierarchies (Hollywood, at the top of these hierarchies).
I do not suggest that a national return to a chain gang penal system would be appropriate. Rather, in 1932, the existence of the chain gang was not purely regressive, but complex and deeply imbricated in modernity. Thus, the film’s structural misreading of the chain gang – a system which in many ways literalizes the studios' symbolic perpetuation of violence and inequality – can be read as motivated by Hollywood’s fears regarding the chain gang’s cultural and economic self-exposure.