Separate But Unequal

'Pioneers of African-American Cinema'

by Michael Barrett

9 August 2016

Funded by Kickstarter, this five-disc set preserves and restores the most significant collection of "race films" on DVD and Blu-ray.
Director Oscar Micheaux at work. 
cover art

Pioneers of African-American Cinema

Director: Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams et al
Cast: various

USDVD release date: 26 Jul 2016

Race films were produced especially for “colored only” or “Negro theatres” that catered to African-American neighborhoods during the era of legal segregation. Spanning from World War I to the late ‘40s, this was a separate but hardly equal industry of low-budget independent filmmakers who sometimes imitated Hollywood and sometimes dealt with themes Hollywood avoided.

The genre is both historically important and artistically fascinating, yet many of the films for this market have fallen apart or disappeared and most of those that haven’t are in rough shape indeed, as this collection attests despite certain efforts at restoration, which with its excellent booklet, is a labor of love and respect.

The first three one-reelers are slapstick shorts from Luther Pollard’s Ebony Film Corporation in Chicago. Although not masterpieces as comedy, they’re no worse than most items of the era and derive added interest from the rarity of seeing African-Americans do what white clowns of the period did, with dashes of race consciousness.

Two Knights of Vaudeville (1915) has broad, raucous, illiterate, loud-clothed stereotypes finding free tickets to a vaudeville show (which skips over the question of whether they’d be admitted to box seats), making fools of themselves, and staging their own “separate but equal” show, which is what this movie exemplifies. The white performers are played by black performers in whiteface, and the other two shorts have black actors as Egyptians and a Chinese man.

The two films from 1918, Mercy the Mummy Mumbled and A Reckless Rover incorporate stereotypes, like a scaredy-cat and a shiftless scofflaw, within a broader all-black context. Their visible nitrate deterioration calls attention to the precious, evanescent quality of cinema and the need to preserve it.

The booklet reveals that sensitive viewers complained about these stereotypes, perhaps imagining that white folks were somehow going to see the films in all-black venues and have their worst suspicions confirmed. It’s true that they hardly present models for what Booker T. Washington called uplifting the race. An Ebony poster advertises “They make you laugh in spite of yourself. Unsurpassed as attractions for children… Real colored players with the real negro humor that puts the fun over in a way to rock you off your chair.” Comedy has always been dangerous.

The first features made by an all-black studio were a handful of films from the Lincoln Motion Picture Company of Omaha, Nebraska, founded in 1916 by brothers Noble and George Johnson. All that survives of their five features is four badly deteriorated and random minutes, included here, from the studio’s final film, By Right of Birth (1921). Noble had a long career as an actor in Hollywood and is probably most famous as the island chief in King Kong (1933).

The set’s primary auteur is Oscar Micheaux, an independent entrepreneur who achieved success as a novelist with the “racial uplift” angle of Booker T. Washington, whom he admired. Micheaux was a strong-willed, self-possessed figure unafraid to court controversy by criticizing not only white society but elements within black culture. He was especially jaundiced about religious leaders, a theme that recurs in many works.

The Johnsons had been interested in making a film of his 1918 novel The Homesteader, but he founded his own Chicago company and made the movie himself, now lost. His two 1920 features included here, Within Our Gates and Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Ku Klux Klan, play like ripostes to D.W. Griffith’s epic breakthrough, The Birth of a Nation (1914), which seems to have encouraged Micheaux’s realization that his people needed a voice in cinema.

Like Griffith’s film, they’re full of unashamed melodrama, coincidence, sentiment, satirical observation, high-minded speeches, and cross-cutting suspense. However, these stories reverse Griffith’s climactic dilemma of a white girl threatened by an evil “mulatto” (as was the parlance of the day). Micheaux’s middle-class black heroines (a “mulatto” in one case) face attempted rape from white attackers—a much more common reality, except in movies. The first film cross-cuts the attack with grim images of her adoptive parents being lynched.

The latter film, which comes with a score by jazz drummer Max Roach, is unfortunately missing climactic footage. Leigh Whipper, who later played a striking role in the 1939 Of Mice and Men and was the first African-American to join Actors’ Equity, plays an Indian fakir. As Charles Musser observes in the booklet, audiences may well have perceived this character as an African-American who was “passing” as Indian, thus lending a pun to “fakir”. Not only are many of Micheaux’s films about passing, but he frequently casts light-skinned black actors as white characters (especially racist ones), which increases the ambiguity.

Seven more Micheaux films are included, by far the most extensive collection of his output. His 1925 Body and Soul, which like Within out Gates comes with a score by DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller), is the feature debut of the great Paul Robeson. To symbolize Micheaux’s ideas of his race’s moral crossroads, Robeson plays twins. The good brother is hardly in the film while the other is a corrupt and hypocritical preacher, fleshing out a similarly jaundiced preacher in Within Our Gates. Clearly, Micheaux’s ideas of African-American churches were closer to the “opiate of the people” than to the vision of Martin Luther King.

Micheaux’s talkies continue to explore or exploit in-your-face topics, always interrupted by musical nightclub performances that are often the highlight of the film. The 1931 short called The Darktown Revue preserves a traditional minstrel show, performed by black artists in “blackface”, that centers on another satirical preacher. From the same year, The Exile derives from Micheaux’s autobiographical 1913 novel The Conquest, about a South Dakota homesteader, although the hero’s name is the same as in The Homesteader. The story contrasts the self-defeating low-down values of a depraved city woman with the purity of life in the country, where an apparently white girlfriend is discovered to be of mixed-race after all, and therefore acceptable to the race-conscious hero.

In this and other films, we observe that Micheaux’s style of cross-cutting feels eccentric and manic, often cross-cutting to little specific purpose. I surmise that Micheaux evolved this tic from low-budget ingenuity as a way of covering continuity gaps while using all the footage he had, and that it grew into a personal style. He couldn’t afford retakes, apparently, which is why we sometimes hear his off-screen voice giving direction to actors of highly varied naturalness and professionalism, while reflecting lights swim wildly across the space. The credits inform us that this film was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the center of America’s pre-Hollywood film production where some studios still existed.

The Girl from Chicago, Ten Minutes to Live and the incomplete Veiled Aristocrats, all from 1932, incorporate more song and dance numbers into the drama. In the first film, which remakes Micheaux’s lost 1926 feature The Spider’s Web, the complicated melodramatics follow a U.S. Secret Service agent played by Carl Mahon, who was the Ethiopian killer in The Exile and appears in several of these films. Also featured is the talkie debut of Juano Hernandez, a great actor best remembered from Intruder in the Dust (1949). He shows up in the last act as a gambler who “runs the numbers”, a kind of lottery that preys on poor people—not unlike today’s lotto industry.

The second film tells an anthology of two stories, the first of which consists almost entirely of nightclub acts conducted by Donald Heywood, who appears in several films. One of these acts is duplicated from the previous film and another is a blackface comic duet. The second story is essentially a silent film, as the flashback (Micheaux is narratively besotted with flashbacks) that constitutes most of the action is presented as a silent movie with intertitles plus off-screen voice-overs.

Veiled Aristocrats remakes Micheaux’s lost 1925 feature The House Behind the Cedars, based on a well-known Charles W. Chesnutt novel. It’s an especially intriguing “woman’s picture” about whether its heroine should pass for white, as her brother wishes her to do, or marry a dark-skinned man. As usual, the story takes periodic breaks for the brother’s servants to stage impromptu song and dance.

As so often in this filmmaker’s work, miscegenation is also key to the 1938 Birthright, based on T.S. Stribling’s once-praised, now-forgotten novel of an idealistic mixed-race teacher’s discouraging resistance by both white and black communities in the South. Again, Micheaux remakes one of his silent films, this time a lost 1924 version. The film includes an anecdote, with the same names, that was previously recounted in The Girl from Chicago.

Micheaux apparently modified Stribling’s ending a great deal. Although this film and The Girl from Chicago complain about peonage—the practice of forcing free labor via debt—there’s no obviously intended irony when the newly rich hero attracts the approval of the “best white folks” by promising to arrest shiftless “Negroes” for loitering and putting them to work on the grounds of his new school. Is this presented as a practical solution for uplifting the race, or is Micheaux indeed implying that the new boss, even risen from mixed-race ranks, is the same as the old boss?

Even though it’s missing two reels, Birthright is the longest Micheaux film here and is the crispest restoration. Consequently, it feels the most artful and fascinating, as its bewildered hero (Carman Newsome) is taken under the wing of the town’s richest white man (George Lessey), who tells him, “You shouldn’t marry a negress… You should let your seed wither in your loins.” This implies the old man’s secret pretty clearly in a film that “tells the truth,” according to the trailer, “with a great white and colored cast.”

Speaking of loins, these independent films not only include themes that weren’t brought up in Hollywood films of the day, they even drop mild profanities like “hell” and “damn”, and this movie includes a fight with a “drop kick”, or “kicking a man in the spivot”. Alec Lovejoy gives an especially magnetic and slang-ridden performance as the hero’s chum. Really he upstages Newsome, who, like most of Micheaux’s heroes, is a tall handsome stiff seemingly cast for his height.

The other dominant auteur in this set is Spencer Williams, best known today for playing Andy in the TV version of Amos and Andy. This pioneer wrote, directed and starred in the 1931 comedy short Hot Biskits, which was rediscovered in the Library of Congress archives by this set’s curator, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart. While hardly a laugh riot, it’s a good-natured jape that showcases the mix of ordinary everyday characters and broad buffoonery that would mark that famous sitcom.

Williams wrote and directed The Blood of Jesus (1941) and directed Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. for Sack Amusements, a white-owned Dallas company in the race market. He also appears in both films. The former is a religious parable in which Williams plays an irreligious husband who accidentally shoots his wife on her day of baptism. She is at least temporarily thought dead. Either she hallucinates an afterlife in which she struggles between an angel and devil in a juke joint and literal crossroads (with arrows pointing to Hell and Zion), or it’s really happening in some way.

The Blood of Jesus is virtually a musical, thanks to a parade of spirituals performed by a choir, either onscreen or on the soundtrack. Williams lifts clips of heavenly visions from a 1936 short, Broken Earth, also distributed by Sack. Apparently that short’s story of death and resurrection through prayer is similar, if more streamlined.

The crude, low-budget aura, underlined by the ragged nature of the print, gives The Blood of Jesus the sincerity seen in works often called naive and primitive by those interested in outsider art, and this primitivism becomes a paradoxical source of power where a slick, polished, high-budget film would look campy or commercial.

Contemporary Holllywood films such as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), the 1946 duo Angel on My Shoulder and It’s a Wonderful Life, and most pertinently the all-black Cabin in the Sky (1943), delight the viewer with sophisticated realizations of angels or devils, and they also convey the idea that the filmmakers don’t take such nonsense seriously nor expect the viewer to do so for the sake of entertainment.

By contrast, the resemblance of Williams’ film to a high school or church play invests its dime-store portrayals with a sense that it’s created by people who believe implicitly in what they show, and that this film is capturing something real and without condescension in their worldview. To deprecate the cheapness would be to miss this sense of affirmation, which is why this film’s closest analogue is possibly Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), another film that dares you take it seriously, albeit with exquisite production values.

Dirty Gertie is an uncredited remake of the films Sadie Thompson (1928) and Rain (1932), based on W. Somerset Maugham’s story of a steamy temptress and a missionary’s attraction to her. Set on a Caribbean island called Rinidad (dropping the “T” from Trinidad), it builds to a big show by imported Harlem nightclub star Gertie LaRue (Francine Everett, a real Harlem star) and her retinue, as we come to understand that any of several characters might intend her harm. It’s less a whodunit than a who-will-do-it. If Gertie is punished for her transgressions as a “jezebel”, the film also exposes the hypocrisy and neuroses of the men who get hung up on her, and it has as little time as Micheaux for the religious cant of the self-styled man of God.

Despite centering on a performer, this is the least musical talkie in the set. Williams appears, to the viewer’s amazement, in a non-campy drag performance as a voodoo woman with a crystal ball. That ambiguously toned scene is both funny and entirely serious.

If Micheaux might have taken a dim view of the old-time religion in The Blood of Jesus, what would he have made of films by James and Eloyce Gist, a married team of traveling evangelists? Dating from the early ‘30s are the newly re-edited 50-minute Hell-Bound Train and two similar shorts, all silent, that were shown in black churches as part of a modern experiment in preaching that competed with black cinemas. It’s fair to call these non-professional items the work of amateurs, as they look more or less like the ambitious home movies they are.

The feature is simplicity itself: shots of a train and a capering devil (with horns and tail) are interspersed with explanations of the sins in various boxcars: gambling, dancing, jazz—all leading to unwed pregnancy, poverty, and finally the jaws of Hell. Actually, Micheaux might have agreed, for he constantly presents jazz numbers within a context that seems to condemn their milieu in favor of “higher” culture like opera. These films’ home-made, backyard approach to broad devil and angel costumes echoes that of The Blood of Jesus. All the films resonate with each other, so that the experience of watching them all lends each a richness that wouldn’t be found in any single one.

The set contains four silent features not made by Micheaux. The Flying Ace (1926), from white filmmaker Richard E. Norman’s Florida-based studio, is in astounding shape that reveals every detail and texture of its entertaining dime-novel adventure set in what looks like an alternate Hollywood that never heard of white folks. There’s nothing like a great print to make you see how professional an indie can be, and we also have a fragment of one other Norman item that looks equally well-shot behind its terrible deterioration. Both films star a one-legged supporting player names Steve Reynolds, and he steals the climax of Flying Ace by firing a crutch-rifle from a bicycle!

In bad shape is Richard Maurice’s Detroit drama Eleven P.M. (1928), a curiosity presented as the dream of its boxer-writer hero in which people from his life are recast in a bizarre series of events that feels like miscellaneous movies strung together. One plotline stars Maurice himself as a man who reincarnates as a dog! Then our hero wakes up, and most viewers will be glad of it.

Two items hail from Philadelphia’s Colored Players Film Corporation. Roy Calneck’s Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926) is an earlier example than Dirty Gertie of re-imagining a previously white property for a black cast, in this case a popular 19th Century play about alcoholism and gambling. Charles S. Gilpin, a rival to Robeson, was at this time the country’s most famous African-American actor, and this film preserves one of his stage roles as transferred to natural settings.

Calneck loves the production value of the blazing fire at the climax, and he shows it as long as he can. As with a Micheaux production, this movie presents most of its story in a series of flashbacks contrasting those who hold themselves back with those who strive to better themselves—African-American themes that fold perfectly into the classic Victorian melodrama.

Frank Perugini’s The Scar of Shame 1929) is a complicated and ultimately ambiguous melodrama about “caste” and different cultural aspirations in the black community, but what I want to discuss is a brief scene of two boys dancing energetically. They look for all the world like the Nicholas Brothers, who were indeed attracting attention in Philadelphia at this time.

I’ve previously speculated that their feature debut, apparently unknown to the rest of the world except me, occurs in a 1932 film called The Sport Parade. Now I may have to revise that opinion back to this late silent item. Harold would be around eight years old and Fayard fifteen, and it sure looks about right.

The star of this film is Lucia Lynn Moses, who is interviewed with her two sisters in a half-hour video interview from 1978 included on Disc Five. Older sister Ethel starred in Birthright, so two of the sisters made films in this set. (The third sister appeared on Broadway.) As shot by Pearl Bowser, a pioneer critic on the topic of race movies, it’s both an intimate and arty snapshot of sisterly reminiscence.

One more talkie feature here is Richard C. Kahn’s The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), a western full of good humor and songs amid the flimsy plot. Like Williams’ films, it hails from the Dallas company called Sack Amusements, with Williams in a supporting role as one bad dude.

The star is recording artist Herb Jeffries, who made several of these singing cowboy pictures exactly like Hollywood’s, except for the complexion of the cast. The sidekick played by Lucius Brooks might be featured for laughs in a white western, but he wouldn’t be allowed to calmly polish off a bad guy like he does. Similarly, Mantan Moreland played in some of the other Jeffries westerns as a character not unlike those he played in Charlie Chan and other films, but the difference is the all-black context that doesn’t demean him.

A curious fact about Jeffries is that as far as research shows, he seems to have been more white than black (Irish mother and Sicilian father of mixed heritage) but he chose to identify as African-American to pursue a jazz career and even darkened his skin with makeup. This may seem an unusual example of “passing”, but American laws stipulated that even those with one-quarter or one-eighth African-American heritage (“quadroon” and “octoroon”) were officially counted as “Negroes” by law, so Jeffries was only choosing to insist on this. Apparently he did identify as white at one point to marry the famous stripper Tempest Storm.

Included in the collection are selections of documentary footage shot by individuals. From the silent era are 16mm home movies shot by Rev. Solomon Sir Jones, focusing on black-owned business and social events in various Oklahoma towns of the ‘20s. Most significant is a selection of footage shot by budding anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who would become a celebrated novelist. We see film shot in Florida, Alabama, and a worship service among a Gullah community in Beaufort, South Carolina. This footage is scored by Norman Chalfin’s field recordings on the same trip. These provide documentary glimpses of history’s little-known ordinary citizens from before the age of YouTube.

Although Kino is releasing this set in both DVD and Blu-ray editions, a few of the items are only included on the Blu-ray version, which is what is discussed here. Included as extras on the discs are brief introductory remarks on various topics by scholars Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart.

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