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Black Moon

Director: Roy William Neill
Cast: Jack Holt, Fay Wray

(US DVD: 8 Jan 2011)

There were a good number of zombie movies in the ‘30s—not the post-Romero shambling cannibals but the old-school Haiti voodoo variety. It seems to have been one of the perverse ways that popular culture aimed at white audiences could deal with the dynamism of African-American culture (e.g., the Harlem Renaissance) and its restless undercurrents of discontent. I’m willing to bet that no movie of its time so brazenly aligned voodoo with black revolutionary politics as the obscure but fascinating Black Moon.


On the face of it, it’s tolerably offensive. The film opens with a nominally white woman, the former Juanita Perez (Dorothy Burgess), beating a drum in her little daughter’s room and staring into space as the girl looks on. Juanita can’t wait to visit her uncle on San Christopher, the island plantation where she grew up and where everybody speaks lousy French that’s supposed to be Creole patois. Her husband is Stephen Lane (Jack Holt), a magnate in one of those spacious, high-ceilinged ‘30s offices invented by Hollywood.


His secretary (Fay Wray) obviously carries a torch for him but won’t tell him. She resigns because, as she hints, she’s in love with a married man and won’t “live in sin” with him. “Partly because he hasn’t asked me,” says the pert beauty in this pre-Code movie, and partly because she’s just not that type. To everyone who can read Hollywood, this sets us up for a new rearrangement of the eternal verities at the end of the picture, which can only mean something dire for the spooky current wife—especially since Wray is billed above Burgess.


In a plot that runs little over an hour and takes place mostly on the island, we learn that the orphaned Juanita was raised to native ways and “tasted blood” during human sacrifices. She’s glad, very glad to be home, because she’ll inherit the island and make up for her tyrant uncle who’s oppressed the people. She’s presented as a corrupted puppet of the natives, a traitor to her race, someone who can’t be taken seriously spouting nonsense about social justice—in other words, someone truly frightening! Someone who must die!


The uncle and his forebears have periodically weathered native uprisings by shooting at native priests from the tower, and he remarks that in 200 years, his people have never run away. If only a comic-relief figure had been in the film to toss off a line like “Feeble-minded, were they?”


In other words, it’s a handful of whites against thousands of blacks, as the dialogue bluntly spells out, and this movie is devoted to presenting the latter as a malignant and scary force, albeit one that must finally and unconvincingly crumple under a restoration of the status quo. That said, the uncle is also shown as a perpetually angry, shifty and unpleasant character.


The good Negro is Lunch McLaren (Clarence Muse), a visiting American from Georgia who sings gospels like “Roll, Jordan, Roll” and therefore plays for the right team, nationally and spiritually. He calls the natives “monkey-chasers” because they like coconuts, and thus he distinguishes them from himself. He witnesses his girlfriend being sacrificed in a secret ceremony; she’s played in her brief appearance by Theresa Harris, a talented and beautiful supporting player in such films as Babyface, Jezebel and the film this one clearly foreshadows, I Walked with a Zombie.


With a foot in each world, Lunch acts as a Beatrice-like guide through the island’s underworld, showing Lane the awful spectacle of what his wife has become: a cavorter among black folks. If she were in New York, she might be showing up at jazz clubs. And according to what we learn in other Hollywood films, those clubs often had jungle, cannibal and voodoo motifs—although such frippery often seems more like exploitation of the white folks who go there.


From different angles, Lunch and Juanita represent the possibility of ambiguous identities that are endemically rooted in culture, not race or nature. By extension, they imply the extent to which “race” is a cultural construct, not that anybody in this story would get all eggheaded about that. Juanita is a dangerous figure because, although caucasian, she is capable of fully identifying with a racial/cultural Other due to her upbringing. This subversively acknowledges that the “monkey-chasers” are culturally made, not born.


Juanita was raised by a leathery crone called Ruva, played by a commanding character actress called Madame Sul-Te-Wan, whose career stretches from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation to the Technicolor and Cinemascope of Carmen Jones. She often played witches and voodoo women, most notably as Tituba in Maid of Salem.


This is fascinating as all get-out, and I wish I could say the movie is an undiscovered masterpiece, but it’s too aesthetically and thematically feeble, too plodding and blind to itself. The screenplay by Wells Root stops far short of anything beyond its canny exploitation of racist unease (though we shan’t fail to credit that) and the shock of its blithely disturbing “happy ending”. In its brief length, the plot spends too much time with the least interesting characters, who are unfortunately the ones we’re supposed to root for.


Joseph August is a great photographer, and director Roy William Neill is known for a degree of shadowy expressiveness (especially in the Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone), but this film approaches its unusual atmosphere, just like its potboiling screenplay, in too perfunctory and unconscious a manner. Still, there are nice shots and moments, and the sheer curiosity value has cult potential. The fact that this movie was ever made is already interesting in itself.

Rating:

Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.


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