Separate But Unequal: ‘Pioneers of African-American Cinema’

Funded by Kickstarter, Pioneers of African-American Cinema preserves and restores the most significant collection of “race films” on DVD and Blu-ray.

Race films were produced specially 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 about 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 incorporates 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 are 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 films, 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 version 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 with 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 songs 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.