THE VINTAGE YEARS
20 Years of Race Film
As film enters the 21st century, black actors, actresses, directors, writers and producers have become financial and creative forces in the entertainment industry. Legends and stars like Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis, Melvin Van Peebles, Spike Lee, Richard Roundtree, Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Jamie Foxx command as much respect in film history as their white counterparts. However, it was not always that way.
"It has been a long journey to this moment," said Sidney Poitier in Hollywood as he was presented with an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Lilies of the Field in 1963. He was the first black actor to achieve this award, although in 1939 Hattie McDaniel was chosen Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind. The long journey for black actors of which Poitier spoke began long before sound, before color, to the birth of modern movie making when the stereotypes were firmly set from which black actors have not yet been completely freed.
At the turn of the 20th century, a cultural revolution took place. Almost overnight, every neighborhood and town had a nickelodeon, a small makeshift theater where anyone could gaze in awe at the new process of "moving pictures." In addition to images of exotic locals from around the world, a wide array of stories and subjects including famous books or popular plays were cut down to the length of a modern day music video. Minorities were represented as stereotypes: the drunken Irishman, the greedy Jew, the watermelon eating Negro. Following the tradition of minstrel shows, white actors in blackface portrayed black roles on film. Typical films of the period were Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903), Nigger in the Woodpile (1904), The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (1905), The Masher (1907) and the two series, Rastus (1910) and Sambo (1909-1911), which pictured their characters as humorous, lazy, shiftless and with minimal intelligence. These stereotypical exaggerations were what white America associated with blacks and became the basis for the racial tension that stood in Hollywood for decades until well after World War II.
On the relatively rare occasions that blacks did appear, it usually omitted the richness of African-American culture and the talent of its performers. Blacks were, in the words of African-American author Ralph Ellison, "invisible." Later, when films presented blacks in too positive a light or challenged southern racist attitudes, film censors simply edited black characters out of versions shown to southern audiences. Many films never even played in the South.
From the early teens into the late 1940s, however, there were also films with all-black casts created specifically for African-American audiences by both black and white producers and directors. Consequently, a "separate cinema" grew up and played in segregated theaters of both the North and the South. It was as if a parallel universe of African-American films existed. With these "race films," away from the big Hollywood studios and working on tight, limited budgets, independent filmmakers sought to provide mass entertainment for a black audience by creating stories with distinct cultural references and by dramatizing worlds in which African-American heroes and heroines were depicted as vital, ambitious, and assertive protagonists.
By the late 1940s, race movies were on their last legs, having fallen victim to progressive attitudes and outlooks, by black and white America, brought on by the Second World War. Not only could they no longer compete with the technically superior Hollywood product, the major studios themselves saw a changing market and began to show an interest in social issues. By using the black cause as a vehicle for the metaphor of American justice, they produced films that promoted the theme of racial integration (and sometimes cultural assimilation), and that sometimes touched on conflicts between blacks and whites. The latter was something race movies had rarely done. So they faded away.
BIRTH OF A NATION
D. W Griffith Corp., 1915
The Birth of a Nation is a classic of American cinema. Its director, D.W. Griffith, combined and used innovative techniques of editing, parallel storylines and close-ups that resulted in one of the most important films of all times. Unfortunately, it is also the grandfather of all racist films. This conflict between its cinematic greatness and its blatant bigotry also makes it one of the medium's most controversial films.
The film is based on the 1905 novel and stage play The Clansman, which Southern evangelist Thomas Dixon wrote in reply to the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Dixon, a racist, later tried to defend himself by saying that his purpose had been "to teach the North what it has never known - the awful suffering of the white man during the dreadful reconstruction period - to demonstrate to the world that the white man must and shall be supreme." Griffith, also a southerner, jumped at the story.
On the surface, the film depicts a distorted view of the Reconstruction Era of the South in which black characters are either gentle, loyal servants or fiery renegades, lusting for power or, worse, white women. In one memorable sequence, a renegade black pursues a fragile young white woman. Terrified, she refuses to submit to him, and determined to keep her southern honor, runs from him and throws herself off a cliff. Perhaps no other film has as powerfully articulated the bigoted white American nightmare of black aggression and male sexuality.
A spectacular epic of over three hours, the film traveled throughout the United States with its own musical score and a full orchestra. White audiences, dazzled by Griffith's technical innovations and his race theme, flocked to see it. African-American audiences were so outraged that the NAACP launched an organized protest against the film in an effort to have it banned and boycotted.
A MAN'S DUTY
Lincoln Motion Picture Co., 1919
In 1916, Universal Pictures actor Noble Johnson founded the black owned and operated Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Los Angeles. It was the first in the United States to produce and distribute films of and by blacks, portraying themselves in other than humiliating slapstick comedies. The company's first films, The Realization of a Negro's Ambition (1916), The Trooper of Company K (1916) and The Law of Nature (1917) all starred Johnson. The national demand for Lincoln product became so great that Universal Pictures, pressured by their new competition, forced Johnson, who was now receiving top billing in his own films, to resign as President.
In 1919 Lincoln released A Man's Duty, starring Clarence Brooks in the lead role, to packed houses around the United States, Cuba and the Bahamas breaking all black theater attendance records. Despite all of its success, in 1923 the company discontinued operations.
THE GREEN EYED MONSTER
Norman Film Manufacturing Co., 1921
Between 1921 and 1928 The Norman Film Manufacturing Company of Jacksonville, Florida produced high quality feature silent films. Although they did not deal with racial issues, they were all-black cast films that were on par technically with Hollywood production standards but were free of derogatory racial stereotypes.
Richard Norman, who was white, challenged the odds to make films for black audiences and helped in establishing the independent black cinema movement of the 1920s. While black directors such as Oscar Micheaux and Noble Johnson laid the foundation for black owned film companies, Norman offered roles to black actors that were unavailable to them in mainstream movies.
The Green Eyed Monster, Norman's first feature film release, concerned two men, both in love with the same girl, who work for two different railroads competing for a contract to carry government mail. In order to establish a basis on which the contract can be awarded, a race is arranged between two trains. The winner of that race also wins the hand of his sweetheart.
THE LURE OF A WOMAN
Progress Pictures, 1921
When Noble Johnson founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916, he received backing from the Negro Business League of Kansas City, Missouri. After funding, he moved to California to set up his studio, leaving Missouri without an all-black-owned film production company. By the early 1920s, four new film concerns were able to obtain financing in Kansas City. Only two of them actually produced any films: the Andlauer Film Company's As The World Rolls On (1921), staring the well-known pugilist Jack Johnson, and the Progress Picture Association's The Lure Of A Woman (1921), co-starring Regina Cohee, Dr. A. Porter Davis, and Charles Allen in their only known film appearance. The remaining two companies, Gate City Feature Films and Turpin Films, were inactive.
Norman Film Manufacturing Co., 1923
Bill Pickett, an authentic black American cowboy and Wild West Show star, is credited as the father of "bull-dogging," the art of biting the tender part of a steer's lip and wrestling it to the ground (a technique he learned from watching his dog Spike herding cattle). Nicknamed "the Dusky Demon," Pickett worked alongside Will Rogers and Tom Mix during their early days at the famous Miller Brothers 101 Ranch in Boley, Oklahoma and toured with their traveling Wild West Show throughout the U.S.A., Canada, Mexico, South America and England.
Not as well known is that Pickett was America's first black cowboy star and appeared in two movies for the Norman Film Manufacturing Co. of Jacksonville, Florida. With the success that black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux and The Lincoln Motion Picture Company had been enjoying, Richard Norman, who was white, saw a new market in "race films" and hired Pickett to perform in his feature films The Crimson Skull (1922) and The Bull Dogger.
Arguably the most famous rodeo performer of all time, Pickett died in 1932 after being kicked in the head by a horse. In 1971 he was honored as the first black cowboy to be inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame.
THE FLAMING CRISIS
Monarch Productions, 1924
Monarch Productions, a black-owned film production company in New York City, is credited with having produced only one movie. The Flaming Crisis stars Calvin Nicholson as Robert Mason, a prominent newspaperman who exposes a corrupt labor leader with political influence. When the official is found murdered at a society reception, Mason is accused and convicted of the crime on circumstantial evidence. After serving several years in prison, Mason escapes and makes his way to the cattle lands of the Southwest. His rescue of a child from a cattle stampede is instrumental in his meeting Tex Miller, a daughter of the prairie, played by Dorothy Dunbar. Following a series of adventures with a threatening outlaw gang, he overcomes his enemies, clears himself of the murder, and gains the love of Miller. Together they live happily ever after.
THE FLYING ACE
Norman Film Manufacturing Co., 1926
The Norman Film Manufacturing Company of Jacksonville, Florida, specialized in outdoor adventure motion pictures starring all-black casts in the 1920s. A pioneer of sorts, Richard Norman selected well-known dramatic actors to star in his high quality silent features that were free of derogatory racial stereotypes.
The Flying Ace stars Katherine Boyd as Ruth Sawtelle, a female daredevil, and Lawrence Criner as Captain William Stokes, World War I hero and flying ace called upon to solve a mystery. Both actors received their training with the original Lafayette Players, the influential all-black theatre group founded in Harlem in 1915.
Norman Film Manufacturing Co., 1928
The Norman Studios reunited Lawrence Criner and Kathryn Boyd after the mild success of The Flying Ace (1926). Along with Steve "Peg" Reynolds, a one-legged actor, they star in this true story about John Crisp and his struggle to secure oil in spite of the efforts of a crooked drilling contractor. The entire "all-colored city" of Tatums, Oklahoma, takes part in Black Gold and one scene, a fight between the hero and the villain, is staged on Main Street.
Boyd did not survive the "talkies," but Criner continued as a featured player in the Lafayette Players Stock Company and in films, including The Duke Is Tops (1938), Am I Guilty? (1940), Miracle in Harlem (1948), among others. He made his last film appearance in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950).
THE FRAMING OF THE SHREW
Christie Film Company/Sack Amusements, 1929
In 1929, the Christie Film Company began producing a series of black-cast talkies adapted from stories by Octavus Roy Cohen, a white newspaperman and Saturday Evening Post magazine writer. His Florian Slappey short stories highlight the misadventures of a bumbling black detective who leaves the South for the bright lights of Harlem. The Framing of the Shrew, one of the films based on Cohen's series, concerns a henpecked husband who takes some bad advice from his friend Slappey. Charles Olden stars with Edward Thompson, Evelyn Preer and Spencer Williams, who co-wrote the screenplay with Cohen.
Williams, later known for his portrayal of Andy Brown in the Amos 'n Andy CBS television series, was originally hired by the Christie Film Company as a sound technician but was soon utilized by the studio for his acting and scriptwriting talents, an experience he would draw from when he would direct his own films in the 1940s.
Micheaux Pictures Corp., 1931
In a career that spanned almost thirty years, Oscar Micheaux became the most successful early black independent film producer and the first black film auteur. Micheaux's films, however, were not technically brilliant. Forced to work on very tight budgets, he had to shoot scenes in the homes or offices of his friends and in empty, outdated studios. He would rent equipment by the day. Retakes were a luxury he could not afford, and editing was minimal. In some of his films, in fact, he can be overheard whispering dialogue to his actors. Even Micheaux's later films rarely cost more than $20,000 to produce. Yet in most cases, the Micheaux feature was far superior to those of other black independent film companies largely because Micheaux took the familiar Hollywood script and gave it a distinctly racial slant. Committed to "racial uplift," he adapted many of his films from his own novels and cast black characters in non-stereotypical roles-as farmers, oilmen, explorers, professors, Broadway producers, and Secret Service agents.
A milestone in American film history, The Exile (1931) was the first all-black-cast independently produced "talkie" (or sound film). Based on Micheaux's autobiographical novel The Conquest (1913), it followed the adventures of Jean Baptiste, an ambitious "decent colored man" who travels to South Dakota to establish his own homestead and falls in love with a woman whom he believes to be white.
The film, which enjoyed a successful run in New York, was censored by the Pennsylvania Board of Censors, which objected to a scene of Baptiste kissing a white woman (who is later revealed to have "Negro blood"). Although the film generated much controversy, it gave hope to other race filmmakers that black films could compete in the new market of sound movies.
THE BLACK KING
Southland Pictures, 1932
The Black King (AKA Harlem Big Shot) is a satire on the life of black separatist Marcus Garvey. Made by Southland Pictures, an independent white-owned New York company, it is an example of how films help to perpetuate falsehoods and stereotypes. The film stars A. B. Comathiere, a veteran of the famous Lafayette Players Stock Company, and a favorite of African-American director Oscar Micheaux. Comathiere plays "Charcoal Johnson," a con man that takes money from uneducated African Americans for a fake "Back to Africa Movement." As far as truth or history is concerned, the film has little value except as an example of the types of acting opportunities afforded to African-American actors, even if they were distorted stereotypes. Southland Pictures went out of business and made no other films.
HARLEM IS HEAVEN
Lincoln Productions, 1932
White producer Jack Golberg's first venture into black films came in 1929 when he secured the rights to distribute Josephine Baker's film Siren of the Tropics (1927). With that success, in the early 1930s he organized Lincoln Productions in New York City (no relation to the Lincoln Motion Picture Company.) The company's first release was Harlem is Heaven (also known as Harlem Rhapsody) featuring fifty-four year old Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Eubie Blake, Alvin Childress and James Baskett in his motion picture debut.
Well into his career as the world's most famous tap dancer, Robinson appeared in many Hollywood pictures and only this one independent film, a story that is woven around his own true-life experiences. In it, he also performs his famous "stair step" tap dance to the tune of "Swanee River" accompanied by Eubie Blake's solo piano.
THE KID FROM BORNEO
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1933
For over fifty years, the Our Gang comedies, also known as the Little Rascals, were a staple of movie theaters and television. Today, they have virtually disappeared from broadcast partly because some audiences perceived them as racially insensitive.
In 1922, Hollywood producer Hal Roach began making screen comedy shorts about a racially mixed group of neighborhood children who find themselves in humorous predicaments as they play mischievous pranks with their pals. Unlike the demeaning and stereotypical roles commonly offered to African-American actors in Hollywood, here, ethnicity was never an issue. These children were acting like children and getting along as equals, whether black or white. The humor was a byproduct only of the everyday situations in which they all found themselves.
In The Kid From Borneo, the Rascals are pitted against a circus sideshow wild man who they mistake for one of their uncles. Chaos ensues when Bumbo, the Wild Man from Borneo, complete with a nose-bone and a sweet tooth for candy, chases the kids around while chanting the only English phrase he knows, "yum-yum eat'em-up." Predictably, the kids think he's a cannibal.
The Our Gang comedies are a product of a different era. While they are unquestionably worthy of comparison with the best short films of Chaplin, Keaton, and Laurel & Hardy, modern society's perspective can no longer accept their particular level of humor.
Sack Amusements, 1934
Nicknamed "Sweet Mama Stringbean" because of her slender figure, Ethel Waters in the 1930s was a dramatic star of the stage as well as a most highly regarded singer, influencing Lena Horne and many others.
Rufus Jones for President (1933), starring eight-year-old Sammy Davis Jr., and Bubbling Over are the only two all-black-cast comedy shorts she made during her long career. A highlight of this film about life in a Harlem tenement is Waters singing "Darkies Never Cry," "Harlem Express," and "Taking Your Time." Waters was still projecting an unmistakable sexuality, which in her later mainstream films like Pinky (1949) and The Member of the Wedding (1952) was converted into "earth mother" quality.
Les Films H Roussillon, 1934
Born into poverty in St. Louis in 1906, Josephine Baker became one of the best-known entertainers in the world. A self-taught dancer, Baker worked her way to New York and a place in the Broadway chorus line of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle's musical comedy Shuffle Along (1922) followed by Chocolate Dandies (1924) and a Plantation Club show featuring Ethel Waters.
Still a teenager, Baker moved from Harlem to Paris where the wave of French enthusiasm for "Le Jazz Hot" quickly brought her international fame as an expatriate. After joining the Folies-Bergere, Baker's infamous erotic dancing, with feathers and a banana skirt, made her a sensation.
In the 1920s, it was in Europe, the center of Western intellectual and artistic pursuits, where African-American artists felt most appreciated, gaining respect and acclaim regardless of their skin color. European audiences were unthreatened by the idea of dignified African Americans on stage or screen, and gladly filled the house for performers like Baker, Paul Robeson, and Marian Anderson. Their popularity abroad rivaled or surpassed what they achieved in the United States.
Baker, like Paul Robeson, was an early and outspoken advocate for equal rights and often criticized the U.S. (and Hollywood) for its racial policies. She appeared in only a handful of films including La Sirene des Tropique (1927), Zou Zou (1934), and Princess Tam Tam (1935). All made overseas.
THE SONG OF FREEDOM
Lion Hammer, 1936
Dramatic actor, singer, civil rights advocate, controversial political activist, and one of the most gifted men of the twentieth century, Paul Robeson was very active in his early career in Hollywood. Starring in productions of Eugene O'Neill's play Emperor Jones (1933) and the Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat (1936) among others, in actuality, he was dissatisfied with the limits of his work in motion pictures. Robeson had to travel to England in order to receive the artistic freedom to play dignified, non-stereotypical roles where skin color was almost irrelevant to the narrative.
The Song of Freedom was his first film in England. Playing a dockworker turned opera singer and a long-lost royal heir to a small kingdom in Africa gave Robeson ample opportunity to display his rich singing voice and his acting skills. Appearing as his wife is Elisabeth Welch, the black American actress/singer, who followed in the footsteps of Robeson and other expatriates with major careers abroad like Adelaide Hall and Josephine Baker.
BARGAIN WITH BULLETS
Million Dollar Productions, 1937
Ralph Cooper, who gave many big stars their breaks in show business during his half-century career as emcee at Harlem's famous Apollo Theatre, began his career in the 1920s as a vaudeville singer and dancer. By 1936, after several unsuccessful attempts to interest the major Hollywood studios in making movies with all-black casts, Cooper set out to write, direct, and star a series of films outside of the Hollywood system. He gained fame in 1937 with two all-black gangster films, Dark Manhattan and Bargain With Bullets, that both broke house attendance records. Good looking, tall and light skinned, Cooper's roles won him billing as "the bronze Bogart" and earned him a substantial following with black audiences.
HARLEM ON THE PRAIRIE
Associated Pictures, 1937
Associated Pictures of Hollywood engaged African-American stage producer, playwright, and comedian Flournoy E. Miller, to adapt an original musical comedy from his previous work "Slim Pickens." Harlem on the Prairie became the first black musical western. Shot on location at N. B. Murray's black dude ranch near Victorville, California, the film combines all the melodrama, romance, and action synonymous with a good old-fashioned western. Vocalist Herbert Jeffrey stars, in his screen debut, as Jeff Kincaid, the baritone-singing cowboy. "Stout of heart, quick of eye, sweet of voice," Jeffrey served as a role model for black children who spent Saturday afternoons in segregated movie houses. Harlem on the Prairie was so successful nationally at the box office that Jeffrey continued the saga and reprised the singing cowboy persona in The Two-Gun Man From Harlem (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1938), and Harlem Rides the Range (1939).
As a singer, Herb Jeffrey (also billed as Jeffries) performed with Earl "Fatha" Hines, Erskine Tate, and Blanche Calloway in the early '30s. After becoming an actor and the first black singing cowboy, he gained his greatest fame as a member of the 1940 Duke Ellington Orchestra with the big hit "Flamingo." He remained an active club singer with occasional recordings of ballads, standards, and western songs into the mid-1990s.
Micheaux Pictures Corp., 1936
Director Oscar Micheaux offered audiences a black perspective on the Chicago gangster film genre (Little Caesar, Scarface ) that had served Hollywood for years as popular melodrama. Adapted from the short story Chicago After Midnight by Edna Mae Baker, Underworld follows a graduate of a black college who falls under the influence of a gambler involved with Chicago gangland mobsters.
Ethel Moses, billed as "the Black Jean Harlow," was a veteran Broadway star ( Blackbirds, Showboat and Keep Shuffling) and Micheaux's leading lady in both Temptation (1936) and Underworld. Oscar Polk, her co-star, later gained a degree of recognition as Scarlet O'Hara's loyal servant Pork in Gone With the Wind (1939).
Unfortunately, Micheaux's film was not a box office success. He was plainly unable to compete with the Hollywood production standards. Despite a cleaver advertising campaign, Underworld played only four days in its initial release at the Harlem Opera House in New York City.
Educational Film Co., 1938
This ten minute short film with a screenplay written by the prolific writing team of Arthur Jarrett and Marcy Klauber is from a series of comedies originally produced by Al Christie from 1934 to 1939. All one-reelers, the series included Pink Lemonade, Rhythm Saves the Day, and Way Down Yonder, and featured the Cabin Kids, a harmonizing group of three girls and two boys who were actually members of the same family. In All's Fair, in between song and dance numbers, they visit the county fair with intentions of helping their Mammy win the pancakes cooking contest.
In the mid 1930s, the Cabin Kids (Ruth Hall, twelve; Helen, eleven; James, nine; Winifred, seven; and Frederick, six) traveled with their stepmother, Beatrice Hall, and used their earlier experiences singing in church to build a successful career in motion pictures. They appeared in over a dozen shorts and feature films co-starring with Hollywood legends ranging from WC Fields to Gene Autry to Bing Crosby.
Million Dollar Productions, 1938
During the Depression years, black audiences sought temporary refuge from their troubles in segregated theaters showing films with escapist themes such as this. Nina Mae McKinney stars as a dame who runs Harlem's underworld rackets. Although actor Ralph Cooper often appeared in films of this genre, Bargain With Bullets (1937) and Dark Manhattan (1937), he chose to write the screenplay for this one instead.
Mckinney, billed as " the black Greta Garbo," is considered Hollywood's first black love goddess. She skyrocketed to fame in M.G.M.'s Hallelujah (1929) and appeared opposite Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River (1935). Yet, she soon learned that there were no significant follow-up roles for her as a black leading lady other than those offered by all-black independent productions such as The Devil's Daughter (1939), Straight to Heaven (1939) and Mantan Messes Up (1946). Her work in Hollywood during the 1940s was reduced to minor supporting roles.
LIFE GOES ON
Million Dollar Productions, 1938
Louise Beavers, best remembered by audiences for her role as a maid or "Mammy" in Hollywood films, was featured in only two black-cast films, Life Goes On and Reform School. The first, Life Goes On, a courtroom drama, dealt with the joys and frustrations of a widow as a single parent. Beavers is ably supported by Edward Thompson, an alumnus of Harlem's famous Lafayette Players Stock Company, and Reginald Fenderson, a race-movie regular, as her two sons. Thompson plays an attorney who defends Fenderson, his brother, after he is unjustly accused of murder.
Produced by Harry and Leo Popkin of the white-owned Million Dollar Productions, the film measured up to Hollywood film production standards and was promoted as being the first to utilize blacks behind the camera in the technical end of the filmmaking.
THE BROKEN EARTH
Sack Amusements, 1939
Clarence Muse had an uncanny ability to distinguish his characters by breathing realism and spirituality into the down-home family man persona he had been playing since Hearts in Dixie (1929). His stage training with the Lincoln Players and the Lafayette Players led him to act in a more serious vein than that of most black performers. In his Hollywood films, he generally escaped the self-demeaning antics that other black actors employed for laughs. In this short film, about a rural farmer who's about to lose his baby boy to high fever, Muse is musically supported by Frieda Shaw's Choir singing the spirituals "All God's Chillun Got Shoes" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The cinematographer's effective use of natural light gave the scenes the look of a painterly landscape masterpiece. The Broken Earth is one of the black film treasures discovered in a Tyler, Texas, warehouse in 1983.
M.C. Pictures, 1939
Henry Armstrong, the only pugilist ever to hold three championship titles (lightweight, featherweight, and welterweight), was a natural box office attraction in this black-cast sports melodrama. Armstrong's acting ability added real significance to his role as a gambling womanizer who matures into a deeply pious champion. With the help of a roster of talented African-American thespians, including Canada Lee, Dooley Wilson, and Francine Everett (making her film debut as the heroine), Keep Punching captured the black struggle in a modern allegory via the prizefighting format.
Armstrong retired from the ring in 1945 having fought 175 bouts, winning 97 by knockout. Intelligent and a fluent speaker, he turned to preaching and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1951.
Million Dollar Productions, 1939
Before producing his own films, George Randol had been an actor in musical stage comedies in the 1920's. He made his feature film debut in Oscar Micheaux's The Exile (1931) and later, Warner Brothers The Green Pastures (1936) in which he had a small role and also served as the film's assistant director.
In 1937, Randol and actor Ralph Cooper organized Cooper Randol Productions and produced Dark Manhattan, the first all-black gangster film. When the team split up, Randol joined Harry Popkin's Million Dollar Productions in Hollywood and released Midnight Shadow, a continuation of the popular crime genre. The film starred several race movie regulars including Buck Woods, Clinton Rosemond, Jesse Lee Brooks, John Criner, Pete Webster, Napoleon Simpson and Ruby Dandridge (Dorothy's mother).
MOON OVER HARLEM
Meteor Productions, 1939
Noted jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet and his real-life wife Marieluise are part of the cast, which features twenty chorus girls, a choir of forty-six voices, and a sixty piece symphony orchestra under the musical direction of Donald Heywood. Oddly enough, all of the music provided is only background for a tale of the numbers racket in Harlem's underworld. German director Edgar G. Ulmer, known for his stylish and eccentric low-budget work, shot the film in only four days.
Co-star Cora Green, in addition to having appeared in Oscar Micheaux's Swing (1938), had before the end of World War 1 been a member of the Panama Trio, a singing group that included Ada "Bricktop" Smith and Florence Mills, the famous Harlem Renaissance cabaret singer, dancer, and comedian.
ONE DARK NIGHT
Million Dollar Productions, 1939
Comedian Mantan Moreland's prolific career spanned over 300 appearances, mostly with the major film studios, as well as stage and television. He came to Hollywood in 1935, as many black actors, via the mistral show circuit. Known for his trademark eye-popping expressions and his line, "Feets, do your stuff," audiences remember him best as superstitious, easily frightened chauffeur Birmingham Brown in the Charlie Chan detective series. Moreland's all-black cast film appearances, produced for segregated audiences, were as demeaning as his Hollywood work and limited his talent to buffoonery. His first leading role in an all-black production was as Father Brown in One Dark Night, a film billed as the first installment of what was to become the Brown Family series, a counterpart to Hollywood's Hardys, Joneses and other film family film titles. Black critics often gave these race movies negative reviews, but they were very popular nevertheless.
PARADISE IN HARLEM
Jubilee Pictures, 1939
Originally titled Othello in Harlem, this film is a story about an actor menaced by gangsters after accidentally witnessing a murder. It features many of the names associated with race movies, including Edna Mae Harris, Francine Everett, Juanita Hall, and Mamie Smith (famed for being the first blues singer on records in 1920.) Mixing jazz and gangsters, the film is set in a barroom cabaret, where Lucky Millinder and his orchestra, with Smith, beat out "Harlem Serenade," "Harlem Blues," and "Why Have You Left Me Blue?"
AM I GUILTY?
Supreme Pictures, 1940
Am I Guilty marked an entirely new concept in black films in its use of an adult story rather than a "low" comedy. Its production too was more on a par with the "product of the major studios.
Tired of playing gangsters in race films, Ralph Cooper took on the sympathetic roll of a Dr. James Dunbar, a physician who dreams of establishing a free clinic in Harlem. Unwittingly he becomes involved with a gang. The cast members included veteran actors Lawrence Criner, Sybil Lewis, Clarence Brooks, Reginald Fenderson, Monte Hawley, Sam McDaniel (Hattie's brother), and newcomer Marcella Moreland, the six-year-old daughter of prominent comedian Mantan Moreland. Am I Guilty has the distinction of being Supreme Pictures' first and last entry into the field of black-cast films.
International Roadshows, 1940
Clarence Muse starred in and co-wrote the screenplay for this independently made all-black drama. His role, as a dignified professional concert violinist injured in a car accident and left unable to play, is perhaps his finest and far from the porter, janitor or servant types for which he was cast in Hollywood.
Featured in this film, although not credited in the poster, is Matthew Beard, better known as Stymie from the popular "Our Gang" comedy series. Veteran actor and one of the founders of the Lincoln Motion Picture, Clarence Brooks, also appears, playing a doctor again, a role that won him an Academy Award Honorable Mention in Arrowsmith (1931).
Muse, who was not afraid to criticize the parts played by black actors in major films, openly objected to Gone With the Wind (1939) and set out to write a script that would refute its offensive stereotypes. He also recognized the importance of black films portraying the true history of the Negro. The Pittsburgh Courier quoted him as saying: "I simply wish to tell the truth about our race during the early days."
FOUR SHALL DIE
Million Dollar Pictures, 1940
At the age of eighteen, screen legend Dorothy Dandridge made her first appearance in an all-black-cast film. A stirring drama of love and intrigue, Dandridge plays the beautiful heiress of a fortune left to her by her father.
During this time professionally, Dandridge was singing with her sister Vivian and another performer, Etta Jones. The act, billed as the Dandridge Sisters, toured with the Jimmy Lunceford Band and performed at the Cotton Club in Harlem, where Dandridge, who had a mixed racial heritage, confronted the segregation and racism of the entertainment industry. Throughout the 1940s, her popularity brought appearances in several black-cast films and "soundies" (film clips displayed on a visual jukebox), but it was not until 1954, when she took on the lead role in the celebrated Hollywood film Carmen Jones that she would secure herself nationwide fame.
SON OF INGAGI
Sack Amusements, 1940
Playing on the title of an earlier silent exploitation film, Ingagi, which introduced white audiences to a sexually aggressive gorilla, Son of Ingagi became the first black-cast horror film. Spencer Williams, who also played a role in the movie, scripted the film from an original short story, "House of Horror." Dramatic stage actress Laura Bowman, an original member of the Lafayette Players Stock Company and Oscar Micheaux veteran, had the leading part as the mad woman doctor, whose creation N'Gina, the half-man half-ape son of Ingagi, is played by Zack Williams (no relation to Spencer).
White-owned Sack Amusements of San Antonio and Dallas, Texas, was a combination theater chain and production company for feature films and short subjects catering to African-American audiences. Founded by Alfred Sack in 1920, the business became a major distributor to many independent filmmakers including Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, between 1937 and 1945.
THE BLOOD OF JESUS
Sack Amusement Enterprises, 1941
Throughout the 1940s, African-American actor and director Spencer Williams worked with white producer Alfred Sack to make a number of "race films" for black audiences. Williams, who was known from his appearances in the 1930s in a number of black-cast westerns (and would later play in the television show Amos 'n' Andy), took the opportunity of Sack's financial support to make three explicitly religious films. The central themes in all of his religious films are the promise of individual transformation through Christian belief, the reality of the divine presence, and the just punishment of those who fail to reform.
The Blood of Jesus, the first of Williams' religious films. His use of special effects to represent the shadowy world between life and death and to illuminate objects of special spiritual power makes his religious films particularly powerful.
MURDER ON LENOX AVE
International Roadshow, 1941
One of the last black-cast gangster movies, Murder on Lenox Ave,. follows the tangled lives of the various tenants of a brownstone in a Harlem neighborhood known as "International Boulevard." Adapted from a story-a modern version of Othello-by actor Frank Wilson, chorus girls, musicians, quiet families, and criminals live side by side and involve each other in heartbreak of tragedy. Donald Heywood and his orchestra provided the music for a cabaret setting, offering a suitable backdrop for the requisite song-and-dance numbers. Already a well known blues singer and Okeh Records star, Mamie Smith sings one song.
UP JUMPED THE DEVIL
Dixie National Pictures, 1941
In 1940, Ted Toddy of Atlanta, Georgia, entered the black motion picture field when he moved to Hollywood to organize Dixie National Pictures with Jed Buell, whose Associated Features produced the first all-black western Harlem on the Prairie, with Herbert Jeffrey several years earlier. Dixie National's first feature was Up Jumped the Devil, a comedy starring Mantan Moreland, Lawrence Criner, Shelton Brooks, and Maceo Sheffield. The company released several all-black comedies with Moreland including Mr. Washington Goes to Town, Professor Creeps , and Lady Luck. By 1942, Toddy changed the name of the company to Toddy Pictures and re-released all Dixie National titles under that banner.
THE BRONZE VENUS
Toddy Pictures, 1943
Million Dollar Pictures' first film was The Duke Is Tops, which by accident gave 21 year old Lena Horne her first opportunity as a featured screen actress. Director William Nolte had originally selected Nina Mae McKinney to play the female lead opposite Ralph Cooper. However, McKinney was in Australia playing the Tivoli Theatre and took very ill before returning to the states. After several weeks waiting, the director chose Horne to play the role.
In 1943, producer/distributor Ted Toddy re-titled the film The Bronze Venus and re-released it to capitalize on Horne's Hollywood success in two 1943 musicals, Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather.
During her non-black-cast film career in several MGM musicals, Horne's screen appearances were shot so that they could be easily cut from the films as the studio feared audiences of the day (especially in the South) would not accept a beautiful black woman in romantic, non-menial roles.
Victory Films, 1943
One of the few black productions to deal with military life, Marching On, a semi-documentary directed by Spencer Williams, attempted to focus a much-needed spotlight on the segregation of black military personnel. Instead, it became a piece of propaganda for the nation's war effort. In the 1950s additional footage of dancing girls was added to make the re-release, Where's My Man To-Nite?, a more marketable full-length feature.
Williams was one of America's most talented filmmakers and skilled in every segment of production. His career as an actor, director, writer and producer spanned the era from silent to sound and television.
WE'VE COME A LONG LONG WAY
Negro Marches On Productions, 1944
Brothers Jack and Bert Goldberg were vaudeville veterans who entered the black film business in the 1930s and became the best-known example of white entrepreneurship in the history of race films. For We've Come a Long Way., Jack Goldberg hired Elder Solomon Lightfoot Michaux, a black radio minister from Washington DC, and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, president of Bethune Cookman College and the National Council of Negro Women, to narrate a sixty-seven minute compilation of inspirational film vignettes tracing the many accomplishments of famous African Americans. Among those highlighted are actor and singer Paul Robeson, opera singer Marian Anderson, dancer Bill Robinson, boxer Joe Louis, educator and scientist George Washington Carver, Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, bandleader Duke Ellington and singer Lena Horne.
Throughout the 1940s, the Goldbergs (together and separately) organized several production companies including The Gold Talking Picture Company, Lincoln Productions, Jubilee Pictures, Goldport Productions, The Negro Marches On Corporation, Hollywood Productions, International Road Shows and Herald Pictures.
All American News Inc., 1945
Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, who gained fame as Stepin Fetchit, personified the lazy, shiftless Negro servant in over fifty Hollywood films. He was certainly the first African-American actor to open doors in Hollywood and came to popular stardom in an age in which almost no one thought twice about stereotypes. For decades, he remained the most controversial black actor in the history of motion pictures. Both renowned and loathed for his portrayals, Fetchit also brought his immense talent and antics to a half dozen independent black productions such as this one. By 1952, however, without wanting to risk further offending black audiences, the Hollywood studios announced that they would sharply curtail the casting of demeaning Stepin Fetchit styled characters in forthcoming films.
Astor Pictures, 1946
Although jazz and rhythm-and-blues star Louis Jordan temporarily left the bandstand to make musical shorts and full length movies -Caldonia (1945), Beware (1946), Look-Out Sister (1946), and Reet Petite and Gone (1947)- he always carried his music and a horn with him. Though short on plot, his films set him at the center of the action, making excellent use of his outgoing, charismatic, and mildly manic personality.
Beware marked Louis Jordan's first starring role in a feature film. Jordan used this full-length musical romance in his climb to the top of the charts. By 1946 he had already had a dozen hits, all million sellers. The title song, "Beware, Brother, Beware." was boycotted by women because of its comically sexist lyrics. Ultimately Jordan was forced to formally apologize (in his own laughable style) in his next film Look-Out Sister released later in the year.
CHICAGO AFTER DARK
All American News, 1946
In 1942, All American News in Chicago, Illinois, began releasing newsreels that followed the war activities of African-American men and women in the armed services throughout the world. Shown in black theaters with little distribution elsewhere, other subjects included black college sports and women's fashions. By 1946, the company ceased making newsreels and produced Chicago After Dark, part of a series of musical comedy film shorts featuring popular comedian Lollypop Jones.
Though poorly made technically, audiences welcomed the fine performances by several singing and dancing specialty performers.
HOUSE RENT PARTY
Toddy Pictures, 1946
The "Rent Party" tradition originated in the South with church socials designed to raise money. In Harlem, the concept was refined. Someone's apartment with the lights down low, the soul food piled high, and one of uptown's top stride pianists flailing at the keys of a dilapidated upright was the place to really let loose.
A veteran of over a dozen all-black-cast comedies, Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham achieved his greatest recognition not in films but in front of black audiences at vaudeville venues. His trademark was "Here comes de judge," later popularized for white audiences on the 1960s television show Laugh-In.
INTERNATIONAL SWEETHEARTS OF RHYTHM
Wm.D. Alexander, 1946
Modeled on the 1934 success of Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears (an all-white female band), the International Sweethearts of Rhythm formed in 1937 at Piney Woods MS. Country Life School for black and disadvantaged children. A sixteen-member multiracial band, they were out of school and on their own by 1940. Although they became stars at theaters and clubs around the country, as a racially integrated band in the South, the Sweethearts traveled, ate, and slept in a bus because segregation laws prevented them from using restaurants and hotels. The Sweethearts gained their highest notoriety during the war years until the male workforce returned in 1945, which subsequently limited many opportunities for women, especially female jazz musicians. In 1947, the band appeared in That Man of Mine, and all-black musical starring actress Ruby Dee early in her career. Despite their notoriety and the label of a novelty act, the group soon disbanded.
William D. Alexander released some of the best (and last) black-cast films of the race film era. Like Oscar Micheaux in the 1930s, he was one of the few blacks connected to the industry who were able to overcome the difficulties of film production in the mid 1940s. On par with the technical studio standards, Alexander became the only black producer and director of this period to successfully cross over into mainstream Hollywood later in his career.
Astor Pictures, 1947
In the years following World War II, the decreasing number of black theaters and the increased costs of processing and distribution threatened black film production profits. Some producers like William Crouch who completed Ebony Parade and Reet Petite and Gone (1947) for Astor Pictures used an assembly line technique to make up for his limited budget. Allowing only a few minutes for the dancers and bands to rehearse their routines permitted Crouch to churn out a film in a single day. All-star musical compilations were popular and easy to produce in this way.
Ebony Parade stars Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and the Mills Brothers performing their famous rendition of "Paper Doll" with the agile and graceful Dorothy Dandridge dancing her interpretation of the number. With a host of other stars, including Mantan Moreland as a magician used as a linking device between each act, the film presented the greatest parade of black talent the entertainment world had to offer.
THE FIGHT NEVER ENDS
Alexander Releasing Co., 1947
Joe Louis, "the Brown Bomber," who many consider the greatest boxer of all time, made his acting debut in Spirit of Youth in 1938. In The Fight Never Ends , his second film, Louis plays himself and becomes a role model to a group of Harlem youths tempted by crime and delinquency.
From the time Louis began his sports career in 1934 until he retired as champion, he lost only one bout, a defeat by the German Max Schmelling in 1936 that he avenged two years later in one of the most memorable events in American sports history. Louis held the heavyweight boxing championship longer than any fighter had in history, from 1937 to 1949. However, it was not merely for his stunning record that America remembers Joe Louis. He was a figure of national importance and a symbol of opportunity to his race. Each victory elevated him higher in the hearts and minds of African Americans as a living icon of black pride.
LOVE IN SYNCOPATION
Wm. D. Alexander, 1947
In 1946, William D Alexander announced the formation of Associated Producers of Negro Pictures in New York City and produced several all-black films with such top name stars as Billy Eckstine, Lucky Millinder, The Mills Brothers and The International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
Love in Syncopation stars Henri Woode, pianist and arranger, hardly known to jazz fans, except for his collaborations with Earl Hines. He led a regular big band during the mid 1940s and appeared in only one other film, That Man of Mine (1947). The plot tells of the formation of his orchestra of Navy Sea Bees in World War II and their struggle for success in show business. Twenty-four year old Ruby Dee, fresh from her Broadway role in Anna Lucasta, is seen for the first time on film. She is featured in several black-cast films produced by William D. Alexander.
THE PEANUT MAN
Consolidated Pictures, 1947
As movie fans, black audiences enjoyed going to the theater to see white performers such as Clark Gable, James Cagney, or Jean Harlow, but it was their personal heroes, such as Paul Robeson, Herbert Jeffrey, Joe Louis, and others revered in the black community, with whom they could better identify. One such icon was Dr. George Washington Carver, the Tuskegee Institute educator whose scientific experiments with peanuts led to his developing hundred of uses for the crop helped the economy of the Southern farmer, while advancing the stature of African Americans.
The Peanut Man, stars Clarence Muse as Carver. Consolidated Pictures presented his story and contributions in a unique introductory sequence in which director Tony Paton, playing himself, tries to convince his backer to finance the film. Paton says that Hollywood is afraid to produce films that represent "the truth about races and religions." Paton then reads the cast and credit names in a conversational manner and introduces the story proper by flipping the switch of a projector.
BOARDING HOUSE BLUES
All American News Inc., 1948
A far-fetched plot allows the various entertainers in the cast, including Dusty Fletcher and Jackie "Moms" Mabley, to show off their comic talents. This vaudeville show on film is one of only five movies in which Mabley appeared during her lengthy career, dressed as always in old-time cotton print dresses and addressing her audience as "my chillens." She became successful during the Harlem Renaissance, appearing in clubs for $85 a week. By the 1960s her comic methods that insulated her audience from the harsh realities of the outside world brought her a salary of $8,500 a week.
Dusty Fletcher was best known for his "Open the Door, Richard" routine, in which his only props were his ill-fitting clothes and a ladder that he would drunkenly attempt to climb, all the while hollering a comic monologue to a fictitious friend who has locked him out. Fletcher's popularity earned him roles in several race films.
MIRACLE IN HARLEM
Herald Pictures, 1948
Produced by Jack and David Goldberg, Miracle in Harlem is one of the last race movies of the independent film movement; a murder mystery centering on a family owned candy business that becomes the target of a swindle. The film looks at the almost unreachable goal of free enterprise in post World War II black America, prior to the advent of Hollywood's racial theme "problem" films of the early 1950s.
The cast includes stage and screen star Sheila Guise, Broadway singer Juanita Hall, documentary filmmaker William Greaves-early in his acting career-and Stepin Fetchit, who goes through his unique unfocused physical clowning once again.
Astor Pictures, 1948
After Oscar Micheaux, the leading black independent filmmaker of the 1920s and 1930s, could no longer compete financially with the Hollywood studios he reluctantly left the industry and resumed the writing of his novels. In 1948, however, he saw an opportunity to revive his film career by producing The Betrayal (based on his novel The Wind from Nowhere. The self-proclaimed "strangest love story ever" told of a young black homesteader in the Dakota wilderness was promoted as the "greatest Negro photoplay of all time." Yet, everything about it was substandard. As one reviewer noted, "the acting is worse than amateurish; the dialogue ridiculous; the story downright stupid." Released by the white-owned Astor Pictures, The Betrayal opened at the Mansfield Theater, the first time that an all-black film premiered on Broadway. Unfortunately, it failed completely at the box office and was withdrawn after just a few showings. Micheaux's financial loss was so severe that he never recovered. Forced back on the road to sell his books, in 1951, during one of those trips, he fell ill and died, in virtual obscurity.
Only recently, have Micheaux's tremendous accomplishments gained the critical appreciation by film historians and the recognition by the motion picture industry that they so richly deserve. Today, Micheaux is hailed as the first great black filmmaker in America.
SOULS OF SIN
W.D. Alexander, 1949
Post war sentiment coupled with competition from Hollywood, in the form of "problem" films, brought a cessation of activity by black independent producers like William D. Alexander. Although race films suffered from low production values, uneven acting and simplistic story lines, they did serve a purpose. However, with the integration of black actors into serious roles in mainstream movies, audiences began to denounce race films and left no hope for the genre's revival. Souls of Sin was the last.
The film, which focuses on the social environment that breeds criminality in the black community, dramatizes the lives of three of three men who live in a Harlem rooming house; a writer, gambler, and musician, each with a special dream for success. Glamour girl singer Savannah Churchill plays Regina, the siren who leads the film's male star, Dollar Bill, played by Jimmy Wright, to his inevitable destruction.