Black images on celluloid Heritage cinema: New 25th Street theater celebrates African-American movie making.

February 17, 1997

A NEW INTEREST in black movies is evident throughout America. Black Entertainment Television is launching the nation's first satellite and cable channel specializing in African-American films. Meanwhile, former basketball star Magic Johnson is planning to build 13 multiplexes that are targeted for black audiences.

The Heritage Playhouse Theater, recently opened at 9 W. 25th St., is part of this trend. It revives an old movie house vacant for 15 years. The venture seems to be in the right place at the right time: A huge supermarket will soon open nearby and other magnet businesses are showing an interest in the stretch.

"We're not just going to play African-American classics, we're going to play American classics," says Michael Johnson, who is one of the venture's backers.

This is a sound philosophy. Many black film classics are truly American classics -- although those celluloid gems may be little known.

Of particular importance is Oscar Micheaux, the Harlem Renaissance figure, who produced a series of films between 1918 and the 1930s. "Within Our Gates," his second work, contained lynch scenes that so incensed black communities from Chicago to Omaha that many screenings had to be canceled.

Ever since, the portrayal of African Americans -- particularly by white film makers -- has been controversial. "Hollywood's blacks exist primarily for white spectators whose comfort and understanding the films must seek, whether they thematize exotic images dancing and singing on the screen, or images constructed to narrate a racial drama, or images of pimps and muggers," Manthia Diawara writes in the 1993 book, "Black American Cinema."

At times the African-American film makers have been at the receiving end. Several critics have castigated writer-director-actor Spike Lee, for example, for portraying in his films female characters who are powerless or abused.

Film vaults contain a rich but often neglected legacy of black film making. That's why we welcome the opening of the Heritage Playhouse and wish it success.

Pub Date: 2/17/97

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