Race to the screen In the early days of the movies, white Hollywood's voice was the only one heard. In July, Morgan State professor Thomas Cripps helps TCM celebrate the black filmmakers who began to change that.

June 24, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Staff

Hollywood has always been a battleground over images of race and ethnicity and their relation to the American dream. From "Birth of a Nation" to "Gone With the Wind," that image has largely excluded black Americans.

For that reason, early black filmmakers set up their own production companies outside the Hollywood system and developed their own exhibition circuit of theaters in urban black neighborhoods and segregated rural areas that held special screenings for black audiences.

"The term 'race' movies comes from the places, especially in the South, where regular theaters showed black movies at night for segregated audiences, or towns that had black theaters ran them all day," says Thomas Cripps, a retired Morgan State University history professor who has written extensively about blacks in the motion picture industry.

Cripps is a consultant for a Turner Classic Movies tribute to the work of these pioneering black filmmakers. His 1977 book, "Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942," was the first important scholarly treatment of the subject of blacks in the motion picture industry.

Titled "A Separate Cinema," the 29-movie TCM series will run every Wednesday next month beginning July 1. Its hosts will be actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.

The TCM cable network's broadcasts celebrate the independent black film industry that arose when black filmmakers realized what they were up against in the struggle to control their own image on the silver screen.

The event that more than anything else galvanized the black film movement was the acclaim that greeted D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" in 1915, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and painted a one-sided picture of race relations after the Civil War.

To combat Hollywood's monopoly over the motion picture image, major independent black film companies grew up in Chicago, Omaha and even rural Texas, producing about 500 films between 1915 and 1950.

They were the first films to give expression to a black perspective on American race relations, as well as show rural blacks their first images of urban life in the North.

"These movies didn't earn a lot of money, so they often ran them on a double bill with Hollywood films," says Cripps. "For example, in 1939, theaters might have run Oscar Micheaux's 'Swing' with John Ford's 'Stagecoach.' "

They also provided a training ground for many young black performers, such as Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker and Lena Horne.

Oscar Micheaux, a novelist who turned to filmmaking to ensure that his work would reach the screen as he wrote it, was one of the most gifted early black filmmakers.

Micheaux's second film, "Within Our Gates" (1920), which premieres July 1 at 10 p.m. in a newly restored version, tells the story of a black schoolteacher fighting to bring education to his people.

It was considered so inflammatory when it appeared that black and white civil leaders tried to block screenings of the film for fear that its depiction of a lynching would incite racial rioting.

Micheaux's next film, "The Symbol of the Unconquered" (1921), was a direct response to the racial distortions of "Birth of a Nation" and featured a searing indictment of the Klan.

"Unconquered," a silent film, was long thought lost. But a copy found in the early 1990s has been restored and given a new soundtrack by jazz drummer Max Roach for its TCM premiere July 1 at 9 p.m.

Other films to look for in the TCM series: Paul Robeson in "Song of Freedom" (1936), based on an African legend about a man's search for his heritage; Josephine Baker in "Zou Zou" (1934), a high-spirited rags-to-riches story in which Baker plays an Eliza Doolittle-like gamin; and Henry Armstrong in "Keep Punching" (1939), about a black man's struggle to achieve success despite the odds.

As the independent black film industry grew, producers developed all-black versions of popular Hollywood genres, including musicals, gangster films and even westerns like "The Bronze Buckaroo" (1938), starring jazz singer Herbert Jeffries as singing cowboy Bob Blake.

"Most of these were extremely low-budget films by Hollywood standards," Cripps says. "By the late 1930s, $50,000 would have been high for a race film budget. One western they shot in three days."

Many of the movies were shot at night with union cameramen who were moonlighting, Cripps says.

And the acting could be uneven in a race movie.

"Some were very good, but you couldn't count on everyone else fTC being good because of the shoestring nature of the enterprise," Cripps said.

Even so, the quality of the acting was often very high.

"Some black actors who later made Hollywood careers got their start in these movies," Cripps said. "Like Dorothy Dandridge, who played in 'Four Shall Die' in 1941. The race movies also used stars from other mediums, like Joe Louis, who made two movies, one with Ruby Dee, and of course Henry Armstrong, the great boxer of late 1930s who made 'Keep Punching' with Canada Lee, the most distinguished black actor of the period, and Clarence Muse, who also directed and wrote part of the film."

After World War II, Hollywood gradually began to encroach upon what had once been the independents' exclusive preserve. By the late 1940s, the major studios had discovered an audience for realistic social-issue films and had begun tackling racial stories on their own by making films with all-black casts.

Faced with growing competition from Hollywood, most of the first independent black filmmakers were forced out of business by the beginning of the 1950s.

Pub Date: 6/24/98

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