Gems of black cinema 'Race' films: Restoration of endangered prints documents vibrant African-American industry.

July 01, 1998

EARLY AFRICAN-American films -- produced and distributed by black companies in competition with the Hollywood system -- are a little-known aspect of U.S. film history. And for an understandable reason. Although an estimated 500 such movies were made between 1915 and 1950, many were lost.

That's why a monthlong series beginning at 8 tonight on the Turner Classic Movies network is so valuable. It devotes five consecutive Wednesday nights to 29 significant but rarely seen "race" films, including two classics by Oscar Micheaux that were long feared lost.

One reason why the only surviving prints of "The Symbol of the Unconquered" (1920) and "Within Our Gates" (1919) were discovered in Europe is that those films were too controversial for the United States. The latter contains a lynching scene that so inflamed black audiences it was withdrawn from circulation in many U.S. cities. The former depicts a black man passing for white who conspires with the Ku Klux Klan against a neighbor of a darker complexion.

The other programs are devoted to films featuring Paul Robeson and Herb Jeffrey (July 8) and Josephine Baker and Spencer Williams Jr. (July 15). The evening of July 22 is dedicated to such crime stories as "Dark Manhattan" and "Miracle in Harlem." The concluding July 29 program focuses on sports films and musicals.

TCM is to be commended for its series and for funding film restoration. But its efforts only underscore the inadequacy of local endeavors to showcase significant African-American films. Now that copies of these films are available for commercial showings, a Baltimore theater or university should see to it that they are screened here. Television is a wonderful medium, but these films need to be seen the way audiences saw them when they were first produced.

Pub Date: 7/01/98

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