dvd review: BLACK ENTERTAINMENT IN FILM

race-film2.jpgEven though we live in a time when black actors like Will Smith and Denzel Washington are top box office draws who play to a diverse audience of people all over the world, it wasn’t always like that. It wasn’t that long ago that black people were rarely seen in films—especially in leading rolls—and it wasn’t that long ago that black people were not permitted to watch movies in segregated theaters. During the years when motion pictures overlapped with legalized segregation, there was an industry of movies produced specifically for black audiences known as “race films.”

Race films, or “black-cast films”, as they became known in the 1940s and 50s, were produced for black audiences and played in segregated theaters, churches, and were even projected on the side of barn walls. What is traditionally thought of as race films—movies produced by blacks for blacks—got started in the early 1900s with films like The Lincoln Motion Picture Company’s The Realization of the Negro’s Ambition (1916) and Oscar Micheaux’s The Homesteader (1918); but films with either black people or white people in blackface date back to 1895. Black Entertainment in Film is a three-disc set that features 13 of the over 1300 race and black-cast films that were produced from before the turn of the century all the way up to 1959.

Disc 1 – Blacks in Film: This first disc features four seminal films, and one short documentary about black-cast films. Race Movies: The Popular Art of the Black Renaissance is Thomas Cripps’ 20-minute documentary that attempts to explain the history of race films. Those that know nothing about these films will learn a lesson or two, but ultimately this is disappointing documentary. Boy! What a Girl! (1947) is a musical that mixes comedy and drama in what is in many ways the typical black-cast film of the 1940s. The familiar plot finds two small-time producers trying to raise the money to put on their new show and pay the rent. Tim Moore, best known as Kingfish on Amos & Andy, steals the show in a cross-dressing performance. Not all race films were made by black filmmakers, some were made by Poverty Row producers and directors like Edgar G. Ulmer, whose Moon Over Harlem (1939) is a quickly-made, down-and-dirty production more memorable for its cast of legendary jazz musicians than its thread-bare story or production values. Oscar Micheaux made 42 films between 1919 and 1948, many of which he distributed himself, driving cross-country with film reels in the trunk of his car. Micheaux’s God’s Stepchildren (1938) tackles the same issues of race and racial identity that many of his other films did. Though Micheaux was a prolific filmmaker and a savvy businessman, he was not a very good filmmaker. Of the films of his that have survived, this is one of the best, but it is not particularly good. Second only to Micheaux, Spencer Williams was arguably the most prolific and important player in the world of race films. He directed twelve films, including his debut, Blood of Jesus (1941), but he is best known as an actor, and for having played Andy on Amos & Andy. Like a vast majority of the films of this era, Blood of Jesus suffers from low budget production values and frequent bad acting, but it is notable for its soundtrack (as are many other race films).

race-film-1.jpgDisc 2 – Black Westerns: Jazz performer Herb Jeffries became a matinee idol for the segregated black audiences of the 1930s when he starred in four westerns between 1937 and 1939. Bronze Buckaroo (1939) was Jeffries’ third western, and the second in which he played Bob Blake, the heroic singing cowboy who must save the day when his friend Joe (Spencer Williams) mysteriously disappears. Harlem Rides the Range (1939) was Jeffries’ last western, and finds him once again reprising his role as Bob Blake, who is caught in a race to find hidden treasure on the ranch of Watson (Spencer Williams, who co-wrote the script). Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938) was Jeffries’ debut as Bob Blake (but his second western), who must clear his name when he is accused of murder. As westerns go, none of Jeffries’ films are all that great, but they all do have great musical performances by Jeffries and the Four Tones. The only non-Herb Jeffries film of this disc is Look-Out Sister (1947), starring and directed by famed band leader Louis Jordan, who basically plays himself, only as a gunslinger (in a fantasy).

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Disc 3 – Black Musicals: Once sound came in to play in motion pictures, race films found a secret ingredient that would be used in vast majority of every film produced for black audiences—musical performances. Many race and black-cast films were not very good. Nearly all suffered from extremely low budgets, with bad acting, bad stories and overall bad filmmaking. But the one thing that was almost always exceptional was the musical numbers by notable jazz and big band performers of the day. As a result, a lot of bad films have great musical numbers (as well as dance and comedy performances) that make up for rest of the film. In fact, many movies were just excuses to capture on film the performances audiences in bigger cities could see live. That said, the best race films—as in the most consistently entertaining—are almost always the musicals, as these are the ones that offer the most of what was best about the black-cast films. Hi De Ho (1947) is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it can’t be beat when it comes to performances by lead actor Cab Calloway (playing himself), or the performance by the Miller Brothers. One of the only musicals by Oscar Micheaux, Swing! (1937) is a perfect example of the problems to be found in race films—ranging from production value to acting—and the treasures to be found in terms of musical performances. Carman Newsome, one of Micheaux’s regular leading men, stars as a producer trying to put on a show on Broadway. The movie is forgettable, but performances like that of the Tyler Twins are priceless. The Duke is Tops is notable for two things; first and foremost is the incomparable Lena Horne, who made her film debut in this tale of a singer trying to make a name for herself. Horne, of course, is remembered for being a singer and performer of legendary beauty and talent. But the other notable element of this film is not so well remembered, and that is lead actor Ralph Cooper. Often referred to as “Dark Gable,” Cooper was the race film’s answer to Hollywood superstar Clark Gable, and played a pivotal role in the success of many black-cast films. Louis Jordan returns (as an actor) in Beware! (1948) in yet another film with a forgettable plot and great musical numbers, most courtesy of Jordan and his band Tympani Five.

Black Entertainment in Film is not a collection of exceptional motion pictures so much as it is a collection of important historical artifacts. You won’t find much argument that most of these films range from just okay to plain bad in terms of cinematic quality; but at the same time these films are part of a legacy that has been all but forgotten. Because of the second-class status of black people in America, there was never much attempt to capture or preserve our art. The result is that most people don’t know who the Tyler Twins or the Miller Brothers are, they have never seen or heard Herb Jeffries perform, and they have never laughed at the comedic talents of Tim Moore. The films in this collection, while not being the sort of movies you would want to watch over and over again, features brilliant moments by incredibly talented performers, who deserve to remembered and celebrated for their work.

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