Magazine article American Visions

Festivals: Black Film, Then and Now

Magazine article American Visions

Festivals: Black Film, Then and Now

Article excerpt

This summer, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City offers a rare retrospective survey of 19 of the hundreds of all-black-cast "race movies" that filled segregated cinemas during the years of Jim Crow. "Within Our Gates: American Race Films, 1918-1949" takes its name from the title of Oscar Micheaux's 1920 film, which was the director's response to D.W. Griffiths' ground-breaking The Birth of a Nation, a film whose flamboyant narrative was as racially prejudicial as its cinematography was revolutionary.

Typically portraying a black world that paralleled its white counterpart, "race" films mirrored the genres that dominated Hollywood. From religious melodramas (such as Micheaux's 1925 Body and Soul and Spencer Williams' 1941 The Blood of Jesus) to westerns (such as Herb Jeffries' 1938 Two Gun Man From Harlem), gangster and detective thrillers (Double Deal, 1939, and Dark Manhattan, 1937), comedies (Boy! What a Girl!, 1945, and Beware, 1946), family dramas (Moon Over Harlem, 1939, and Broken Strings, 1940) and musicals (Hi-De-Ho, 1947), these films reveal a country as sharply divided by race as it was broadly united by shared cultural norms, obsessions, fantasies and myths. (One of these shared obsessions was movies: Almost 700 segregated movie houses dotted America in the 1940s.)

The retrospective's 19 films were selected by Laurence Kardish, curator of film and video at the Museum of Modern Art, and James E. Wheeler, founder and director of Concept East II, Detroit, a nonprofit organization devoted to the preservation and presentation of African-American arts. of the films he helped select, The Blood of Jesus looms largest in Wheeler's mind, for it was the first movie he ever saw, as a 5-year-old in 1946, growing up in the small black community of Lumber, Ark. "My parents ran a juke joint," Wheeler fondly recalls, "and all-black films were shown in its cafe. I still remember first seeing Blood of Jesus -- it was so intensely realistic, so real, the people and the river baptisms looked so like Lumber. I never saw anything but all-black films until I moved North -- then I never saw another one."

Complementing "Within Our Gates" is Brought to Light: Black Cinema, 1921-1959." This exhibition of 42 posters and 44 lobby cards, heralds and press books (all from Wheeler's private collection) explores and celebrates early black filmmaking's presence in print. Then, as now, promotional materials featured the industry's most recognizable stars -- Paul Robeson and Anita Bush during black cinema's birth, and Herb Jeffries, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge (the last two of whom made the transition to mainstream Hollywood productions) in later years. …

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