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The Original Kings of Cinema

Looking at Early African-American Filmmakers Through Today’s Eyes

Okan Arabacioglu

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 2/8/2006

The Midnight Rambles film series starts Feb. 8 with Broken Strings at 8 p.m. at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson.

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“You’re writing a book on blacks in film? Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel, and who else have you got?” That sentiment, remembered from a conversation Morgan State University history professor and author Thomas Cripps had with a friend in the late 1960s, exemplified the mainstream notion about African-Americans and cinema. Spinning a scholarly overview out of several decades worth of butlers, maids, and shuck ’n’ jive—oh, right, and Sidney Poitier—seemed a rather thin prospect at best. Little did that friend—or film scholarship at large—know about the parallel circuit of “race movies” scraped together on flimsy budgets by determined African-American visionaries and barnstormed from one secret “midnight rambles” screening to the next.

These early stabs at self-representation, screening this month at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson in a free series in honor of Black History Month, are the basal landmark of a century of African-American filmmaking, a motley chronology where the ignominious keeps rank with the sterling and the deciding criteria are slippery and contentious. Are Car Wash and Superfly worthy descendants of A Raisin in the Sun and The Emperor Jones? Does Coffy become highbrow iconic only once Jackie Brown declares it so? Would Broken Strings be proud or embarrassed to acknowledge Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as a beneficiary of its legacy?

“I do think these race films do pick up an African-American aesthetic that we haven’t spent much time thinking about,” attests Sheri Parks, associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and host of Clear Reception on WTMD (89.7 FM); her opening remarks accompany Broken Strings when it screens at the Creative Alliance Feb. 8. “These films have a poignant want. Oppressed cultures do this very well. Jewish culture does the same thing.”

Cripps (two of his books, Slow Fade to Black and Making Movies Black, are considered some of the finest overviews of African-American cinema history), who introduces Murder in Harlem Feb. 15, concurs more broadly. “When you see these movies you see a history you mostly didn’t know,” he says. “There’s an urgency that somebody should be seeing these films.”

Made in the riptide first half of the 20th century, when liberated African-Americans gingerly negotiated the shifting plates of the great migration, segregation, upward mobility, and epidemic lynching, these movies formulated a model for how the before unheard of class of black gentry were to behave, as well as provided employment for hundreds of underutilized talents languishing in servile roles in mainstream filmmaking. Directors such as Oscar Micheaux took pains to reflect an African-American life more familiar and optimistic to the newly, or nearly, middle-class black audience hungry to see their own on screen.

While less smoothly produced than the Hollywood product of the same era, these “race films” bear a ferocious indie-film grit. More importantly, their inception marked the first push against the prevailing demi-human archetypes that dominated the screen. Most African-American performers at the time had two separate flavors of celebrity: white audiences recognizing them from their jester/servant roles, whereas black audiences knew them also as leading men and women in race movies. While most African-American actors needed the butler roles to pay the rent (race films, like most independent productions, were notoriously underfunded), they could inject some of their own spirit—and subtle subterfuge—into their subordinate parts. Outright dissent was akin to volunteering for unemployment or worse.

Nowadays, the verboten maid and mammy roles for African-Americans may have been replaced by the less overtly condescending “magic negro,” but unlike in the past, actors of the caliber of Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, or Denzel Washington can build a superstardom from meaty roles. And even though filmmakers such as Spike Lee, John Singleton, Euzhan Palcy, Julie Dash, and the Hughes Brothers struggle for multiplex attention, the best of their work is uniformly lauded by critics and scholars. None of this typhoon would have been possible without the butterfly flap of race films.

And the old guard is cracking, too: This past summer Fantastic Four, a popcorn film intended to do big box office for a mainstream (read: white) audience, was assigned without fanfare to African-American director Tim Story, whose previous credits included Barbershop and Taxi. But what does it mean for movies intended for black audiences when self-determined, complex, and positive fare such as Once Upon a Time . . .When We Were Colored, Rosewood, or Love Jones limp along by word of mouth when an uncomplicated farce like Diary of a Mad Black Woman earns its investment back overnight?

Diary of a Mad Black Woman I have an issue with because of its exaggerated hyper-blackness,” says Kim Moir, a Baltimore-area independent filmmaker. “In essence it’s a ‘ghetto’ take on black life. It’s difficult to throw rocks at other filmmakers. That’s not what I’m about. My problem is not that [screenwriter and co-star] Tyler Perry was so successful. I hope he makes multimillions of dollars so he can make a better movie.”

Mad Black Woman, an I-will-survive romantic comedy intended for African-American audiences, was overshadowed by the comic antics of Perry appearing in thick, unfeminine drag as Madea, a linebacker mammy more prone to pull a gun than offer a shoulder to cry on, a familiar characterization. “In mainstream films [of the 1930s and ’40s], you do see the black servants saying things they really wouldn’t say in a white home for real,” Parks points out. “The old black mammy figure, we see her as a comedic figure, but she was the one who told the family truth. I don’t want to say she was revered, because she was enslaved, but she was the bearer of the family truth. Mammy was there at the creation.”

Moir remains unimpressed. “When you get an opportunity like that, what do you do with that?” he asks, referring to Perry’s major-studio backing and the marketing and booking muscle that it entails. “Do you hold true to a realistic vision of black life, or do you hype it and distort it? In the past that was done for the entertainment of whites. To re-create that, and repackage it as an ‘authentic black experience,’ to me, it’s nauseating. It’s abhorrent to sell that stereotype back to us.”

The making of Moir’s own movie, Sinsitivity, proved that, for any independent filmmaker, the struggle never changes. Like Micheaux a century before him, Moir depended on a network of volunteer labor, financial contribution, and community leverage to get his film completed. But he was also able to shoot his film on digital video and use the internet to publicize screenings held at unsegregated theaters—all advantages closed to earlier pioneers. “I’d be a fool to say nothing’s changed,” he freely admits.

Surely Micheaux didn’t intend Soul Plane and King’s Ransom to be the endpoint of his struggle. But there is room at the table for all kinds of reflections on the African-American experience. There will always be a place for Mr. Tibbs, but do we really want a world without Dolemite? Perhaps this tension between the crowd-pleasers and the masterpieces is nothing more than cinema’s native struggle between art and commerce: After all, no one expects Dude, Where’s My Car? to reflect unfavorably upon Citizen Kane. Blues and gospel, owing too much to a shared lineage, can’t merely be separated into art forms worldly and divine.

“I think very little of human endeavor is in a straight line,” Parks says. “We impose the straight line after the fact. There is life, and then whatever is making the mythology of the film is part of that which will reflect, comment, and then evangelize on it. So I think it’s not a straight line or a parallel track as much as an ongoing conversation.”

Setbacks aside, in the never-ending dialogue between images, truth, balance, and history, African-Americans may finally be winning the debate. “Critics would light into these films,” Cripps says, recalling the poor reception meeting the first race films. But those first critics rarely failed to mention the significance of the filmmaker’s achievement. "In effect they’d say, we can’t stop going to see our movies. We know black movies are second-rate but we have to go. Because maybe they’ll be first-rate someday."

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