As a professor whose main focus of critical inquiry is African/American literature, history, and culture, some of my research is geared toward investigating and writing about black Americans were portrayed in the early days of cinema in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As more material becomes digitized, researchers and other scholars have access to a number of films to enhance their studies. Below are two early films of black people on film, shot by the Edison Manufacturing Company in the 1890s. The
first clip, titled "Dancing Darkey Boy," was shot in 1897. The epithet,
"darkey," is used here as a commonplace description of blacks--it was
used by whites to describe African Americans in advertising, music,
literature, and in everyday life. The actual film, though, offers a
strong counterpoint to the offensive word, simply by the charm and clear
talent of the little boy, along with the obvious delight he elicits
from the crowd as he dances. The second film, titled "A Morning Bath," was shot in 1896, the year of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (click here), which codified "separate but equal" as the law of the land. This film was shot for comedic value (of which I find none), as the woman is being directed to smile as she pours the suds over the hapless child for the amusement of the filmmakers and their presumed audience. The Library of Congress caption has replaced some of the original language used by Edison to describe the scene.
Dancing Darkey Boy
Original caption from Edison films catalog:
"Scene is in a
stable, where a crowd of horsemen, jockeys and stable hands are watching
a little darkey boy dance on a table."
A Morning Bath
Original caption from Edison films catalog:
"Mammy is washing her little pickaninny. She thrusts
him, kicking and struggling, into a tub of foaming suds."
Back in January of 2013, I wrote a blog post on a film entitled Souls of Sin, which starred Mr. Greaves. I am revising that post and placing it here.--Rebecca
I first saw the luridly-titled Souls of Sin (1949)over 20
years ago, when BET used to show low-budget "race" films made in the
1930s and '40s. I always remembered it because the storyline was
unique--a writer named(Roberts), a gambler who gets involved in a heist (Dollar Bill), and a singer (Alabama, played by Bill Greaves)
room together in a basement apartment as they dream of artistic success
(in the case of the two artists) and making a big score (Dollar Bill).
Other characters also have colorful names, such as Cool Breeze, and
another (played by the film's director, Powell Lindsay) named Bad Boy
George. A young woman named Etta* follows behind Bill, even
though he treats her poorly and attempts to rape her (he is stopped by
Roberts). I won't go into more detail--watch for yourself!
(Bill) Greaves, who played the young singer, Alabama, went on to have
an outstanding career as an Emmy-award winning producer/writer/director
(AND he attended my alma mater, City College!). My own connection to Mr. Greaves
is that he called me one day about 11 years ago (right after I stopped
working as a sound recordist) to hire me for a project--I had to turn it
down, but it was thrilling nonetheless to speak to a living legend of
African American cinema--he chuckled when I told him how much I enjoyed Souls of Sin.Click on William Greaves Productions to go to to his website to learn more about his life and career.
is not "well-made," meaning, the acting is quite uneven (and at times
amateurish), the sets are cheap (during one of the poorly-staged fight
scenes, the actors nearly fall through the flimsy walls of the set), and
there are many incongruities in the story and breaks in the plot,
including a stop to the action so that a character can dance in all his
scenes (he also dances with the male bartender). The film also contains a
number of time-worn comedic routines. One character (Cool Breeze)
exists solely as comic relief--he enters the bars scenes to shuffle
speedily in and out of the men's room.
l. to r. Bill Greaves, Billie Allen, and Emory Richardson
However, I think what appealed to me aboutSouls of Sin was the character of Roberts, the writer. I don't know of any other
race film of this era that featured blacks engaging in artistic
endeavors outside of music and dance and, although Roberts is an
unpublished and struggling writer, he has integrity, and his work is
taken seriously, respected, and validated by his cohorts. The film also
has a happy (sort-of) ending. I have pasted the link to view the film below--just click on the title--it is well worth seeing.
*The character of Etta was played by a very young Billie Allen (click here
for a brief biography), who also went on to have a successful theater
career as an actress and director. I met her when I was a college
sophomore, working as a production assistant on Losing Ground, an
independent feature film by the late Kathleen Collins Prettyman, my
mentor. This past October, I glimpsed Ms. Allen (now aged 88) in the
audience at a performance of playwright Eric Lockley's Blacken the Bubble at the HSA Theater in New York.
The Quiet One is a classic film from 1948. It tells the story of a young black boy named Donald, who is withdrawn and friendless, but who is "rescued" by the staff at Wiltwyck School for Boys in New York. Directed by Sidney Meyers, The Quiet One was nominated for an Academy Award for its screenplay (co-written by James Agee, Helen Levitt, and Janice Loeb). The film is extremely dated, and some of the narration is absolutely cringe-worthy: "[The] ...boys are very backward in their reading" and "Children are much more ashamed of being stupid than most of us realize...."
Nonetheless, it is noteworthy for many reasons--it is an early documentary (docudrama-style) portrait with a black male child as the central character, one who is disaffected, lonely, and alienated. The score was written by African American composer Ulysses Kay.
On Thursday evening, Plainfielders were treated to the first Summer Concert event in Plainwood Square Park: "THREE WOMEN & SOME JAZZ," featuring the Grammy-nominated jazz flautist Sherry Winston (for Sherry Winston's website--click here), and vocalists Pam Purvis (for Pam Purvis's website--click here) and Crystal Jones. The event was sponsored by the Plainfield Special Improvement District (SID) and organized by event planner Pat Fields.
I was able to enjoy the music (as always, Pat brings incredible artists to the summer series), to catch up with folks, and relax in the warm summer air. Emcee Robert Graham invited me to the mic to say a few words of greeting. Mayor Adrian Mapp also offered greetings to the crowd, and reminded everyone of the upcoming concerts in Cedar Brook Park--one on August 13 and the other on September 13 (details to come).
After the fabulous concert was over, I headed to the other event--the SID-sponsored Car Show right across the street--awesomely organized by George Withers of G-WIZ Auto Entertainment (click here for the website). I
was given the honor of presenting the trophies to the car show winners,
among them several Plainfield car (and motorcycle) enthusiasts. My
favorite cars were the BMW Isetta (click here for a description), and the Cadillac Coupe de Ville convertible. It was a wonderful evening, and we can thank Robert Graham, Dave Biagini, Pat Fields, and all the other members of the SID for their hard work in putting this first event together. The next Plainwood Square Concert is scheduled for August! See you there! All best, Rebecca