Saturday, August 30, 2014

African Americans on Film

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 how 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."


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

William Greaves, Pioneer of Modern Black Film

Bill Greaves, the great African American filmmaker, died on Monday, August 25, a the age of 87. Click below to read the New York Times obituary on Mr. Greaves's life and career.

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!

William (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. 

The film 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 about Souls 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.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

"The Quiet One"

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. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

James Baldwin, born August 2

Today is the birthday of James Baldwin, the great American writer, so it is time for my annual tribute.
Scroll down for more images.