Color Adjustments: MoMA Examines Images of Blackness in Cinema

No one’s a match for Tamara Dobson as Cleopatra Jones.
No one’s a match for Tamara Dobson as Cleopatra Jones.
Courtesy Museum of Modern Art

The most powerful line in a film last year was also the simplest: "Who is you?" one black man asks another in Moonlight, a movie devoted to exploring that query with rare specifics and expansiveness, not foregone conclusions. This most fundamental of inquiries provides a through-line of sorts to a nine-day retrospective at MoMA, which opened on Tuesday, centering on black representation in cinema, both within and without Hollywood. A collaboration with the British Film Institute, which organized the two-month-long "Black Star" screening series in London last fall, MoMA's "Making Faces on Film" illuminates how the question has been contorted or corrupted over the past hundred-plus years — when "who are you" was often the much uglier "who did you have to be."

That noxious straitjacketing is the focus of Marlon Riggs's documentary Ethnic Notions (1986), a potent survey, roughly spanning the antebellum era to the mid–twentieth century, of the most baleful stereotypes about African Americans as promulgated in songs, advertisements, cartoons, films, and other elements of popular culture. Soberly and conventionally presented via clips, stills, talking-head interviews, and Esther Rolle's imperturbable voiceover narration, this hour-long project nonetheless has a destabilizing force, immersing the viewer in the most sick-making totems of this country's incurable psychosis about race: the mammy, the coon, the pickaninny, the sambo. "Contained in these cultural images is the history of our national conscience, a conscience striving to reconcile the paradox of racism in a country founded on human equality," Rolle calmly states after a snippet of a grotesque 1947 cartoon called Uncle Tom's Cabana plays. Riggs's film peers into the darkest, dankest corners of America's past, excavating the twisted fantasies that fed the collective id — delusions that have been updated to other pathologies today.

One of the performers discussed at length in Ethnic Notions is Bert Williams, the Bahamian-born actor who was the best-known black entertainer during the first two decades of the twentieth century. He was also, as Riggs's documentary emphasizes, "America's premier blackface artist." Williams's extravagantly darkened visage — a not uncommon practice for black male performers at the time, especially those who worked in vaudeville, the actor's primary métier — stands out as an especially painful contradiction in Lime Kiln Field Day, an unfinished film shot in 1913 and assembled by MoMA in 2014; the 62 minutes of edited footage make it the earliest surviving feature-length production with a black cast. Directed by two white men, Edwin Middleton and T. Hayes Hunter, this high-spirited work, which centers on Williams's banjo-playing boulevardier and con man vying for the attentions of the neighborhood beauty, is devoid of many, though not all, bigotries; the lead actor's absurdly sooty mug endures as the most egregious stereotype. As Williams's suitor walks his lady home, the film concludes with the two of them kissing — a bit of amorousness between a black man and a black woman played not for laughs, as was almost always the case then, but as an honest expression of love. The moment is anomalous not just for 1913; throughout the next several decades, black performers would rarely be permitted to display any romantic tenderness onscreen.

Another Williams — Spencer — appears both behind and in front of the camera in the unsurpassably titled Dirty Gertie From Harlem U.S.A. (1946), a late entry in the canon of "race films," low-budget, independently produced movies made far outside Hollywood that featured black casts and were created by (mostly) black filmmakers for exhibition in racially segregated theaters. Many of the titles in this genre pulse with melodramatic élan, an invigorating lunacy showcased in Williams's unauthorized adaptation of Somerset Maugham's "Rain." Dirty Gertie takes place on the Caribbean island of "Rinidad," where the svelte hoofer of the title (Francine Everett) strings along at least three suitors while still plagued by visions of the man she did wrong in Manhattan. Terrified that her scorned lover may come after her, Gertie consults the local "voodoo woman," played by the director in outrageous drag, a bosomy no-nonsense truth-teller who anticipates Tyler Perry's Madea. (Five years after Dirty Gertie's release, Williams would begin his four-year run as Andy on TV's The Amos 'n' Andy Show.)

"The wages of sin is death," a buffoonish preacher with the unsubtle name of Mr. Christian admonishes Gertie. Nina Mae McKinney, playing hootchie-cootchie temptress Chick, learns the same lesson in King Vidor's Hallelujah (1929), the first sound film with an all-black cast released by a major studio — and one that revels in the caricatures laid bare in Ethnic Notions. But McKinney, only a teenager at the time of her debut in Vidor's movie, remains Hallelujah's greatest joy: She transcends the oversexed, conniving role assigned to her through her volcanic vigor, an uncontainable energy that burns up the screen. Hollywood, of course, didn't know what to do with her singular talents. The actress signed a five-year contract with MGM, but the company never found substantial work for her.

Two decades later, Lena Horne would endure similar treatment, her career also stalled owing to the intractable racism in the movie industry. After dazzling in two phenomenal big-studio Hollywood musicals from 1943, Vincente Minnelli's Cabin in the Sky (not in the MoMA series) and Andrew L. Stone's Stormy Weather, the actress and singer grew so frustrated with Hollywood's prejudice — one of Horne's dream roles, the biracial Julie in George Sidney's Show Boat (1951), was given to her lily-white, non-singing pal Ava Gardner — that by the mid-1950s she decided to focus on her nightclub career instead.

As the avenging, six-two angel of the MoMA retro, Tamara Dobson's eponymous shero in Jack Starett's blaxploitation beau ideal Cleopatra Jones (1973) will not be vanquished or stymied by anyone — not even by her most formidable foe, "Mommy," the leather-booted honkie dyke heroin-ring queenpin played by Shelley Winters. "You are no match for that black lady," one of the power-mad lesbian's defecting lieutenants reminds her. Despite the movie's deliberate ludicrousness, the thrill of seeing that diss proven again and again remains undimmed.

‘Making Faces on Film: A Collaboration With BFI Black Star’
Through April 26 at MoMA


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