The Other Hollywood: Early African-American Auteurs Storm Film Forum


Outside the klieg-light glare of golden-age Hollywood, parallel movie industries, many still under-recognized, took root. For example: During the decades in which the KKK rode to victory in The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Al Jolson applied burnt cork to his face in The Jazz Singer (1927) and scores of black actors bowed, scraped, shucked, and jived in big-studio-backed productions, “race films” were thriving. These low-budget, independently produced movies featured black casts and were created by (mostly) black filmmakers for exhibition in racially segregated theaters. Film Forum’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” series pays tribute to the auteurs of this alternative cinema with titles spanning 1915 to 1946. (The four programs of rarities, some newly restored, that will be shown at West Houston Street are culled from a larger selection of race films that Kino Lorber is planning to release on DVD in June.)

The paradigmatic race-movie director, Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951) made more than forty films (many of which have been lost) during his thirty-year career; he also gave Paul Robeson his first screen role, in the scorching Body and Soul (1924; not included in the Film Forum series). Packed with plot and dizzying amounts of melodrama, Micheaux’s work fearlessly addresses the horrors of state-sanctioned violence. Within Our Gates (1919), Micheaux’s second film, is the earliest known surviving title directed by an African American. It concerns the efforts of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) — identified in an intertitle as “an intelligent Negro of our times” — to raise money up North for a school for black children in a hamlet in the South, “where ignorance and the lynch law reign supreme.” Micheaux does not shy away from depicting Jim Crow savagery: In a flashback, nooses are fastened around the necks of Sylvia’s adoptive parents; the heroine is nearly raped by a white geezer who turns out to be her biological father.

Billed as “a story of the Negro and the South,” Birthright (1939), one of Micheaux’s final films, likewise follows the frequently thwarted efforts of a highly credentialed black protagonist — here, the Harvard-educated Peter (Carman Newsome) — to open a school for African-American kids in a backwater town. Micheaux’s talkies call attention to the wooden performance styles of many of his actors, liabilities more easily masked in his silents. Whether with sound or without, the director’s films also reveal technical gaffes and narrative incoherence — awkwardness that more often than not has the salutary effect of heightening the work’s more fantastic conceits. Even the contradictions in his movies prove rewarding: Micheaux, a former homesteader, preferred the country to the city, where decadent entertainments offered too many temptations. But Birthright‘s nightspot numbers — performed by real-life, off-the-clock Cotton Club dancers, one in a scandalously ass-revealing outfit — stand as the film’s most exhilarating moments.

The thrill — and danger — of metropolises (Northern ones especially) is evident in titles like Micheaux’s Murder in Harlem (1935; not in the Film Forum retrospective) and Spencer Williams’s terrifically named Dirty Gertie From Harlem U.S.A. (1946). This unauthorized adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s “Rain” 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. Concerned that her scorned lover may come after her, Gertie consults the local “voodoo woman,” played by the director in outrageous drag. (Five years after Dirty Gertie‘s release, Williams would begin his four-year run as Andy on TV’s The Amos ‘n Andy Show.)

Micheaux does not shy away from depicting Jim Crow savagery.

“The wages of sin is death,” a buffoonish preacher with the unsubtle name of Mr. Christian (Alfred Hawkins) admonishes Gertie. Ineffectual (and worse) men of the cloth are also ridiculed in Micheaux’s films, most shockingly in one of his first talkies, Darktown Revue (1931), his take on the minstrel show. In the concluding scene of this eighteen-minute short, a minister — played by the African-American vaudevillian Amon Davis in blackface — recites a homily consisting solely of the letters of the alphabet.

Other filmmakers in the series, however, luridly demonstrate what happens to those who ignore Romans 6:23 — and all other prescriptions in the Bible. Hellbound Train (1931), a silent from the husband-and-wife evangelicals James and Eloyce Gist, suggests a Fundamentalist Snowpiercer, the cars of the locomotive populated by bootleggers, drunks, pickpockets, and the (premarital) sex-crazed, their wicked acts punctuated by the increasingly frenzied writhing of a guy in a homemade devil costume. Self-taught filmmakers, the Gists showed Hellbound Train to accompany their sermons; the movie’s bare-bones production values make it no less terrifying and oddly avant-garde.

Sinners hungry for big-screen depictions of the pleasures of Satan-worshipping will be rewarded with “Witches’ Brew,” BAMcinématek’s eighteen-film salute to sorceresses that kicks off February 16. The series — occasioned by the upcoming release of Robert Eggers’s stultifying, solemn The Witch (reviewed next week) — showcases several titles with a light touch on the dark arts, none more delightful than Richard Quine’s Bell, Book and Candle (1958), screening February 24. Released just seven months after Vertigo, Bell, Book and Candle reteams the stars of Hitchcock’s masterpiece: In Quine’s film, Kim Novak plays barefoot Beatnik necromancer Gillian Holroyd; James Stewart is the square publisher she falls for — and hexes. BBaC may never be considered a canonical work, but, in its focus on love’s deranging powers, it forms a nice twinship with Vertigo. And, with Pyewacket, Gillian’s spirit animal, Quine’s movie features the greatest performance ever from a Siamese cat.

‘Pioneers of African-American Cinema’

Film Forum

February 14–15; March 6–7

Bell, Book and Candle

Directed by Richard Quine

BAMcinématek, February 24