Midnight Ramble & Early Black Hollywood

September 1, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation

The motion pic­ture indus­try most likely began in Los Angles in 1902 when Thomas L. Tully opened the first the­ater exclu­sively for mov­ing pic­tures. From its ear­li­est days, when movies were thought of as peep shows, the Negro was pre­sented in an unfa­vor­able light.

The year 1915 is a sig­nif­i­cant date in motion pic­ture his­tory. This is the year of the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the film ver­sion of Thomas Dixon’s pro South, Ku Klux Klan, novel, The Clans­man. In terms of advance­ment of the medium, it must be regarded as one of the most sig­nif­i­cant films ever made. Sub­se­quent to its release, movies were crude at best, with uneven light­ing and quick jerky move­ments, the act­ing, melo­dra­matic and exag­ger­ated. From an artis­tic and tech­ni­cal out­look, it was a mas­ter­piece of con­cep­tion and struc­ture. Though much has been writ­ten about it’s overt racism, it gave rise to the mod­ern nar­ra­tive film.

The Recon­struc­tion scenes in The Birth of a Nation are espe­cially harsh. The black mem­bers of Con­gress are por­trayed as arro­gant, lust­ful, and are shown drink­ing heav­ily right on the House floor. They are depicted going about the busi­ness of the coun­try coarsely reclin­ing in their con­gres­sional chairs, with bare feet plopped upon their desks. When the film was released small riots broke out in Boston, and other cities. A fledg­ling NAACP (formed in 1910) sought in vain to have the film banned. The Nation mag­a­zine declared it “improper, immoral, and inju­ri­ous… a delib­er­ate attempt to humil­i­ate ten mil­lion Amer­i­can cit­i­zens”. The Birth of a Nation was pop­u­lar for a decade and doubtlessly did much dam­age to race relations.

Exist­ing as early as 1918 were small stu­dios such as the Nor­man Stu­dio and Lin­coln Pic­tures. They made dig­ni­fied pic­tures in an attempt to shat­ter the abro­gat­ing stereo­type of Black Amer­i­cans. The films they pro­duced came to be known as —Race Movies. Lin­coln Pic­tures, espe­cially was noted for the qual­ity mate­r­ial upon which its films were based. In 1918 Lin­coln Pic­tures released a film enti­tled The Home­steader, writ­ten by a Mid­west­erner named Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux, some­times referred to as the Cecil B. De Mill of race movies, went on to pro­duce over 40 films, and was active until his death in 1951. In 1987 he received a star on the Hol­ly­wood Boule­vard Walk of Fame.

1920s

Except for a hand full of play­ers, the star sys­tem had not yet been devel­oped. Black parts, let alone black stars were not favored in the cur­rent order. That was all about to change how­ever, as the decade of the 1920s, and the Jazz age approached.

Hal Wallis's Our Gang

Hal Wal­lis’ Our Gang

Between The Birth of a Nation, and The Jazz Singer (1927), there were about two dozen films with impor­tant black char­ac­ters or scenes. None were as openly anti-Negro as The Birth of a Nation, but except for one or two, most adhered to the estab­lished stereo­types. The decade of the 1920s did how­ever, see a decline in the num­ber of Black­face white actors that dom­i­nated the pre-talkies. It should be said here that for rea­sons unknown the Black­face roles of Al Jol­son, (arguably the most famous enter­tain­ers of the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury), were accept­able to black per­form­ers1. More­over, Jol­son demon­strated a gen­uine respect to black artists.

Inter­est­ingly it was The Our Gang com­edy series about the adven­tur­ers of a group of chil­dren pro­duced by Hal Wal­lis begin­ning in 1918 that begin to crack the pre-World War I anti-Negro stereo­type. Com­par­a­tively speak­ing their record of fair play was well above the aver­age. The orig­i­nal cast included Allen Clay­ton Hoskins (Farina), who became one of the most pop­u­lar child stars in Hol­ly­wood. He and Sammy Mor­ri­son (Sun­shine) stood equal and were as much a part of the gang as were the white children.

With the com­ing of sound, the talk­ing and singing voice of the Negro, would most dis­tin­guish him or her from white soci­ety. The period from 1927 to 1939 (when the next great anti-Negro film was released) the num­ber of black parts greatly increased.

Lin­coln Theodore Mon­roe Perry—Stepin Fetchit

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Perry

Lin­coln Theodore Mon­roe Perry

Hearts in Dixie (1929), was film of major impor­tance for two rea­sons. First, it was the first Hol­ly­wood film to fea­ture an all black cast. Sec­ond and more impor­tantly, the film intro­duced to wider audi­ences, one of the film industry’s most polem­i­cal fig­ures ever —Stepin Fetchit. Born Lin­coln Theodore Mon­roe Perry in Key West Florida in 1902, he took the name Stepin Fetchit from a race horse on which he had won money. Fetchit had been seen ear­lier in bits, but this was his first star­ring vehi­cle. His great tal­ent was used, by the major­ity to rein­force the stereo­type of the lazy good-for-nothing Negro. He was active in films until 1976, and died in 1985. Stepin Fetchit was and con­tin­ues to be one of the most mys­ti­fy­ing char­ac­ters in motion pic­ture history.

Also released in 1929 was Hal­lelu­jah about a black cot­ton worker who acci­den­tally kills a man and then decides to become a preacher. It too fea­tured an all black cast. Released by MGM, it was direc­tor King Vidor’s first talk­ing pic­ture. Hal­lelu­jah was the sec­ond all-Negro fea­ture pro­duced by a major Hol­ly­wood stu­dio. It was vital in the it gave black per­form­ers sig­nif­i­cant roles. Hal­lelu­jah had a fresh­ness and truth that was not attained again for thirty years.

An excep­tional though con­tro­ver­sial film of the early 1930s was The Emperor Jones (1933). The screen ver­sion of Eugene O’Neill’s play star­ring Paul Robe­son, it’s about a train-porter who becomes emperor of a Caribbean nation. Main­stream crit­ics praised it as one of the best films of the year, while black crit­ics were divided. Some thought it well that a black monarch be chron­i­cled, and for the first time, a white char­ac­ter be pre­sented as his lackey. Oth­ers, how­ever empha­sized the dubi­ous Pullman-porter, chain-gang, and voodoo scenes as par­tic­u­larly trite. They pointed to the finale which has Robe­son, the emperor, grov­el­ing on his belly in the spirit-infested jungle.

1930s

Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington

Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington

Another excep­tional film of the early 1930s was Imi­ta­tion of Life (1934), based on the book by Fan­nie Hurst. The story con­tains a sub-plot about a beau­ti­ful light skinned black women (Fredi Wash­ing­ton) who tries to pass for white. She is the daugh­ter of a black “mammy” type ser­vant played by Louise Beavers. The two prin­ci­pals were caught in the mid­dle of a jour­nal­is­tic con­tro­versy between Fan­nies Hurst, and Ster­ling Brown. Brown was pro­fes­sor of the his­tory of the the­ater at Howard Uni­ver­sity and film critic for the mag­a­zine Oppor­tu­nity. He charged that the char­ac­ters of the two women were out­ra­geously slanted. Hurst, on the other hand claimed that she por­trayed them with “integrity and accuracy”.

The same period saw films favor­able to blacks, Arrow­smith (1931), in which Clarence Brooks por­trays a dig­ni­fied doc­tor in the West Indies. A reviewer of the Asso­ci­ated Negro Press termed it ”the best legit­i­mate part ever allot­ted to a col­ored actor in the his­tory of the movies”2. Another was The Singing Kid (1936), where Cab Cal­loway and Al Jol­son pal around as equals. Fly­ing Down to Rio (1933), has Etta Moten singing and danc­ing the Car­i­oca. The Spirit of Youth (1938), a thinly masked auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Joe Louis did much to pro­pel his pop­u­lar­ity among white audi­ences. With the accep­ta­tion of Arrow­smith though, these films must be con­sid­ered light­weight. Though they at least did noth­ing to fur­ther the pre­vail­ing stereotype.

The 1930s also wit­nessed the fur­ther impe­tus of Oscar Micheaux and the Black inde­pen­dents. A notable film of this group was Dark Man­hat­tan (1937), a gang­ster film pro­duced by George Ran­dol and Ralph Cooper. Beau­ti­fully pho­tographed by Roland Price, it was the first all-black cast motion pic­ture with mod­ern story, set­tings, and cos­tumes. There imme­di­ately sprang up a num­ber of com­pa­nies attempt­ing to make all-Negro pic­tures in the fash­ion of Dark Man­hat­tan. How­ever, owing to their lack of expe­ri­ence with the craft and sub­ject mat­ter, these inde­pen­dent efforts blanched in comparison.

Hat­tie McDa­nial & Doo­ley Wilson

Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart

Doo­ley Wil­son, Humphrey Bogart

So much has been writ­ten about Gone With the Wind (1939), suf­fice is to say that while The Birth of a Nation was openly anti-Negro, GWTW, was at best clan­des­tinely anti-Negro. Some black crit­ics main­tained the where The Birth of a Nation ended, Gone With the Wind began. The lat­ter fin­ished the job of remov­ing from the pub­lic mind the North­ern view of slav­ery, Civil War, and Recon­struc­tion, and replac­ing it with the tra­di­tional South­ern view. Evi­dence of final vic­tory was the award­ing of the Oscar to Hat­tie McDa­nial for her role as Mammy in the Mar­garet Mitchell epic. When asked about her char­ac­ter, McDa­nial replied, “I’d rather get $7000 a week for play­ing a maid, than $7 a week for being one!”

Doo­ley Wilson’s (Sam) in Warner Brother’s Casablanca was prob­a­bly the begin­ning of the end of the pre­pon­der­ant Negro stereo­type that had dom­i­nated Hol­ly­wood since its incep­tion. After Rick’s meet­ing with Ilsa, Sam senses trou­ble, and his sage advice to the heart­bro­ken Rick, “lets take the car and drive all night, get drunk, go fish­ing and stay away until she’s gone”, sug­gests an equal­ity in sta­tus. More­over, it con­firms Rick’s def­er­ence to Sam, and to Sam’s convictions.

1Thomas Cripps, “A Slow Fade To Black: The Negro in Amer­i­can Films 1900–1942”
2 Lind­say Pat­ter­son, “Black Films, and Film-makers”

For more infor­ma­tion on Early Black Hol­ly­wood see my site, “Mid­night Ram­ble”,  for more images, rare film posters, and related articles.

Michael Mills

 

About Michael Mills
Rank-amateur photographer, I like Classic films, real Jazz, Opera, and a little Hank Williams . . . and sometimes baseball . . .

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