Consider three landmark films of the first half of the 20th century. The first "great" movie: the Civil War epic "The Birth of a Nation"(1915), whose blacks were cringing or lazy or venal or rapacious, and whose heroes were white men in white sheets. The first "talkie": "The Jazz Singer"(1927), with the white showman Al Jolson singing "Mammy" in blackface. The biggest hit of its era: "Gone With the Wind"(1939), which romanticizes slave-owning Southerners and for whom the only good Negroes were the ones who stayed with their owners after the War.
The man who inspired both black and white feature-filmmaking was D.W. Griffith. His 1915 epic "The Clansman," cannily retitled "The Birth of a Nation" after its Los Angeles premiere, became a groundbreaking popular, technical and critical success. The first blockbuster, it was the most widely seen movie of the silent era. In its bold editing and composition of shots, in its alternation of intimate scenes with spectacular battles and a final thrilling chase, the film established a cinematic textbook, a fully formed visual language, for generations of directors. The potent drama of its subject and method stirred President Woodrow Wilson to say, "It is like writing history with lightning; my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."
The acclaim of Griffith's masterwork made his virulent, derisive depiction of blacks all the more toxic indeed, potentially epidemic. This was not simply a racist film; it was one whose brilliant storytelling technique lent plausibility and poignancy to images of crude Negroes in the Reconstruction Senate, and of a black man pursuing a white woman until, to save her virginity, she throws herself off a cliff. Viewers could believe that what they saw was not only historically but emotionally true. "Birth" not only taught moviegoers how to react to film narrative but what to think about blacks and, in the climactic ride of hooded horsemen to avenge their honor, what to do to them. The movie stoked black riots in Northern cities, and by stirring bitter memories in the white South, it helped revive the dormant Ku Klux Klan.
"The Birth of a Nation" provoked another movement: the birth of an African American cinema. Educated blacks, enraged by the film's message and influence, wanted to refute "Birth" in its own medium. (The NAACP also wanted to suppress it.) Within a year of Griffith's film, the Chicago-based brothers George and Noble Johnson had set up the Lincoln Motion Picture Company and released "The Realization of a Negro's Ambition." Soon entrepreneurs, black and white, were making black-cast pictures in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Fla. virtually everywhere but Hollywood. Eventually some 500 race films were made and were shown in an equal number of segregated movie houses.
A SEPARATE CINEMA
Sometimes plodding, sometimes didactic, sometimes deliriously disjointed, often the race films were, quite frankly, terrible.
film historian Donald Bogle in "A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black-Cast Posters"
The ambition to bring entertainment and perhaps enlightenment to black audiences was laudable. Yet the poverty of means and technique, of skill and experience, gave these movies a rough quality. Often they had no quality at all. Indeed, for many modern viewers, the lure of race-cast movies is their incompetence. So many are finalists for those Golden Turkey Awards.
In their artlessness, they were also clear mirrors of their time, perhaps of their audiences, certainly of their writers and directors. For in most race films, as in mainstream Hollywood product, it was white people taking the pictures. They imitated the Hollywood genres of comedy, melodrama, musicals and Westerns. Race movies were counterfeit white movies faux-ofay. And though the producers surely didn't intend to offend their customers, black-cast pictures flaunted racial stereotypes: idle bucks spending the rent money on dice games and numbers policies, and the women who love them. In the 1939 "Moon Over Harlem," directed by B-movie cult fave Edgar G. Ulmer and written by his wife Shirley, a brassy woman at a wedding reception announces, "When I get married again, I'm gonna marry me a real high-yaller. He may beat me, but I know my good home-cookin' will bring him around."
The solution might seem to be for blacks to seize the means of production. At least a black director would bring an innate sympathy to exploitation material. Yet in the generation of race movies, only one black director received frequent commissions from his white bosses to make movies. That was Spencer Williams, Jr.
Williams (1893-1969) was a large, boisterous actor-singer best known for playing Andy Brown in the early-50s TV series "Amos 'n' Andy." In early-talkies Hollywood he had worked as a sound technician for Christy Studios, helped write a series of black-cast shorts based on the stories of Octavius Roy Cohen and appeared in all four Herb Jeffries black Westerns of the late 30s. In 1940 he wrote and appeared in the cheapie black-cast horror movie "Son of Ingagi," He was then hired by Dallas exhibitor Al Sack to write and direct films, apparently with a minimum of front-office interference. In the 40s he made nine or ten of them: oddball melodramas ("Girl in Room 20"), low-octane jive musicals ("Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.," "Juke Joint") and rare in race movies religious epics "(The Blood of Jesus," "Go Down, Death," "Of One Blood").
Aesthetically, much of Williams' work vacillates between inert and abysmal. The rural comedy of "Juke Joint" is logy, as if the heat had gotten to the movie; even the musical scenes, featuring North Texas jazzman Red Calhoun, move at the turtle tempo of Hollywood's favorite black of the period, Stepin Fetchit. And there were technical gaffes galore: in a late-night scene in "Dirty Gertie," actress Francine Everett clicks on a bedside lamp and the screen actually darkens for a moment before full lights finally come up. Yet at least one Williams film, his debut "Blood of Jesus" (1941), has a naive grandeur to match its subject. A morality play about an angel and a devil fighting for a woman's soul, it begins with a baptism and ends in bloody death near a cross all scored to rousing gospel music. Fifty years after its making, "Jesus" was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Registry of Films.