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A1 Business and Technical College Oppositional Filmmaking Discussion & Response

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African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era OSCAR MICHEAUX & HIS CIRCLE Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser editors and curators INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS BLOOMINGTON AND INDIANAPOLIS This book is a publication of Indiana University Press Office of Scholarly Publishing Herman B Wells Library   East th Street Bloomington, Indiana USA iupress.indiana.edu First paperback edition  ©  by Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser, Eds. All rights reserved No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The Association of American University Presses’ Resolution on Permissions constitutes the only exception to this prohibition. The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z.-. Manufactured in the United States of America The Library of Congress has cataloged the original edition as follows: Oscar Micheaux and his circle: African-American filmmaking and race cinema of the silent era / edited by Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser. p. cm. Chiefly papers presented at a conference held Jan. , Yale University. Includes filmographies, bibliographical references and index. ISBN --- — ISBN ---X (pbk.) . Micheaux, Oscar, –—Criticism and interpretation—Congresses. . African Americans in motion pictures—Congresses. I. Bowser, Pearl, date II. Gaines, Jane, date III. Musser, Charles. PN..M O  .’’—dc  ISBN ---- (pbk.) ISBN ---- (eb.)           4. The African-American Press and Race Movies, 1909–1929 charlene regester The African-American press has been in existence since the 1800s. According to Martin Dann, it was founded to respond to white racism and to promote self-determination, and it has adhered to these principles throughout its existence.1 This essay will examine the particular relationship between the African-American press and race movies during the years up to 1929. While the American film industry was shifting to sound in 1927, this essay extends its examination through 1929, the year that Oscar Micheaux stopped working in silent film. In three sections, it will discuss:(a) the African-American press and cinema before 1918 (the year that marked both the end of World War I and the production of Micheaux’s first film);(b) the African-American press and race movies from 1918 to 1929 (Micheaux’s first period of filmmaking);and (c) the African-American press and its specific relationship with one of the cinema’s most prolific black filmmakers, Micheaux, during the silent period. The African-American Press and Early Cinema It is widely assumed that African Americans did not respond publicly to their screen representations until The Birth of a Nation (1915). This assumption is simply not true. At least six years before the release of this film, the African-American press had already responded to the negative representations of African Americans on the screen. The press played a dual role in its response, both denouncing the negative screen representations and encouraging African Americans to assert themselves in the industry by becoming actors, actresses, filmmakers, producers, directors, and technicians. As early as 1909, Lester Walton, film critic for the New York Age, publicly aired his objections in an article entitled “The Degeneracy of the Moving Picture Theatre.”2 Expressing his dissatisfaction with the way that blacks were portrayed on the screen, Walton urged his fellow African Americans to protest such pictures: While passing a moving picture theatre on Sixth Avenue several days ago the writer was surprised to see a sign prominently displayed in front of the place bearing the following in large print:JOHN SMITH of PARIS, TEXAS, BURNED at the STAKE. HEAR HIS MOANS and GROANS. PRICE ONE CENT! A crudely painted picture of a colored man being burned at the stake completed the makeup of the o¤ensive as well as repulsive-appearing sign. . . . It is very likely that in Greater New York there are many other moving picture theatres featuring the scene of a colored man being burned at the stake, which means the planting of the seed of savagery in the breasts of those whites who even in this enlightened day and time are not any too far from barbarism and to whom such acts of inhumanity would appeal. The promoters of moving picture theatres make the assertion that their pictures are of an educational nature. . . . We would like to know where do the elements of education come insofar as the picture in question is concerned? . . . The authorities will see that no o¤ensive pictures are presented for public view if a strong protest is made by the colored citizens of New York. . . . These pictures can be suppressed if proper steps are taken to do so. However, if we do not start now to put an end to this insult to the race, expect to see more shocking pictures with the Negro as a subject in the near future.3 Equally o¤ended by the insulting representations of African Americans on the screen and responding to the general white racism that permeated motion pictures, an unidentified critic for the New York News in 1914 condemned white theater owners for exploiting African-American audiences to promote such pictures. This columnist charged that Robert S. Abbott, 1927. He was editor of the Chicago Defender, which covered race cinema extensively in the early 1920s. too often white moving picture houses built for the patronage of colored people present pictures that are contrary to the true sentiment of our race. First of all they obtain comedy releases containing caricatures of the black race. These watermelon-[eating], chicken-stealing comedies are elaborately billed in black belts as colored moving pictures. The young of our race who see too often these pernicious libels on our character become imbued with the loss of self-respect. Therein lies the danger. And in addition to the danger is the gruesome thought that members of our own race, some living in Harlem, participate in these productions. Let us say that the pittance they earn is as vile as the pieces of silver Judas threw into the Potter’s field.4 Indeed, African Americans were well aware of the negative representations that emerged in early motion pictures and publicly denounced such representations in the black press. Obviously, their outrage at these images was heightened when The Birth of a Nation, a most inflammatory picture in its demeaning portrayal of African Americans, was released in 1915. AfricanAmerican author John O. Killens described D. W. Gri‹th’s The Birth of a Nation as “Hollywood’s first big gun in its war against the black American.”5 And this war was often fought on the pages of African-American newspapers. Most press reports document African-American e¤orts to prevent the film’s exhibition. When the picture met with riots in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other northern cities, one newspaper cautioned:“Be assured, dear fellow citizens, that violence begets violence, and that we have nothing to gain by it—only possible harm. Stay away from the play, as your feelings will su¤er terrible hurts and you will be tempted to express yourselves in ways that may not be tolerated.”6 One columnist ignored such warnings: The African-American Press and Race Movies, 1909–1929 | 35 I went last night to see The Birth of a Nation and the contempt I have always had for that dangerous hypocrite, the Rev. Thomas Dixon, was intensified a thousand fold. . . . However, it is not the first time the devil has worn the habit of a monk, or that brotherly hate has spoken in the accents of brotherly love. A man who seeks to degrade Lincoln to his level, and does not stop at sacrilege to the Christ, will surely meet sooner or later the universal contempt he deserves.7 These defaming representations of African Americans stimulated the press to promote selfdetermination by encouraging the race to penetrate all phases of the motion picture industry. If African Americans were to gain control of how they were presented on the screen, they would have to create their own images. The black press promoted principles that were based on the writers’ personal standards: these were generally extensions of black middle class values. Critics have often seen these middle-class views as problematic for many African Americans because, as Jane Gaines has argued, “the black bourgeois uplift philosophy was that the better society it proposed was not significantly di¤erent from the one that held all blacks down.”8 Furthermore, underlying this philosophy was the assumption that if African Americans adopted middle-class standards, they would automatically achieve middle-class status, but this strategy ignored the fact that they still had to contend with obstacles related to race alone. Nonetheless, if white racism was a universal experience for all African Americans and knew no class distinctions;members of the press, though themselves a product of the black middle class, were perhaps operating out of a sincere desire to raise the level of all constituents of the African-American community. The black press tried to be evenhanded in its response to the complex dilemma it faced with the cinema. For example, in 1913, the Indianapolis Freeman commended an AfricanAmerican actor who was featured in an unnamed white-produced picture while at the same time it encouraged blacks to make their own films. This report stated, “While it is a good thing for colored actors to get into the game among the whites, there is nothing like the genuine, all-colored pictures produced by the Foster company, and the quicker they become in demand, the better it will be for colored actors and picture houses. . . . It will be the duty of all the race to support the Foster movement.”9 This reviewer was referring to William Foster, credited as being the first African-American filmmaker.10 He organized his own motion picture company, the Foster Photoplay Company, to prove that African Americans could use this medium to improve their image both in the United States and abroad. Foster contended that in a moving picture, the Negro can o¤set so many insults to the race—can tell their side of the birth of this great nation—can show what a great man Frederick Douglass was, the works of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Don Pedro, and battle of San Juan Hill, the things that will never be told except by the Negroes themselves. . . . It is the Negro businessman’s only international chance to make money and put his race right with the world.11 A sports and entertainment columnist for the Chicago Defender and Indianapolis Freeman, Foster was fully aware of the need for African Americans to take control of their own screen images. His comments reflected the position often articulated by the press. The African-American press became even more adamant in promoting self-determination in the aftermath of The Birth of a Nation. One critic charged, “Not in this whole picture, which is supposed to represent the birth and growth of the nation, is there one single Negro who is both intelligent and decent.”12 The Birth of a Nation spurred on the black press, which continued to urge African Americans to use film as a vehicle to promote self-determination and to encourage filmmakers to provide complimentary representations of African Americans and African-American life in their pictures. 36 | charlene regester The African-American Press and Race Movies, 1918 to 1929 By responding to white racism and promoting self-determination, the black press had begun to play a role in African-American film history. Between 1918 and 1929 (Micheaux’s first period of filmmaking), African-American newspapers exerted a positive influence by applauding the e¤orts of companies that produced films appealing to black audiences. They helped to expand the market for black productions by providing reviews, advertisements, behindthe-scenes gossip, and discussion of these films. In an attempt to gain even more influence, however, the African-American press positioned itself in a sometimes unwelcome advisory capacity by commenting on what filmmakers could do to improve, promote, and distribute their films and, thereby increase their exposure and proceeds at the box o‹ce. Increasingly, this policy of encouragement was mixed with more negative comments. Writers gradually became much more critical, noting the strengths and weaknesses of race movies, and were sometimes outspokenly intolerant of productions they considered substandard. The AfricanAmerican press did not hesitate to advise film companies that they needed to improve their pictures. Although they condemned those filmmakers whose pictures duplicated the uncomplimentary images often witnessed in Hollywood productions, the press nonetheless remained a positive factor overall. Even before the end of World War I, the black press was applauding the works of AfricanAmerican film companies such as the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, operated by Noble and George P. Johnson, which had released its first film in 1916. (The Lincoln Motion Picture Company is further discussed by Clyde Taylor in this collection.) Complimenting this company, the Chicago Defender reported: There is only one race film company worthy of the name, that is the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. Inc., of Los Angeles, Cal. It is distinctly a Racial proposition, owned, operated and financed by our peo
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