Thursday, June 23, 2005

African American "Race Movies" of the 1930s-1950s

Sometimes, waking up early on a Saturday morning can be a good thing. Restless and unable to sleep, I flipped around the channels looking for something—anything—worth watching. TONY BROWN’S JOURNAL, a 30-minute public affairs program exploring the African American experience was airing on my local PBS affiliate. The topic of this particular episode was “The Legacy of Race Movies”. I was immediately intrigued.

Race Movies were the product of a deeply segregated American society. Made from the 1930s up to the mid 1950s, Race Movies were written, directed, and produced by African Americans to be shown in the more than 1,200 segregated movie theaters across the U.S. With no studio support and little in the way of equipment, these films were extremely low budget and mostly shot on location.

The wonder of these films is that they were made completely outside of the Hollywood system—African Americans telling their stories for black audiences. The films portray the lifestyle of the people at the time with a sense of dignity; they are free of the stereotypes and gross caricatures that permeated Hollywood films. A prominent storyline for feature films revolved around black migration from the South northward to find a better life; for example, a pretty Southern girl goes north and tries to be good in the face of temptation in the form of “juke joints” or a “number’s man.” Not all Race Movies were feature-length films. Short films captured prominent entertainers and vaudeville acts of the era. Newsreels, titled “By-Lines”, with African American reporters covering issues of the day were in demand. All told, over 400 films were made during this period.

In their heyday, Race Movies were extremely popular. Should a town not have a separate theater for African Americans, white owners would open up their theaters late at night, after business hours, for black audiences. These “Midnight Jamborees”, as they were called, were the progenitors of the contemporary phenomenon of midnight screenings of popular or cult films such as THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975). With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, audiences dropped dramatically. Many African Americans believed Race Movies were an anachronism, and instead sought inclusion and positive representation in mainstream films. By the mid to late 1950s, Race Movies died out altogether.

Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, houses one of the largest collections of Race Movies in their G. Williams Jones Film and Video Archive. Titled THE TYLER TEXAS BLACK FILM COLLECTION, these films have undergone a meticulous preservation process and are now digitally restored, thus insuring the films’ legacy for future generations. The research archive offers a comprehensive DVD boxed set of Race Movies for sale to the public.

Mr. Tinsley Silcox, director of the G. Williams Jones Film and Video Archive, was the guest on “Tony Brown’s Journal”. I had a couple of questions after viewing the show, so I e-mailed him in hopes of finding some answers. Mr. Silcox generously took the time to respond to my queries. With my particular interest in Pre-Code Hollywood Films, I wondered, since these films were made entirely outside of the Hollywood system, were they subject to the rigid Hayes Production Code? Here is Mr. Silcox’s reply:

As best we can determine in our research, Race Movies were not subject to PCA [Production Code] control because small, struggling outfits like Sacks, Toddy, etc. [African American production companies] were not members of the MPPDA [Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America] anyway. There is, for example much more body exposure from dancers in some of the shorts, or in the (added later) nightclub scene of MARCHING ON/WHERE’S MY MAN TONIGHT? than would have been allowed in a Hollywood productions of circa 1943.

To see more information about Race Movies and the preservation work done by SMU, please visit their website at

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Some Sunday Reading

Here are a few film articles from various papers around the country:

Hayao Miyazaki is a visonary Japanese filmmaker whose animated works include PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997), SPIRITED AWAY, the 2003 Oscar winner for best animated feature, HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, currently in theaters. This article provides a great introduction for those unfamiliar with his work and contains a link to a very thorough Miyazaki fan site.

Miranda July is a multi-talented artist/writer/filmmaker whose first feature film ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW has won awards at the most recent Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals. This article provides a nice biography of the artist.

Snoop Dogg stars in THE L.A. RIOT SPECTACULAR, a new film by Marc Klasfeld that parodies the 1992 L.A. riots following the Rodney King beating verdict. This article explores the question: has enough time passed for audiences to accept the riots played for laughs?

Friday, June 17, 2005

Movies at Home vs. The Theater

A recent Associated Press/America Online poll shows that a majority of individuals prefer watching movies at home, with only a paltry 22% saying they would rather see films at a theater. Most cited personal circumstances for lack of theater attendence: money issues, child care, and such. Others noted that the quality of films coming out of Hollywood are lacking, and even the stars and their off-screen behavior leave something to be desired. Interestingly enough, an oft-cited reason for the decline in movie theater attendance was found to be lacking. Many believe the rise of DVD technology and cable are keeping people at home, but, "the poll found that people who use DVD, watch pay-per-view on cable, download movies from the internet, and play computer games actually go to the movies in theaters more than people at the same societal levels who don't use those technologies. That suggests the technology may be complementing rather than competing with theatergoing."

You can read the full results of the AP/AOL poll here.

I personally watch A LOT of movies at home, but I do enjoy the commual--even ritualistic--aspects of seeing a film in a theater. For those who make a study of ritual, I'm sure filmgoing is a rich subject area. I had hoped to find some article on this subject, but have yet to find one. If you happen to know of a great article that explores the connection between filmgoing and ritual, please let me know. I'm sure one exists somewhere! I will leave this post with a quote on "Cultural Productions" I found in Dean MacCannell's book THE TOURIST: A NEW THEORY OF THE LEISURE CLASS (1989 ed.) that I find apropos to the filmgoing experience:

Cultural productions are also rituals. They are rituals in the sense that they are based on formulae or models and in the sense that they carry individuals beyond themselves and the restrictions of everyday experience. Participation in a cultural production, even at the level of being influenced by it, can carry the individual to the frontiers of his being where his emotions may enter into communion with the emotions of others "under the influence." (pg. 26)

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

R.I.P. Anne Bancroft

And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson....

Anne Bancroft, gifted stage and screen actress, passed away Monday after a bout with cancer. You can read her obituary here.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Wilhelm Scream

After a long break, I’m back posting again. While some of my time away was due to the interruptions of everyday life, I mainly used the break to write an article covering a festival of contemporary Mexican films for a local publication. It was my first journalistic piece—with interviews, too! It was a wonderful experience, and one that I hope will lead to future assignments.

Recently, a new friend sent me a link to an interesting article on The Wilhelm Scream. The “scream” was a sound effect made for the 1951 Warner Bros. film DISTANT DRUMS. The very distinctive sound, originally recorded for a scene showing a man being eaten alive by an alligator, has made its way into numerous films over the past decades, including the STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES series, Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS and KILL BILL, VOL. 1, as well as PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and the recent animated release MADAGASCAR. The article covers the history of the ubiquitous scream, and speculates on the actor who originated the sound effect.