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 www.smu.edu/blackfilms/