Race Track

02.06.09

Left: Oscar Micheaux, Body and Soul, 1925, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 86 minutes. Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins (Paul Robeson). Right: Oscar Micheaux and Leonard Harper, advertising poster for The Exile, 1931.


AROUND THE TIME that the KKK rode to victory in The Birth of a Nation (1915), Al Jolson applied burned cork to his face in The Jazz Singer (1927), and scores of African-American actors bowed, scraped, shucked, and jived in Hollywood productions, an alternative cinema was thriving. Walter Reade’s thirty-five-film series “Faded Glory: Oscar Micheaux and Black Pre-War Cinema” pays overdue tribute not just to Micheaux, the pioneering African-American director, but also to his lesser-known contemporaries like Spencer Williams (who starred as Andy on The Amos ’n Andy Show) and Richard Maurice. All are auteurs of “race films”: low-budget, independently produced movies with black casts created exclusively for exhibition in racially segregated theaters. (The Walter Reade series also includes movies by white directors such as King Vidor and Vincente Minnelli, who oversaw studio productions that capitalized on race films.)

The level of melodrama in “Faded Glory,” in both the silents and sound pictures, frequently reaches sublime craziness, despite (or perhaps because of) occasional narrative incoherence and technical gaffes. Long stretches of plot are quickly revealed to be dream sequences, as in The Blood of Jesus (Williams, 1941), Body and Soul (Micheaux, 1925), Cabin in the Sky (Minnelli, 1943), and Eleven P.M. (Maurice, 1928). Maurice’s movie is the most technically ambitious in the series—and the one with the most fantastic conceit: A man (played by Maurice) becomes a dog to avenge the lowlife who ruined his family. Sometimes performers do double duty: In his blistering screen debut in Body and Soul, Paul Robeson plays both a wicked preacher man and his noble inventor brother; Orine Johnson stars as both a fallen mother and her tremulous daughter in Eleven P.M.

Christian themes dominate. Errant men fall prey to she-devils (Vidor’s 1929 Hallelujah!, the first sound film with an all-black cast released by a major studio), and good, God-fearing women have their faith tested on the road to Zion (The Blood of Jesus). Many movies are set in country hamlets, though the thrill—and danger—of the big city often lurks, evident in titles like Miracle in Harlem (Jack Kemp, 1948), Moon over Harlem (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1939), Murder in Harlem (Micheaux, 1935), and Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (Williams, 1946). The most provocative director in the series, Micheaux bluntly addresses the deep anxieties among African-Americans surrounding interracial romance and passing (The Symbol of the Unconquered, 1920).

Whether chronicling the sacred or the profane, the films in “Faded Glory” abound with show-stopping numbers; Cabin in the Sky features both Louis Armstrong’s trumpet tooting as one of Satan’s minions and Duke Ellington’s ivory tickling at Jim Henry’s Paradise. Beyond Robeson’s scorching bow in Body and Soul, Walter Reade’s invaluable series boasts other indelible performers whose careers tragically stalled or faded away due to the intractable racism in the movie business. Lena Horne, who sizzles as the temptress Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky, acted in only five films after Minnelli’s musical, growing so frustrated with Hollywood by the mid-’50s that she decided to focus on her nightclub and singing career. Stardom largely eluded Nina Mae McKinney, who as a teenager tears up the screen in her debut as the no-good hootchie-cootchie dancer Chick in Hallelujah! In many ways Horne’s precursor as the sexy siren of black cinema, McKinney signed a five-year contract with MGM, but the studio never found substantial work for her. Though McKinney’s glory—and that of most of the directors and stars of race movies—may have faded, for a few weeks at Walter Reade, at least, it can be restored.

“Faded Glory: Oscar Micheaux and Black Pre-War Cinema” runs at the Walter Reade Theater in New York February 6–19. For more details, click here.

Melissa Anderson