Life in Movement

Nick Pinkerton on “A Road Three Hundred Years Long” at the Museum of Modern Art

H. Lee Waters, Movies of Local People (Chapel Hill), 1939, black-and-white, 29 minutes.

THE PROGRAM of Movies of Local People that will play at the Museum of Modern Art in early June is one of several newsreels produced by the traveling filmmaker and entrepreneur H. Lee Waters. Waters photographed communities in the southeast United States (mostly North Carolina) and then sold them back a chance to see themselves on the silver screen, posing and goofing for the camera or otherwise just going about their business, in a limited engagement at a local venue. This particular edition happens to have been made among the black community of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for screening at the Hollywood Theater, a Blacks Only business in the segregated Triangle cities, which first screened on October 6 and 7, 1939, that fabled movie year of Gone with the Wind.

The inexpiable sin of Hollywood, then and now, is that of omission—the willful ignoring of the quotidian African American life that we see in Waters’s footage. Instead, black representation in the Golden Age, so-called, was for the most part limited to a few pigeonholed types: Toms and Mammies, the occasional prizefighter, nightclub singer, and cutesy ragamuffin. Now as then there is a desire for cinema that addresses an everyday African American experience, a truth indicated by the fact that consumers are willing, literally, to throw money at such cinema when they can. Milestone Films’ at-long-last release of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978) was among the defining repertory hits of recent memory; when Kino Lorber created a Kickstarter to finance a proposed five-disc, twelve-feature box set dedicated to Pioneers of African-American Cinema, it blew the lid off of its goal right out of the starting gate; filmmaker Julie Dash, by way of Indiegogo, has made considerable progress toward funding Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, about the director of 1991’s landmark Daughters of the Dust.

Daughters of the Dust, Burnett’s magnificent To Sleep with Anger (1990), as well as at least two of the films included in Kino’s box set—Oscar Micheaux’s The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) and Spencer Williams’s The Blood of Jesus (1941)—are all part of “A Road Three Hundred Years Long: Cinema and the Great Migration” at MoMA. The twelve-day series has been programmed as a companion to “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North,” which displays the sixty panels of the painter’s migration series through early September. The exhibition is tied loosely to the centennial of the Great Migration, perhaps the most significant demographic shift in American history outside the settling of the West, in which an estimated six million African Americans—including Williams, best known for his starring role on the Amos ’n’ Andy television show, and Dash and Burnett’s parents—left their native South in hopes of new opportunities elsewhere in the United States.

Reasons for that flight appear throughout “A Road Three Hundred Years Long,” as does the iconic image of the Southern sharecropper, tilling a plot of used-up land behind a broken-down mule. (In one case it’s even the same image—Williams repurposes a piece of Roman Freulich’s Broken Earth [1936] as a preamble to The Blood of Jesus.) In The Symbol of the Unconquered, subtitled “A Story of the Ku Klux Klan,” the men under the white hoods are an unscrupulous multiracial horde trying to scare an upstanding homesteader off of his oil-rich land. The film’s plot machinations matter rather less than the fact that Micheaux dared to photograph a torch-bearing Klan rider against a backdrop of blackest night, thus using the machinery of imagemaking to visualize his audience’s oppressors and so take power over them. Human wickedness is accompanied by environmental catastrophe. Pare Lorentz’s The River (1938)—produced by the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration and narrated in that repetitive, forceful cadence common to veteran 1930s lefties (see Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil [1948])—tells of the shortsighted cupidity, the deforestation and strip-mining, that led to the devastating Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

Kevin Jerome Everson, Company Line, 2009, color, sound, 72 minutes.

The River plays in one of several anthology programs at MoMA, consisting of documentary fragments, home movies, educational films, and archival odds and ends. Its particular program, called “Tributaries: Zora Neale Hurston and Other Chroniclers of the Deep South,” includes Hurston’s unedited footage of her research trip through the Gulf region, accompanied by earthy folk songs (“The women in Tampa they gotta wipe their ass” is a standout lyric). Elsewhere, the sound of gospel music is more or less ubiquitous: The jubilation of “Rev. R.L. Robertson and The Heavenly Choir” competes with bump-and-grind barrelhouse rhythms in the crucible of The Blood of Jesus; “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” concludes Rex Ingraham’s lecture about tuberculosis in the Edgar Ulmer–directed hygiene film Let My People Live (1938); and the choir booms forth after a pulpit pep talk that’s something like a résumé for African Americans, sending them to fight for Uncle Sam in Frank Capra’s The Negro Soldier (1944), which manages to mention the Civil War without noting what it was all about, anyways. (Capra, like Williams, makes free use of recycled imagery, including images from the 1924 Revolutionary War epic directed by none other than . . . D. W. Griffith.)

“A Road Three Hundred Years Long” contains eight feature-length works—the earliest Micheaux’s, the latest Kevin Jerome Everson’s Company Line (2009)—while its centerpiece is a new half-hour film by the video essayist Thom Andersen, whose recent Deleuze-inspired The Thoughts That Once We Had still awaits an East Coast premiere. Andersen, here working on commission for MoMA, has produced Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams, which plays on a bill with Movies of Local People. Juke finds Andersen again working to redirect the viewer’s “voluntary attention,” as described in his groundbreaking Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), asking viewers to “appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations.” Here he has made the parlors, pool halls, Texas honky-tonks, model suburbs, and city streets that form the backdrop to Williams’s narratives the central players.

In reducing Williams’s films to their composite elements of “sociological interest,” the strict materialist Andersen strips them of the spiritual element that presumably drove Williams himself to make them—but he also keeps with the goals of “A Road Three Hundred Years Long”: finding the real story written in the margins of the official document.

“A Road Three Hundred Years Long: Cinema and the Great Migration” runs June 1–12 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.