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Race Movies - the Forgotten Treasure
by Spotlight Mike

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How America View the African-American Actor

How America View the African-American Actor

In honor of Black History Month (although why this not has changed to African-American History Month like all other nomenclatures is probably an oversight, similar to never changing the name of the NAACP - calling a person "colored" these days can start a fight), I'd like to examine the one contribution that has been overlooked by the African-American Community. Where we celebrate African-American athletes, scientists, scholars, politicians, et al, the early contributions made by African-American actors is a page in history that has all been lost to posterity.

How did Halle Berry earn the privilege to win her Oscar? How did Jamie Foxx get the opportunity to do RAY? Who knew that Hattie McDaniel would win enough acclaim to be the first African-American to win an Oscar? If it weren't for people like Frank Wilson, Emory Richardson, Valerie Black, Milton Woods, Joseph Hilliard, Tommy Hix, Charles Johnson, and movies like BEWARE, BIRMINGHAM BLACK BOTTOM, and The BLOOD of JESUS, there would not have been a SHAFT, a SUPERFLY, a NEW JACK CITY, or The ADVENTURES of PLUTO NASH.

....okay, okay - no one bats a thousand....

Oh, don't bother looking up these movies, even though they have been been converted to VHS, and some even went to DVD, you'd be hard-pressed to find any of them. In fact, of the 500 of these "race" movies made from the 1915 to 1950, only 100 of them are still in existence.

Why the need for race movies? The simple answer is supply and demand. The predominant audiences for mainstream movies were mainstream audiences (translation: White), so the market demanded that movies be cast with white actors. Non-white actors, and actors who accents made them too ethnic for mainstream, when they were cast, IF they were cast, were relegated to minor roles, as servants or the bumbling comic
First African-American Oscar Winner

First African-American Oscar Winner

Actor-producer-director Robert Townsend lampooned the plight of talented African-American actors who were forced to take demeaning, stereotyped roles just to get work in his film HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE. Bruce Lee, when watching American movies before he began making his own, was horrified by the depiction of Asian performers - short, buck-toothed, clowns with thick glasses and thicker accents. He was embarrassed for himself and his people because he knew this was the mainstream's impression of his culture.

For the African-American, subservient roles for actors like Bill Bojangles Robinson, Eddie Rochester Anderson, and Stepin Fetchit were staples in mainstream cinema. Tap dancers, personal servants, and terrified lackeys marked the careers of most mainstream African-American actors. Not satisfied with playing the lackey or the buffoon, and knowing that they had an audience with the African-American Community, ambitious independent producers like Oscar Micheaux, and even white backers like Alfred N. Sack made movies outside the Hollywood Studio system for an African-American audience hungry for entertainment geared for them, made by them, and starring them. In fact, these race movies were the most successful independent movies of their time.

Because of racial segregation, race movies were shown almost exclusively in African-American communities. But white theater owners, who chose green over black, showed race movies late at night, after the mainstream movies had shown their last viewing of the day. It's my theory that the 'Midnight Show" evolved from these late night race movie viewings.

The race films vanished after United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., or the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948, which forced the division of motion picture exhibitors from the motion picture production companies. African-American participation in World War II contributed to the casting of black actors in lead roles in several Hollywood major productions, such as PINKY with the incomparable Ethel Waters; HOME of the BRAVE with James
One of the Classics that Survived

One of the Classics that Survived
; and INTRUDER in the DUST, all in 1949; and NO WAY OUT (1950), which was the debut of Oscar-winning actor Sidney Poitier.
Now, the ethnic movie is by no means a phenomenon unique to the African-American culture. Asian culture developed Bollywood films to the point where it's a genre all to itself; the so-called "Kung-Fu" movie lumps rich period pieces, such as CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and FEARLESS with SHAOLIN SOCCER and ENTER the DRAGON; and since my move to California, discovered the Latino genre of films. All of these films shows their ethnicity with all the pride and talent that their cultures were missing from the mainstream. What makes the African-American unique among all ethnic genres is that the African-American movies were slowly assimilated into mainstream entertainment, and race movies have all been forgotten. Very, very few films have survived over the years. CABIN in the SKY starring Ethel Waters and debuted the song "Stormy Weather" by legend Lena Horne, and CARMEN JONES starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte are a couple of the race films that have survived from being lost forever.

Race movies marked an era where African-Americans were almost considered a culture completely separate from America. Before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, the Negro League Baseball, as romanticized by the film The BINGO LONG TRAVELLING ALL-STARS & MOTOR KINGS, played as a completely different entity from Major League Baseball. Fisk University in Nashville Tennessee admitted African-American students only. And before Vanessa Williams became the first African-American Miss America, the only way an
They All Know Where They came From

They All Know Where They came From
African-American woman could win a pageant was to compete in African-American-only Beauty Pageants. In fact, before the abolishment of the Jim Crow System, America was truly a "Separate but Equal" country. However, those issues are better suited for a political commentary column, not an entertainment column.

I'm not asking anyone to go and seek out these race movies. First, because they will be as hard to find as the Ark of the Covenant after it was stored away in Area 51. Second, it's not important that these movies need to be watched. They were, for the most part, B-movies with threadbare budgets and the best technical crews hey could afford. The point of this column is to not forget that for the first part of the Twentieth Century, 80% of an entire genre may be lost forever to a generation who feel that they have made major strides in entertainment with movies like SOUL PLANE and the remakes of The NUTTY PROFESSOR. These race movies were the beginning, the genesis of a movement that have made superstars of Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, and directors like Forest Whitaker and John Singleton.


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Mar 4, 2011 8:38 AM
[X] delete
Let's not forget Mantan Moreland admonishing himself and asking Mr Chan "Where is you?"
Mike Thomas
Mar 4, 2011 10:23 PM
[X] delete
I spotlighted Mantan Moreland in my movie review WATERMELON MAN, and his role was much more complex than one-line ebonics.

His performance of a bus driver who did his "yassuh" and "no, boss" to the "white" Geoffrey Cambridge, and showed a completely different "face" when he turned black showed a depth that he could NEVER have portrayed in the 40's.

I'd rather remember him for that performance.
Mar 4, 2011 10:39 PM
[X] delete
No denying the stereotypes. I should write one about Jews in the movies. Stepin Fetchit became a rather wealthy man and I daresay had the last laugh regardless.
Thanks, Mike
Mike Thomas
Mar 4, 2011 10:40 PM
[X] delete
My plan worked.

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I Could Be Wrong
Every other Wednesday

Until I find my footing, I'd like to vent on the state of today's movies. I will occasionally praise a movie that piques my fancy. But it's a whole lot more fun railing against a person's work who makes more money on a single project than I would make if I lived 500 years. Oh, I will usually make observations on movies rather than films. The difference? Films are critically acclaimed, while movies are just darned good fun.

Other Columns
Other columns by Spotlight Mike:

Adventures in WonderCon

In Praise of the Movie Producer

The Life of a Film Reviewer



All Columns

Spotlight Mike
Born in the Fifties with an extreme phobia for movies in general, I became obsessed with movies when I broke that phobia with the first movie I actually enjoyed, “The Ten Commandments.” I particularly like the kind of movie where you can put your brain on hold. I get enough reality and drama in my everyday life; I refuse to pay someone to subject me to the same.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Spotlight Mike by clicking here.

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