Author Topic: Pioneers: African-American Cinema  (Read 268 times)

Bondo

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Pioneers: African-American Cinema
« on: February 02, 2019, 09:37:07 PM »
I hadn't really gotten into this box set in the two years I've had it (as a kickstarter incentive for the First Women Filmmakers box-set that will be the focus of a future marathon). Anyway, with it being Black History Month I figured this was the perfect time to work through the set. Especially considering historic African-American films are basically completely absent from the canon.

Two Knights of Vaudeville (1915)
One of the problems with the “representation” angle to films is it places a heavy burden on each film not only to feature actors who aren’t the white cis-male that is often considered default but to then be representative of this subset. There are so many dumb slapstick silent shorts out there with white men…even Chaplin and Keaton. But we don’t feel like they are commentaries on the white race. This short has a duo of black men “find” tickets to a white vaudeville show dropped by a white man who then attend with their female companion. While there they are rowdy and disruptive. They get the idea to stage their own version of the show, complete with signage displaying a lack of effective literacy. Finally they do their show and it is poor and chaotic. These elements might have felt at home in Hellzapoppin that I loved recently but I do have to fight the concern that these characters seem like negative stereotypes. But that this seems problematic while white equivalents are fun larks speaks to white privilege.

Mercy, The Mummy Mumbled (1918)
Now this is just good solid silent film hi-jinx. A guy wooing a mad scientist’s daughter hires someone to pretend to be a mummy for the father’s experiment so the guy can wed his daughter. Naturally things don’t go entirely smoothly. Unlike the last one, this one doesn’t beg uncomfortable questions.

A Reckless Rover (1918)
Ho boy. Racist iconography in the intertitles, a member of the all-black cast playing a Chinese stereotype and comedic sexual assault. No wonder the production house went out of business after this.

By Right of Birth (1921)
As a fragmentary piece I can’t say much about the story but what has been salvaged here seems like it was part of something very interesting.

Screen Snapshots (1923)
I wonder what the first making of documentary was. This newsreel clip applies the silent film with intertitles technique to behind the scenes footage of the director at work. Interesting enough.

Bondo

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Re: Pioneers: African-American Cinema
« Reply #1 on: February 03, 2019, 08:28:02 PM »
The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Ku Klux Klan (1920)
It is sad that too many of these films are incomplete. This film lost its climactic scene wherein its version of the Klan (which curiously includes someone from India, and more practically, a self-hating half-black man) sets in to intimidate a black man who owns land they would like. This is an object lesson in how even after slavery, racism acts to create a wealth gap.

There is definite promise here. I think of particular interest is the story of a light-skinned man with a black mother whose attempt at love (with a white woman) is derailed when she meets his mother and he doubles down on denying his racial identity. The female lead is also particularly light-skinned, as this film plays heavily into how skin tone variations affect the perception and experience of racism. An interesting if imperfect attempt.

Bondo

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Re: Pioneers: African-American Cinema
« Reply #2 on: February 08, 2019, 07:26:04 PM »
Within Our Gates (1920)

While I was watching my previous film in this marathon, my mom called me. When I mentioned this box set and undertaking, she asked if the film I was watching was directed by Oscar Micheaux. My mom not being a particular film historian, this seemed a surprisingly precise guess. Apparently the New York Times is doing a thing for Black History Month where they run obits of notable people in history who did not get obits in the paper at the time of their deaths due presumably to the general undervaluing of notable black people in history except a rare few.

In any event, Within Our Gates is actually slightly earlier than the previous film and comes with the honor of being the first surviving (feature-length?) film directed by a black director. Much more than the subsequent film, this is a structural mess. It throws us right into some kind of love rectangle where one gal goes full Iago on her cousin Sylvia to derail her engagement. Then the film largely forgets this opening segment before focusing on Sylvia's life back in the deep south where she works on behalf of a school for black children (piteously underfunded by the state...they said something like $1.75 per student per year...which sounds like it has to be a mistake but probably isn't). She heads north again to try to raise funds.

Given the controversy more recently about "white savior" films, this second act of the film certainly flirts with the designation, though the story is never truly centered on the white character. There are some interesting wrinkles here involving religion as an opiate of black poverty and a portrait of certain traitors among the black population who essentially sell their own out for a sort of status in the white community. Though a third act variation shows just how tenuous that can be without any actual commitment to equality.

This second act resolves rather abruptly setting the stave for a confession regarding act one and a flashback telling of Sylvia's upbringing. If the second act displays a certain level of racism in the North, the final act shows a massively more immediate level in the South and how it has shaped Sylvia's tragic life to this point. It is a film that flirts at times with effective thoughts but this temporal confusion and occasional abrupt shifts really keeps that limited.

P.S. This version has a really interesting score, often anachronistic, but very effective.
« Last Edit: February 08, 2019, 07:29:59 PM by Bondo »

Bondo

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Re: Pioneers: African-American Cinema
« Reply #3 on: February 08, 2019, 10:55:09 PM »
Body and Soul (1925)

Okay, things are starting to get serious here. There are still some narrative bumps. Part of the story involves a sort of love triangle involving twins...one is a reverend that the girl's mother adores and the other is I guess a lower-prestige person. I can't really say because the film hardly cares about him. They only introduce him as a shadow of a foil for the reverend, who is pretty much pure evil and corruption. There are the ordinary corruptions of liquor and influence-peddling, but so many decades before the Catholic Church was revealed for what it is, this also digs into how a person in a position of trust can wreak havoc and the rape culture that protects him. It is a bold social commentary...which makes it unfortunate it goes for a bit of a cop-out ending. Still, I wrap up disc one of the box set with the strongest effort yet.

Dave the Necrobumper

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Re: Pioneers: African-American Cinema
« Reply #4 on: February 08, 2019, 11:37:18 PM »
I hope it is ok to join in on a movie or 2. I just watched:

Mercy, The Mummy Mumbled (1918 R. W. Phillips)

I have to agree with your review. It is also interesting that these were middle class characters, not desperate for money (the comfortably off does not seem to have been a popular topic in the early fictional cinema I have watched). Some good chuckles in the antics they get up to, and you have to love kitchen based scientific research, who needs more than a milk bottle and a horse syringe for research into bringing 3000 year old corpses back to life.
« Last Edit: February 09, 2019, 02:18:37 AM by Dave the Necrobumper »

oldkid

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Re: Pioneers: African-American Cinema
« Reply #5 on: February 09, 2019, 01:07:20 AM »
Following
"It's not art unless it has the potential to be a disaster." Bansky

Bondo

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Re: Pioneers: African-American Cinema
« Reply #6 on: February 09, 2019, 05:58:58 AM »
I hope it is ok to join in on a movie or 2.

Absolutely. I'm not sure the availability of many of these outside this specific box set so I'm not expecting a big team effort but to the degree people can check things out I'd like to see what they think.

philip918

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Re: Pioneers: African-American Cinema
« Reply #7 on: February 09, 2019, 02:42:48 PM »
It's on Netflix and Kanopy. I'll try to watch a couple.

Bondo

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Re: Pioneers: African-American Cinema
« Reply #8 on: February 09, 2019, 04:43:14 PM »
Oh wow, I hadn’t seen that both these box sets (albeit a limited subset) are on Netflix. Cool!

Regeneration (1923)
With just a portion of the film surviving, and in a highly distorted version, there’s not much to be taken from this one. They use it as a testament to the importance of film preservation. I take it as a testament to the importance of digital “film” that doesn’t degrade.

Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926)
This is a morally troubling story, and reading the wiki of the source novel (none is available regarding this particular adaptation), it seems specific to this interpretation. Central to the film is a conflict between Joe and Simon, once partners at a mill. Apparently Simon orchestrated some plot to take control of the mill and Joe is bitter and shows it by constantly going to the bar that Simon also owns and drinking in spite his young daughter’s constant pleas for him to come home.

When a drunken fight between them accidentally results in Joe’s daughter being injured, a mob arises causing much death and destruction. That Joe’s alcoholism and being instrumental in murder is apparently rewarded with his becoming mayor, I’m not sure I’m on board with this film’s point of view. It certainly makes Virginia politics seem less problematic. From a technical standpoint, there is a scene with a building on fire that is properly horrific seeming, so I guess that's a credit.

Rev. S.S. Jones Home Movies
A documentary, this is a just a sequence of clips of life in black towns in Oklahoma in the 20s. Not the most compelling cinema.
« Last Edit: February 09, 2019, 07:16:09 PM by Bondo »

Bondo

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Re: Pioneers: African-American Cinema
« Reply #9 on: February 10, 2019, 09:05:23 PM »
The Flying Ace (1926)

While most of my favorite silent films are heavier dramas, physical comedy is silent film's comparative advantage for the very obvious reason of it not needing sound or words to be effective. The Flying Ace is a whodunit with a train company detective tasked with solving the disappearance of a train employee and the money he was carrying to pay employee wages. The mystery itself is dealt with well enough but they weave opportunities for effective physical comedy in there too (plus some aeronautical action). Quite an enjoyable hour. Particular credit to Steve 'Peg' Reynolds playing the detective's buddy and deputy, providing some of the best physical comedy, using his one leg to his advantage the way the likes of Chris Farley and Melissa McCarthy have used their size to be among the great physical comedians.