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African American Film Pioneers



"Oscar Micheaux has been my idol. He inspired me to do my first film." – Spike Lee.

In the 1920s, African American filmmakers, backed by nascent, black-controlled production companies and exhibition spaces, began to interrogate and deepen African American images onscreen, revising those produced by generally white-controlled institutions in cinema’s first three decades. Writer/directors Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams are among the most intriguing figures from this period, painting subtle and complex portraits of black social and cultural dynamics and dilemmas, from a distinctly black point of view. Their works addressed the situation of a race marked by the legacies of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and newly challenged by the hardships and complexities of migration to the North, and to urban centers. On a different frontier, singer/actor Herb Jeffries made history as a leading man, most memorably as a singing cowboy in a series of all-black Westerns, portraying one of the first non-subservient black protagonists in American film. These were just some of the artists who made film history in the first half of the Twentieth Century. By mid-century, the dream of a black-controlled cinema had fallen prey to market forces and the production, distribution and exhibition of African American films became effectively white-controlled for some time afterward. This program features rare prints, including some recent restorations, in celebration of the African American pioneers who had made a decisive difference in the development of a black imaginary.

The Archive is also pleased to welcome Herb Jeffries to a special in-person appearance on September 27. At 97 years of age, he is one of the last links to this cinematic patrimony.

*IN PERSON: Herb Jeffries, on Sunday, September 27.

Friday, September 11th 2009, 7:30PM

MURDER IN HARLEM (a.k.a. Lem Hawkins' Confession) (1935) Directed by Oscar Micheaux
Micheaux’s adaptation of his own novel and earlier silent film, Murder in Harlem tells the story of a night watchman wrongly accused of murdering a young woman in a chemical factory. Intricately plotted, the film becomes more fascinating in its depiction of the insidious power dynamics around race, when the real assailant (a white factory owner) employs one fearful black employee to frame another. Lem Hawkins (Alec Lovejoy), the false witness, is depicted with deceptive complexity; his shuffling, unsophisticated demeanor falling away to reveal a grim sophistication as he realizes all too well the danger he himself faces as a possible scapegoat. 35mm, B/W, 98 min.

THE BLOOD OF JESUS (1941) Directed by Spencer Williams
Williams’ first and most famous feature depicts the struggle for the soul of a rural woman, Martha, who hovers between life and death after an accidental shooting in her home. The film is striking for the pitch of its religious fervor, and for its construction of an afterlife in which a handsome tempter, sent by Lucifer, leads Martha’s suspended soul to hot nightclubs and other scenes of pleasure; these alternating with dreamy religious tableaux. Williams himself costars as Martha’s husband, Razz, also in need of redemption and profoundly changed by his wife’s near-death experience. 35mm, B/W, 57 min.

Saturday, September 12th 2009, 7:30PM

Newly restored by the George Eastman House

BODY AND SOUL (1925) Directed by Oscar Micheaux
Micheaux’s masterpiece stars iconic Paul Robeson in his first screen role as an escaped convict, posing as a preacher in a small town. Behind the cloak of goodness, Robeson preaches his congregation into a frenzy—while working crooked deals around town and molesting "Isabelle," a young woman whose mother hopes to marry her to this virtuous man. This indictment of the power of the clergy is driven by Robeson’s bravura performance (actually a double-role, as he also portrays Isabelle’s kindly boyfriend), matched by the chilling, blind fervor of Julia Theresa Russell as Isabelle’s pious mother. 35mm, silent, 102 min. Preservation funded by George Eastman House

WITHIN OUR GATES (1920) Directed by Oscar Micheaux
This earliest known surviving feature by an African American director dramatizes the difficulties and contradictions of life for Reconstruction-era Blacks through the story of a young woman who travels to Boston from her rural hometown, seeking money for a Southern school for poor black children. Closely following Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation and the Chicago race riot of 1919, the film is a stern rejoinder to the suggestions of Griffith and others, that blacks were the villains rather than the victims of Reconstruction. The film infamously depicts a lynching in perhaps the only such scene ever presented on American screens. 35mm, silent, B/W, 78 min. Restored by the Library of Congress Motion Picture Conservation Center.

Live musical accompaniment by Michael Mortilla.

Monday, September 14th 2009, 7:30PM

BIRTHRIGHT (1938) Directed by Oscar Micheaux
Micheaux’s second adaptation of T. S. Stribling’s novel (he had directed a silent version in 1924) concerns the struggle of an accomplished Harvard graduate to institute a school for Black children in his Southern hometown. He faces roadblocks along the way from both black and white characters, as the effect of Jim Crow laws repeatedly reveal themselves, etched upon social structures and behaviors and squelching the possibility of social betterment. One of Micheaux’s most politically charged features. 35mm, B/W, 75 min. Restored by the Library of Congress Motion Picture Conservation Center.

THE GIRL IN ROOM 20 (1949) Directed by Spencer Williams
A poignant story of displacement, Williams’ drama concerns Daisy Mae (Brock) who has left her Texas home and sweetheart Dunbar to pursue a singing career. After finding some success at her church and at a local nightclub, she is pursued by a schemer who hopes to turn her into a call girl, until a benevolent friend calls on Dunbar to save her from the city. Surprisingly equivocal in its depiction of both supportive and rapacious black characters, the film is a clear assertion of the dangers that awaiting generations migrating Northward from the rural South, even at mid-century. 16mm, B/W, 63 min.

Saturday, September 19th 2009, 7:30PM

JUKE JOINT (1947) Directed by Spencer Williams
Williams shines as star and director in this rural comedy about two con men posing as famous actors, who take rooms in a boarding house and coach the landlord’s daughter for a beauty pageant. True T. Thompson’s screenplay offers rich material for several characters doing hilarious comic turns; chiefly Williams himself as Bad News Johnson (a.k.a. "Vanderbilt Whitney") and July Jones as cohort "Cornbread" Green. The broadly-drawn characters are as lovable as figures from a Eudora Welty short story. It’s touching to see Williams in such a nuanced part, four years before assuming the role of "Andy" on TV’s The Amos ‘N Andy Show. 16mm, B/W, 68 min.

DIRTY GERTIE FROM HARLEM, U.S.A. (1946) Directed by Spencer Williams
Another collaboration between Williams and writer True T. Thompson, this eccentric comedy (adapted from a W. Somerset Maugham short story) features Francine Everett as reckless, sexy cabaret performer Gertie LaRue, who has taken a job in a Caribbean resort after cheating her lover (and meal ticket) back in New York. In no time at all, she’s vamping the men in her new home, to the consternation of straight-laced Mr. Christian (Hawkins). The comic turns in this unlikely yarn stand in marked contrast to the melodramas of Williams’ early career, displaying his versatility and range. 16mm, 65 min.

Sunday, September 27th 2009, 7:00PM*

HARLEM RIDES THE RANGE (1939) Directed by Richard C. Kahn
A delightful installment in the "race film" genre stars Jeffries as Bob Blake, a heroic cowboy who helps the daughter of a murdered homesteader protect her land from unscrupulous swindlers. Framed with the crime, Bob manages to bust out of jail long enough to identify and round up the bad guys. Along the way, he croons several appealing ballads, as his sidekick "Dusty" (Brooks) provides comic relief. Spencer Williams, who wrote the screenplay, also takes a small role. 16mm, B/W, 56 min.

THE BRONZE BUCKAROO (1939) Directed by Richard C. Kahn
Bob Blake (Jeffries, billed here as Herbert Jeffrey, as in Harlem Rides the Range) must play detective when his rancher friend Joe Jackson goes missing. Sadistic scoundrels have kidnapped Joe and try to force him to sign over a deed to his gold-rich land—even stooping so low as to threaten Joe’s sister! They’re no match for Bob, however, who saves the day and wins the girl. The film is graced with terrific comic routines by side characters, and of course, a number of songs crooned by Bob/Jeffries, ably assisted by "the Four Tones." 16mm, 58 min.

IN PERSON: Herb Jeffries.

* Please note the early start time.



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