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Audrey Kupferberg: Pioneers Of African-American Cinema

July 16,2016 03:29

The 1920s through the 1940s are the Golden Age of Cinema. It was a time of tremendous growth in the film industry, when billions of investment dollars were poured into the purchase of Hollywood real estate, and the studio system perfected the ...

The 1920s through the 1940s are the Golden Age of Cinema.  It was a time of tremendous growth in the film industry, when billions of investment dollars were poured into the purchase of Hollywood real estate, and the studio system perfected the production of sophisticated motion pictures.  What few of us think about when reminiscing about Hollywood nostalgia is the fact that this pop culture phenomenon belonged to the white population of segregated America.  With few exceptions, the Hollywood film industry of the first half of the 20th century presented African-Americans only in menial roles—porters, maids, illiterate workers whose eyes bulged in comical fashion when they were threatened.  Studio talent and behind-the-scenes crews were made up of white men and women. Only the audiences for Hollywood films included blacks as well as whites even though, in the South, people of color sat separately in the balcony.  But they still paid full price for their tickets.  Film distributors were color-blind when it came to collecting profits from box office sales. Today, little attention is paid to the African-American film history of this era.  Beginning in the mid-teens, there were small film companies making “race films,” motion pictures with black casts which were distributed specifically to African-Americans.  Some have been available from various public domain video distributors in less than pristine quality.  On July 26, however, Kino Lorber is releasing a 5-disc set on DVD and Blu-ray called Pioneers of African-American Cinema with approximately 20 hours of feature films, comedy shorts, and raw documentary footage.  Kino raised money on Kickstarter to expand their budget for this project.  They worked with archives across the U.S. and internationally to present restored versions of these films. While Hollywood films cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per feature in those days, a race film often was completed for about $5,000.  When you see these films, you will note a definite drop in quality from a big studio feature.  What makes them important – in fact, highly culturally significant – is their content.  Audiences see black actors playing all the parts, not just the half-wit servants.  There are black characters who are lawyers, doctors, airplane pilots, beautiful maidens in distress, even a secret agent.  There also are black villains and bullies.  And there are musical acts—tap dancers, blues singers, operatic sopranos, dancing chorus girls. Self-taught innovators such as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams defied the limitations of segregation and became film directors and screenwriters.  This set is a monumental collection of titles.  The films represent a parallel universe, the lifestyle of segregated African-Americans and their concerns.  They deal with color limitations and “passing,” and with the necessity of a good education.  They deal with problems of violence, brutality, alcoholism, and how religious institutions either can help or defraud people.  And some are genre films, dramas and westerns and musicals fashioned as pure entertainment. Among the many African-American talents included is the legendary actor Charles Gilpin, who originated the title role of the Emperor Jones.  There also are performers who became stars in black communities only, such as the lovely Moses sisters, handsome leads Lorenzo Tucker, Carman Newsome, and Carl Mahon, and character actors such as Lawrence Chenault.  Many of the films are so primitive that they defy comprehension, but that does not mean that they won’t hold your attention.  The content is everything!  These films allowed black people to see themselves on screen. Even when the film language is garbled, the films have a fresh quality, an energy, that makes them interesting and highly palatable.  This Kino Collection is an important cultural and educational tool to understanding an era that in many ways is best gone.  Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman. The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Audrey Kupferberg,cinema

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