I'm thinking back to my old minstrelsy and passing days --not when I used to pass as a minstrel--but when those issues were the explicit focus of my work going all the way back to RISD.
And thinking about the world of movies of course. Let's see; Actor Herb Jeffries lived his life as a black man and acted in black cast movies...Al Jolson had an autobiographical belief that he actually had a black mammy down home somewhere. And then there's Quentin Tarentino...Zelig and Chameleon Man, Black Like Me, Soul Man and Gentleman's Agreement all come to mind.
So, for a limited time (about a week) and for your viewing pleasure I am posting my video 1/16th of 100%?!
Let me know what you think!
1/16th of 100%!?, video (23 minutes) Writer, director, editor 1993/96
Montage that examines themes of appropriation, miscegenation and minstrelsy through manipulating footage found in Hollywood movies from the 1920s through the 1950s-- including Imitation of Life, Showboat and The Jazz Singer.
Here's what I'll read tonight in case you can't make it! (And I will post my complete program notes later.)
The Vitaphone Studios, a division of Warner Bros, located in Brooklyn, NY, was a prolific producer of short films during the transition to sound starting as early as 1926. Vitaphone technology was a sound-on-disk process where audio was recorded separately onto 16” wax records during filming and synchronized mechanically with the projected footage. The films, many of which were preserved by UCLA, are a record of popular entertainment of the period and they include many ethnic and black themed acts (including, famously, Al Jolson’s pre-Jazz Singer short A Plantation Act), blackface and black-voiced minstrel shows, as well as all black-cast shorts subjects.
A uniquely arty or ART-FULL Vitaphone musical short, Yamecraw: A Negro Rhapsody is based on a symphonic jazz composition by African-American composer, and pioneer of stride piano, James P. Johnson (famous for writing “The Charleston” and other popular tunes of the era) and is reminiscent of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.
(You can listen to a recording posted above. There's a link to the film but the copy is terrible)
A brief “African-American tone poem”, the scenario is similar to that of King Vidor’s Hallelujah. A young man seeking fortune in the city is distracted by urban excitements and tempted by a city woman, only to be crushed by it all. Chastised, he returns, welcomed back home by his devoted wife, to his family’s rural shack. Yamecraw, despite the racist signifiers of this period of cinema -- like watermelons, cotton-picking, and mammies -- is an imaginative and concise presentation of a black migration narrative aided by the restrained performances of the actors that mixes operatic, modernist and folk expression.
Native Son (1951), the first of two movie versions of Richard Wrights’acclaimed 1940 novel, is an odd but compelling international hybrid. It was helmed by a French director, Pierre Chenal, shot in Buenos Aires and, fascinatingly, cast with the middle-aged, African-American author, Richard Wright, playing his 25 year old protagonist, Bigger Thomas. (For a treat look up Wright’s screen tests on youtube)
A NoirCity Magazine interview with scholar Edgardo Krebs, notes that Chenal first wanted to cast Canada Lee, who turned down the role, after which he considered Wright:
“…Chenal posed the question: would you consider playing Bigger Thomas? Wright laughed and responded “But man, I am no actor!” Chenal insisted. “You do not need to pretend to be one,” he said, “just live Bigger’s nightmare.”
Bigger’s nightmare --violently portrayed in both the novel and the adapted film--was that of many post-migration African-Americans and each begins with Bigger and his family already trapped by brutal poverty in a racially segregated city.
Towards the finale of Native Son in true noir fashion, Bigger recounts his dream of escaping imprisonment and his ensuing execution by fleeing the impoverished Chicago streets back to his southern home, a rickety cabin shown floating in a surrealistically designed cotton field. This fantasy, which quickly transfigures into a grim hallucination, initially resembles the strange, pastoral landscape seen in Yamekraw and might suggest that Bigger's unconscious has been influenced by the imagery he has absorbed as a black movie-goer.
By showing two films by white directors adapting works by black artists, in tandem, I hope to demonstrate the duality of black migration narratives and of “home” pictured through generic (and sometimes problematic) film images; first a musical short with a heavenly, happy ending followed by a racially charged thriller, where “return” can only be attained through death.
As Bigger intuits describing his dream:
“All around me everything was white. I was back in the farm where I used to live when I was a boy. I felt free. I wasn’t scared no more… I was back home again.”
program notes written by ina archer
YAMECRAW (1930) Warner Bros. (as The Vitaphone Corporation). DISTRIBUTED BY: Warner Bros. (1930) (USA). DIRECTED BY: Murray Roth. STORY: Stanley Rauh. MUSIC BY James P. Johnson (initially uncredited) and Hugo Mariani (musical score). PHOTOGRAPHY: E.B. DuPar. ART DIRECTION: Manuel Osman.
NATIVE SON (1951) Argentina Sono Film S.A.C.I. DISTRIBUTED BY: Argentina Sono Film S.A.C.I. (1951) (Argentina), Classic Pictures (1951) (USA). PRODUCED BY: Walter Gould, Jaime Prades. DIRECTED BY: Pierre Chenal. SCREENPLAY: Pierre Chenal, Richard Wright (novel). PHOTOGRAPHY: Antonio Merayo. FILM EDITOR: Jorge Gárate. MUSIC: Juan Ehlert (as John Ehlert). SET DECORATION BY: Gori Muñoz. COSTUME DESIGN BY: Eduardo Lerchundi. CAST: Richard Wright (Bigger Thomas), Gloria Madison (Bessie Mears), Willa Pearl Curtis (Mrs. Hannah Thomas), Jean Wallace (Mary Dalton), Charles Cane (Det. Britten). FORMAT: 35mm. RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes. ORIGINAL RELEASE: Italy 1951 (Venice Film Festival). Argentina, March 2, 1951. USA, June 16, 1951 (New York City, New York)
(Of course, I never mentioned that I was going to be gone, my bad! but it’s time to get back on the blog.)
So first things first; I am pleased to be screening some earlier works in a terrific venue The Clean Rite Center in Harlem USA courtesy of (the always fly and righteous)artist Shani Peters and The Laundromat Project!
Also, I’ll be at the laundromat on July 20th from 11am-1pm for The People’s Wash + Fold Film Club a Q&A/open exchange with the PLT community.
"Like TV? Love Netflix? Want to kick it with your neighbors while you stack those laundry piles? Then join THE PEOPLE’S WASH + FOLD FILM CLUB. We meet at the Lenox Clean Rite every other week to chop it up about not only the videos screening in THE PEOPLE’S LAUNDROMAT THEATER, but about TV shows, webisodes, YouTube clips, film, advertisements and whatever other media has caught our eyes."
Visit Harlem, support black media makers, do your laundry and opine about films! All in one spot and open 24 hours...
The Black Network (1936) d. Roy Mack
See you there!!
The People’s Laundromat Theater is located at the Clean Rite Center on Lenox Ave. near Malcolm X. Blvd. @ the SE corner of 129th St.
This is how I imagined how we'd arrive to the Ranch in Banner, WY!!
“Oh! Cowboy’s a wild man but oh what a mild man the wildest of cowboys can be...”
Well maybe it wasn’t quite like that but then maybe it was...
Now, if I was giving a list for the top 250 films for BFI -- I guess they couldn’t get in touch with me--(and don’t you even get me started on exploring the demographic of the 1000 participating critics)(really don’t cause it will take up the rest of the month!)--my selections would absolutely include Whoopee (1930) d. Thorton Freeland starring the incomparable Eddie Cantor. It’s a guilty/not guilty pleasure of early sound cinema, the wonders of which I have tried to sort out in my work since I first saw it eons ago while still in high school. It was central to one of my first videos “1/16th of 100% ?!” and it continues to lasso my heart with it’s curious mixture of modern technical savvy (featuring sync-sound and lovely 2 strip Technicolor) but with old fashioned staging, vaudevillian performances, abundant and egregious stereotyping and racial/ethnic drag and play. It shapes my thinking on this transitional moment for Hollywood productions where all the aspects of the mixture listed above were fluid, open and exciting--full of possibilities. It’s all very American and completely crazy!
And then there’s my Eddie-bey as displaced New Yorker, Henry Williams.
“It’s exactly like Star Wars…The story is too fantastic and wonderful to cram into 2 hours.” If we get a good first weekend…there is a prequel and a sequel and they’re better than this movie by a long shot…I took the soft center."
Well, it is what it is! I find this clip of George Lucas discussing RED TAILS on the Daily Show both illuminating and amusing!
Illuminating because he addresses some of my very mixed feelings about the movie. My father, Lee (Buddy) Archer, was a Tuskegee Airman and he and his good friend Dr. Roscoe Brown ("The Gruesome Twosome"), consulted on the film and appeared in the accompanying documentary, Double Victory. Dad passed away in January 2010 and did not get to see any of the completed film.
I attended a preview screening a couple of months ago and the premiere last week. The film, much improved from the first time I saw it, should be supported. As a daughter, at first I found Red Tails disappointing, having had the good fortune to hear first-hand stories from the Airmen all of my life (I'll never forget the image of the small sea of red jackets at my mother's funeral in 1996). As a filmmaker tho', I'm intrigued by the way Red Tails is being hyped, the vague authorship of the movie and how it fits into Black cinema, historically. The amusing part is that I thought that Lucas called the film the 1st black-cast film (!) but, in fact, he claims "It's one the first all-black action pictures ever made."(see below)
Also funny--or at least a little hyperbolic--is his fear that the film, if it fails, will endanger if not destroy the opportunities for black filmmakers from this weekend on--prompting from Greg Tate and others the moniker “George Lucas, Black Filmmaker”! But I think Lucas is actually referring to the dangers of big —or should I say GI-normous budget films with predominantly black cast with a black director at the helm. This confused authorship between Lucas and the film’s director, Anthony Hemingway, is intriguing and in the clip Lucas self-effacingly disparages the film (the "soft" center) but inadvertently or unconsciously depending on how you feel about Lucas’ motives, displaces director Hemingway who he does not otherwise refer to in the interview.
The soapy and boyish "soft center" he describes is a truncated and specifically located episode, with hugely compressed characters. The focus then is mainly on dogfights and air(and digital) technology with an almost complete lack of context for the characters--particularly the absense of black women or almost any women--who are not even referenced (no gals back home? No sisters, no Mamas?), nor of African Americans at home following the airmen's adventures.
Well, I guess all of this was relegated to the prequels and sequels that hopefully will be produced (and maybe with my help!)but now hang in the balance of the OPENING WEEKEND BOX OFFICE!!
Anyway, all of this reminds me that all-black/colored movies directed by blacks and whites have existed since the movies began. There’s more than one per decade (I'll make a list later)! For example, preserved in part by our own Women’s Film Preservation Fund, A Fool and His Money (1912) is thought to be the first American film featuring an all African-American cast. And it was made by a LADY!—Alice Guy Blaché who owned Solax Studios, in Fort Lee, New Jersey and produced and directed dozens of films in the silent era.
The first all black action picture? What about The Norman Studios The Flying Ace set in WW1 and made in 1926! This film featured air battles, special effects (the camera turns completely upside down), comedy, action, daring aerial rescues AND romance!!
Here is a great clip from this rarely screened jewel!
Whether they run for two hours or for "6 SMASHING Reels!" black-cast films with their delights, issues, failings and travails are uniquely American and for me, essential in our understanding of the history of cinema.
SO,go see Red Tails this weekend!! You'll have fun!
I wish I had time to talk all about All-Media Star (stage, radio, screen, television) comedian Eddie Cantor today! A reoccurring figure in my work who has fascinated me every since high school when I first guiltily giggled through one of his blackface routines--which one was it? When he was rubbed in spa mud to hide from thugs, or after burning an errant champagne cork to hide from heavies or just slathering it on to dance with the Nicholas brothers--when his movies made a rare appearance on TV? My favorite, the complex, disturbing and funny moment I return to in my videos is in gorgeous, Technicolor "Whoopee", when Henry Williams hides in a gas stove that blows up revealing (and disguising) him as a "black" man.
But in Cantor's early films "black' is only one of myriad examples of racial and ethnic cross-dressing that animate these "anarchic", vaudeville-style musicals. He appears as Indians, Orientals, Latinos, Ladies, Romans and importantly, "Hebrews"! The movies are crazy and for me, a central part of the history of our film culture. But I can't go into all that now. OK, Toots?!
A sure sign of spring is the 17th Annual New York African film Festival! I'll be devoting several posts to the fest (and you can read my review of the 14th Fest here) but I wanted to quickly mention the wonderful programs of African animation and experimental works that played at the New Museum this weekend. Below is one of my new favorite African films, Bon Voyage Sim. Sweet animation with a terrific soundtrack!