Saturday, February 1, 2014

Oscar Micheaux, TIFF Cinematheque's American Independent - A Short History of Black Film

Short History of Black Film –  Oscar Micheaux' The Railroad Porter to  Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave
and TIFF Cinematheque's Oscar Micheaux: American Independent Retrospective On Now.
Oscar Micheaux

TIFF Cinematheque launches its latest retrospective on the films of black film pioneer Oscar Micheaux today as part of Black History Month.  Programmer Jesse Wente describes Micheaux, filmmaker, theatre chain owner, distributor and producer “the very definition of American independence”. Details of the retrospective including titles, dates and prices may be found here.

The black film industry had its start on Chicago’s south side in 1912 with the release of Oscar Micheaux’ The Railroad Porter, which incidentally, Fatty Arbuckle ripped off as The Pullman Porter in 1918.  In 1913, Hollywood was not making films about, for or featuring black characters or actors, so it was necessary to create an industry to satisfy movie goers who wished to experience this new entertainment medium and see people who looked familiar. Black theatre chains sprang up in northern cities.

In 1915 the blockbuster Birth of a Nation glorified the racist Ku Klux Klan and inspired groups of black businessmen create film production entities to fight the stereotypes.  Micheaux released Within Our Gates, the earliest surviving feature directed by a black man as a rebuttal to Birth of a Nation.  Micheaux went on to make forty more ‘race’ films through 1948 including Birthright, Body and Soul and Harlem After Midnight.  In an era of outright discrimination, he said ‘One of the greatest tasks of my life has been to teach that the colored man can be anything’.

Booker T. Washington associate Emmet J. Scott raised money to make another rebuttal, the three hour The Birth of a Race.  The Frederick Douglass Film Company and the Lincoln Motion Picture Company were established in New Jersey to ‘picture the Negro as he is in his every day, a human being with human inclination, and one of talent and intellect.’

South side of Chicago was the heart of the black film industry, creating product for underserved black audiences. Theatres were segregated so they also created their own chains. Their films found appreciative audiences in northern US cities and Canada.  Decades later entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey revived the area with her own studios and production houses.

 In 1927 Jewish entertainer Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer, notable not just as the first motion picture with audible sound and song, but also as Jolson’s blackface performance of Mammy.  It is a strong image and a controversial one.  Judy Garland, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor and Bing Crosby used blackface in later years, a common entertainment trope until more enlightened times.  Blackface dates back to the minstrel shows of the 1850s and subsequent vaudeville shows, known as the “fool’s mask”, evoking the stereotypical Darky or Coon. Whites weren't the only performers to use blackface. Bert Williams used it as the sole black member of the Ziegfeld Follies and in later films.

The Depression caused a ten-year slump in race movies but Hollywood was finally beginning to tell black stories.  Some depictions were demeaning, like the jive talkin’, shuffling Stepin Fetchit’s stock characters. He often feigned loss of memory or mumbled lines he didn’t like, pretending to be too dumb to understand the script which did a disservice to his community.  But singer Paul Robeson, one of the most interesting entertainers of that era, had a deep, booming voice and powerful presence in The Emperor Jones winning him mixed fans all over the world. 

In 1939 Oscar sensation Gone with the Wind was universally despised by black audiences for its stereotypical characters.  Ironically, Hattie McDaniel became the first black to receive an Academy Award.  She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar playing house servant Mammy.  McDaniel was known as the “colored Sophie Tucker” and the “female Bert Williams”, and was often criticized for her stereotypical characters. “Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid?  If I didn’t, I’d be making seven dollars a week actually being one.” 

By the late forties, black actors and filmmakers were finding regular work in Hollywood.  Black musicals became especially popular and launched the careers of Cab Calloway, Lena Horne Duke Ellington and Count Basie.  All-black films like Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather and later Carmen Jones were huge hits with mixed audiences.

Sidney Poitier an enormously popular success in the fifties and sixties, in Blackboard Jungle, Raisin in the Sun, the Defiant Ones, and Lilies of the Fields,  radiating an appealing, elegant and intellectual persona that smashed stereotypes. He set the tone for more enlightened exchange as the civil rights movement grew.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner put things right out in the open. Poitier’s elegant educated character was engaged to a privileged white woman; their parents saw a bleak future for them but eventually wisdom, acceptance and love conquered all.

That gentle tone was turned on its head in the mid-60s’ when a rebellious new generation of filmmakers emerged, bringing angry, radical politics into the mix: sex, drugs and crime were the subject matter of the so-called blaxploitation genre. Shaft, Foxy Brown, Coffy, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss’ Song were gems of the time. These were stylized caper film with iconoclastic themes and actors that put a new generation of gifted black filmmakers in the spotlight and revealed a bold new kind of character and strength.

Blaxploitation filmmaker Gordon Parks said “I chose my camera as a weapon against all the things I dislike about America.” His sentiments reflected those of the day shared by young people concerning sex, women’s liberation, social and economic equality and peace.

TV star Eddie Murphy led an influx of black superstars into public consciousness in the eighties and became one of the highest paid and most successful actors of the time.  The Beverly Hills Cop franchise led to a diverse variety of roles for Murphy.

Robert Townshend galvanized the independent black filmmaking world in 1986 with the release of his Hollywood Shuffle, a comic, ironic look at the treatment of blacks in Hollywood. He famously funded the film on credit cards, which brought him and his film media attention.

That same year, Spike Lee hit hard with She’s Gotta Have It, launching not only his career, with idiosyncratic films Do the Right Thing, School Daze and Do the Right Thing, but the careers of important stars of the future. Rap and gangster movies of the late eighties and nineties made music/acting crossover stars of Ice T and Ice Cube and led to careers in production.

Then came Denzel Washington, a fiercely talented Oscar winning actor whose movie star good looks and interesting choices make him one the today’s premiere bankable talents and heartthrobs. Samuel L. Jackson is the everyman working in an astonishing number of films; he was one of the most distinctive, popular and hardworking actors in Hollywood. He jokes that he can’t turn a role down and now he’s turning up in TV commercials.  The man is driven. 

Oscar caliber artists have made waves in recent years including Quvenzhané Wallis, Viola Davis, Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Djimon Hounsou, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman and Halle Berry.  This year 12 Years a Slave won nine Oscar nominations but the critically acclaimed The Butler, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Fruitvale Station were snubbed although they figured in several other awards races.


No comments:

Post a Comment