The Black Experience Collection

There was a time in this country when the phrase "black and white films" had two meanings.

The first, obviously, was that films were shot in black and white, color stock being too expensive and tricky to deal with for most producers and directors. The second owes its existence to the system of segregation that sprang up in the United States following the Civil War.

In many parts of the country, theaters were segregated much like schools. Whites went to one, blacks to another. Odious as the system was, something good came out of it: during the 1920s a burgeoning African-American movie industry developed. Granted, black filmmakers didn't have the assets available to white studio owners, but it was the '20s: silent films were easy to make, and audiences hadn't been spoiled by fancy effects or luxurious on-location cinematography.

So a number of black filmmakers took to the task of making movies targeted to black filmgoers, especially in areas where segregated theaters guaranteed them a captive audience.

White, mainstream products featured African Americans, but often they were relegated to secondary parts, or worse. Rarely were they positive role models, much less heroes. Things only got worse with the arrival of sound. It was harder for independents to compete with Hollywood, and black performers often had to play the self-deprecating fool, a la Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland.

But films did continue to be made for the black market, both by independent filmmakers and by the studios. Until now, only a few ever saw the light of the TV screen, and they were usually big-studio products like Green Pastures, featuring Rex Ingram and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.

Now a whole host of films made by and for African Americans is available, and you need look no further than your local video store. The Black Experience Collection offers films featuring black or mostly black casts, many of them targeted primarily at black audiences in the '30s and '40s.

On the high end of the collection is The Emperor Jones from director Dudley Murphy -- a somewhat creaky version of Eugene O'Neill's Broadway play. Paul Robeson plays Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter who sinks to murder, then rises to be ruler of an island, only to be brought down by his own arrogance and greed.

Robeson, who had played Jones on Broadway, was fast becoming one of the world's most sought-after concert performers when he made The Emperor Jones, his film debut. The reason for his popularity is clear in the few opportunities he has to sing during the film.

Other Robeson films in the collection include Sanders of the River, Song of Freedom and Robeson's favorite, The Proud Valley.

Most of the Black Experience Collection, though, is devoted to B-movie fare of dubious quality like Look-Out Sister, a fantasy western starring jump-blues singer-sax man Louis Jordan as Two-Gun Jordan, a root-tootin' cowboy bandleader who saves the H&H (Health and Happiness) ranch from the clutches of a would-be oil baron.

If the plot seems creaky, the filmmaking is worse, but then both are just excuses for Jordan and his band to honk their way through about a dozen numbers, from the Stormy Monday-ish We Can't Agree to the still-popular Caldonia and Boogie in the Barnyard, complete with stock footage of farm animals.

Between tunes, black cowboy Bob Scott entertains the crowd with riding tricks, and some fairly inept actors try to string together a story line. Heavy on montage and pre-MTV performance footage, Look-Out Sister is unlikely to attain even the cult film status, in part because its one redeeming feature, its soundtrack, is scratchy and full of hiss.

And yet, black westerns must have proved a good sell in '30s and '40s, given the number of them available in the Black Heritage series. Titles like Bronze Buckaroos, Harlem Rides the Range, and Two-Gun Man from Harlem dominate '30s titles, along with mysteries like Murder on Lenox Avenue? Sunday Sinners and Murder in Harlem, which features an interesting plot twist: a black night watchman is accused of killing a white woman whose body he discovered.

Popular, too, were musicals, such as Cab Calloway's Hie De Ho and The Duke is Tops (a.k.a. The Bronze Venus), starring Lena Horne. The collection even includes the commendable but dull Jackie Robinson Story, which features the baseball legend as himself and includes some fascinating insight into life in the Negro League.

By the early 1950s, however, the studio system had changed. Blacks got better parts and became mainstream draws. Performers like Sidney Poitier would make us wonder why African-American actors were relegated to second-class status for so long.

The Black Experience Collection, for all its faults, takes us back to an age few of us can recall and offers us an unedited look at a time when an unconscionable wrong was perpetrated against an entire segment of our population.

Better yet, it gives us an appreciation for the people who took that wrong and turned it into something that was oh so right.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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