In 1991, UNT Press published a book, Black Cinema Treasures: Lost and Found, by G. William Jones, Professor of Cinema and Video in the Meadows School of the Arts. The book, which includes a forward by actor and director Ossie Davis, focuses on a rich trove of films created by pioneer African American filmmakers for Black audiences in the 1920s up through the 1950s. SMU Libraries obtained permission from UNT Press, which owns the copyright, to post a digital copy of the book in the University’s open access repository, SMU Scholar, for the month of February in conjunction with Black History Month.
Professor Rick Worland in the Film & Media Arts Division at SMU knew Professor Jones, who died in 1995. Dr. Worland has also researched and written about films in the G. William Jones Film & Video Collection, and he agreed to an interview with Hamon’s Moving Image Curator, Jeremy Spracklen.
How are these films in the Tyler Black Film Collection important?
As Bill Jones originally stated, the “race movies”, or black-audience films constitute a missing link in the story of African-American filmmaking in the 20th century and within the larger narrative of American film history as independent films made completely outside the Hollywood system. In the 1920s there were a few small black-owned and run film production companies including most famously producer-director Oscar Micheaux (Within Our Gates , Murder In Harlem , et al.); and the Lincoln Motion Picture Company run by brothers George and Noble Johnson. (Noble Johnson went on to play small roles in Hollywood movies, including the island chief in King Kong ; and an Indian warrior in John Ford’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon ). Most of this material from the 1920s is lost, by the way.
However, the coming of sound and the onset of the Great Depression forced black producers out of business, or drove them to partner with white producers of low-budget “niche” or “exploitation” movies, like Dallas-based Alfred Sack. Sack and African-American actor-director Spencer Williams made eight features including The Blood of Jesus (1941), which scholars believe to have been the most successful and widely seen movie of the type. (It includes a couple of exterior views of St. Paul United Methodist Church in downtown Dallas.) After World War II, Hollywood began slowly desegregating movies and made some well-received social-message pictures about racism and anti-Semitism including Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), Intruder in the Dust (1949), Home of the Brave (1949), and Sidney Poitier’s debut in No Way Out (1950). This was roughly comparable in effect, and contemporaneous with Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in major league baseball. The Negro National League and the last struggling race movie producers went out of business as a result.
At the point when Bill Jones acquired the Tyler, Texas films in 1983, the form was virtually forgotten. After their original, often short and spotty theatrical runs in the 1930s and 40s, they had sometimes been broadcast on southern television stations late at night into the early 1960s, an often rather cynical way for white station owners to claim that they were serving the “public interest” standard on which their federal licenses were partly dependent, by airing programs for black viewers in their local areas. After this, they virtually vanished. Yet even at the time of their initial production, middle class blacks and the thriving black press of the day viewed race movies skeptically. With their low budgets, often-glaring technical flaws, and highly variable acting performances, they were considered by some to be an embarrassing “Jim Crow” cinema of segregation, not a point of cultural pride, especially after the raising of black consciousness in the Civil Rights era. Twenty years later, even though the Library of Congress Motion Picture and Recorded Sound Division and other archives had collected some of the titles, race movies were basically unknown except to a small group of scholars. The publicity surrounding SMU’s acquisition of the Tyler Collection, including stories in major national media outlets and Bill Jones’ appearance on ABC’s Nightline, occurring in Black History Month as he notes, helped not only publicize the films but began the process of scholarly reassessment, deeper research, and teaching around the production and reception of this unique group of movies.
Ossie Davis said that these films (specifically the Tyler Collection) are one of the best sources of black “self-consciousness” in American in the early 20th Century. Can you point to and discuss a scene or two that best exemplifies this?
It might be more correct to say that the race movies constitute a previously unrecognized source of such self-consciousness, an additional source in conjunction with African-American art, literature, and music such as in the Harlem Renaissance, and alongside the previously mentioned black press of the first half or so of the twentieth century, and other sources. Certainly they represent a unique look at largely rural southern black culture of the 1930s and 40s that majority white audiences were never intended to see. They are popular culture from an important period of historical and cultural transition. Plotlines in movies including Spencer Williams’ The Blood of Jesus, The Girl in Room 20 (1946), and Dirty Gertie From Harlem USA (1946) share common motifs of the rural innocent victimized by the corruption of the city. These movies were in a sense cautionary tales for mainly southern black viewers during the period of the “Great Migration” from the rural south to the urban north, partly as an effect of the two world wars, and to escape Jim Crow and lynch law.
Williams’ Juke Joint (1947) and the variety short The Vanities (1946) preserve the song, dance, and comedy of black performers on the Chitlin’ Circuit of black nightclubs. Not the outstanding, nationally known artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, or Lena Horne performing for well-heeled white audiences at the segregated Cotton Club, but of struggling black entertainers working hard for local audiences, in small venues where whites never ventured. I cannot confirm this, but it seems very likely that the nightclub scenes in Juke Joint, for example, were filmed in a long-vanished black nightspot in Deep Ellum or south Dallas. It’s an amazing record. Scholars in the last twenty years have divided over the relative “authenticity” of race movies of the 1920s when the companies were virtually all black-owned versus their later collaboration with white producers, and often white writers and directors. This is a vexing question. In any case, the intent to please black audiences solely, and the record of the specific forms this entailed, makes these movies important historical sources.
Can you point to an example of how these films have influenced modern filmmaking either in subject matter or style?
I think the possible effects, if any, are indirect. Greater attention and awareness of the struggles and accomplishments of filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux, who was a bona fide pioneer in the field and others like Spencer Williams and William Alexander (who produced both fiction films and a documentary series titled By-Line Newsreels), show that African-Americans were deeply involved in the creation and distribution of movies for black audiences from about the time that the Hollywood industry started to form in the late 1910s. There is a continuity and tradition of such filmmaking that continues down to the present, a counter-tradition that in roughly the first half of the century existed in parallel with Hollywood’s limited and often egregiously stereotyped images.
Thank you to Dr. Rick Worland, Professor of Film and Media Arts at SMU, Jeremy Spracklen, Moving Image Curator, Hamon, and Jolene de Verges, Director, Hamon for this post.
Feature image: Film still from Blood of Jesus, Tyler Black Film Collection, G. William Jones Film & Video Collection, SMU.