ITC presents the trials and triumphs of African Americans on screen
Georges Perec wrote an entire novel, La Disparution (A Void), without once using the letter "e." A reasonable reader's first response is: Why? There are enough obstacles to success without having to invent arbitrary ones. Until 1956, when classrooms in Austin were integrated, the University of Texas football team faced every opponent every season without fielding a single black player. Today, only a Sooner fan could wish to reimpose a Jim Crow handicap on the Longhorns.
Contemporary cinema would be much less colorful without the varied talents of James Earl Jones, Spike Lee, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Mario Van Peebles, Cuba Gooding Jr., Sidney Poitier, Julie Dash, Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington, Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker, Halle Berry, John Singleton, Vanessa Williams, Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Carl Franklin, and other artists of African ancestry. Of the 20 nominees for acting awards in this year's Oscar competitions, five - Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx (twice, for Ray and Collateral), Morgan Freeman, and Sophie Okonedo - are black. Another black performer, Chris Rock, will be hosting the ceremonies. Yet less than 50 years ago, blacks were either absent from movie screens or restricted to demeaning stereotypes (The same could be said of Latinos, Asians, Jews, American Indians, and gays, but those are other stories, which have also begun to be told).
Last year, the Institute of Texan Cultures presented a series of "race" films, films made by and for blacks during the years when theaters throughout the South were segregated. (The obscure alternative entrance to San Antonio's Majestic Theater is a relic of the ugly era when, even when allowed into the same shows as white audiences, blacks were shunted to the balcony. Other theaters in town advertised midnight screenings "for colored only.") This year, to mark Black History Month, the ITC presents a more varied sampling of films that portray African Americans. The genres include Western (Harlem Rides the Range), musical (The Duke Is Tops, Carmen Jones), sports (The Jackie Robinson Story), and drama (The Emperor Jones). Some were directed by blacks, others by whites.
Anchoring the series and repeated throughout the month will be A Century of Black Cinema, a two-hour survey of how African Americans have fared on screen since 1903, when a silent version of Uncle Tom's Cabin cast white actors in blackface. By 1927, when an actor first spoke on screen, in The Jazz Singer, he was still a white man, Al Jolson, wearing blackface. As late as 1949, Pinky, the story of a black woman who tries to pass for white, cast a white actress, Jeanne Crain, in the leading role.
Black actors did manage to find work in Hollywood, but the work they found was often not commensurate with their talent. Though Lincoln Perry became the first African American to sign a long-term studio contract, one that made him rich, it was not to play Hamlet but rather servile Stepin Fetchit. Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar for her supporting role in Gone with the Wind, kept busy impersonating maids and nannies. Bill Robinson found fame as "Bojangles," the grownup playmate of a privileged white girl, Shirley Temple. Dooley Wilson, the Sam who played it again, and again, in Casablanca for Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine, always deferred to the man he called "Mr. Richard."
Movies help shape the society they serve. Sidney Poitier's Oscar-winning performance in Lilies of the Field in 1963 surely had a little to do with the passage of the Civil Rights Act the following year. But movies also reflect society, and until 1954, when the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education declared that separate was not equal, films by blacks, about blacks, and for blacks occupied a parallel universe that few whites entered.
It also prompted Micheaux to create a very different sort of story, one that, like Birth of a Nation, includes scenes of rape and other violence, but in which blacks are victims rather than perpetrators. When Micheaux made his movie, racially motivated lynching was still epidemic in the South. Within Our Gates does not refrain from depicting obsequious blacks negatively, but it is a sympathetic account of the tribulations suffered by a spunky black teacher who struggles to find funding for a segregated school. She experiences adversity far worse than mere rejection, but it is memorable that one snooty white matron rationalizes her refusal to support Negro education by claiming "Thinking will give them a headache."
Thinking about the history of black cinema can give a viewer heartache. Consider The Emperor Jones, a 1933 adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play that will screen on February 18. Despite his magnificent voice and commanding presence, the formidable Paul Robeson seems trapped in the demeaning role of a Pullman porter who is destroyed by his fatuous ambitions. Dorothy Dandridge's starring performance in Carmen Jones, screening at the ITC on February 26, could not save her from despair and early death. Yet A Century of Black Cinema is a triumphal narrative, in which portrayal of African Americans on screen eventually ceases to be betrayal of African Americans on screen. Like Color Adjustment, The Bronze Screen: 100 Years of the Latino Image in American Cinema, and Images of Indians: How Hollywood Stereotyped the American Indian, it falls into a recognizable new genre of documentaries that look back at benighted stereotypes and Hollywood's gradual transcendence of them. A century from now, will viewers scorn our naivete for believing that history existed merely to demonstrate our progress up from conceptual slavery?
A Century of Black Cinema comes most alive in "Part II," when, during the decades after Jim Crow flies away, powerful black actors take leading roles representing the race. "I think of myself as a man," Poitier, trying to convince his father to accept his white bride, explains in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1977). "You think of yourself as a colored man." But black men who are neither "colored" nor merely generically "men" increasingly fill the American screen. Jim Brown, Richard Pryor, Louis Gosset, and Eddie Murphy present a different image of blackness, and so do Lena Horne, Diana Ross, Oprah Winfrey, and Vanessa Williams. A Century of Black Cinema is filled with tantalizing clips, too many to digest in one viewing, as it moves through the eras of black power, blaxploitation, hood dramas, white-black buddy capers, and hip hop. "Hollywood's A-list bulges with blacks," notes narrator Kim Delgado as the film approaches the present. How much longer before the same can be said of corporate board rooms, university seminars, and the halls of Congress? •