The dark truth of cinema, the truest American art form outside of television, is that it was founded as entertainment for the white norm. Whiteness is seen as a given and a status quo of early cinema, while any other race, especially black, is seen as useful only as entertainment. There was a need (and there remains a need) for an antecedent to a starkly monocultural screen, which was for a time filled by a brave few independent filmmakers. Their films, a hodgepodge of melodramas, genre pictures, and the unclassifiable, were at the time characterized as a single genre- “race films”.
~ Race Films Spotlight: Prehistory, Oscar Micheaux, and Body and Soul (1925) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1920s Oddballs ~ Race Films Spotlight: Hallelujah (1929) ~ Race Films Spotlight: Paul Robeson and Emperor Jones (1933) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1943’s Black Musicals
One of the most important race film paths to follow of the 1930s was that of actor Paul Robeson,
previously seen in this blog series portraying a nefarious preacher in Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925). Robeson’s public image only increased with his role in the stage musical Show Boat, having popularized the song “Ol’ Man River”. In 1930, Robeson returned to race films, making the avant-garde silent film Borderline with the Pool Group, a trio of liberal artists from Switzerland. A misguided attempt at combining experimentalism, psychology, and a thin story, Borderline is also a race film that hardly features its black actors. This is only partially alleviated by the Pool Group’s sideways critique of their own freed politics- Robeson’s character is allowed to stay in a liberal guesthouse for most of the film, but is kicked out after enough social pressure.
In 1933, Robeson headlined his first major project, what would prove to be the most controversial race film of the 30s, coinciding with his ideological awakening and embrace of pan-Africanism and communism. The film, Emperor Jones, was an adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play of the same name, and Robeson had previously portrayed the title role on the stage in 1924, kick-starting his career; its plot, about a superhumanly ambitious black man who becomes the emperor of a small Caribbean island, was provocative even on as relatively liberal a stage as Broadway. The project was spearheaded by Dudley Murphy, a self-induced hermit of the Hollywood system and pioneer of experimental filmmaking and early incarnations of music video, and funded by private investors rather than studio. DuBose Heyward, a white writer known for creating sympathetic, if stock portrayals of African-Americans (including his 1927 play Porgy), was hired to reconstruct O’Neill’s play, by large an extended monologue, into something befitting the screen; he shares with O’Neill a talent for imbuing stereotypically black pidgin with musicality, and the transition from his screenplay to an O’Neill derived climax is mostly seamless.
The film is notable and commendable for targeting a wider audience than the African-American community, and playing with expectations of that wider audience. The film starts with a bold dissolve from an African tribal ritual to a meeting at a Baptist church, and frequently uses the word “nigger” (to a degree that moves far beyond justifiable). While interference from censors and Heyward’s reconception of the play muted the extent to which the character was explicitly metaphoric, Jones remains a monolithic embodiment of white America’s fears regarding the upward mobility of black men (made clear in his initial career as a Pullman porter)- sociopathically ambitious, authoritative and brazenly sexual, an undefinable force of nature whose every mood, as superbly played by Robeson, feels like an earthquake. Robeson appears shirtless multiple times in the film, rare for even white actors of the time but emphasizing white perception of black virility. His uneasy relationship with the audience is further emphasized by Murphy’s camera, which films Robeson from low angles in the style of a horror villain. Jones was also the first film to credit a black actor above a white actor, which could be viewed as a further provocation.
Jones‘ distribution by United Artists proved to be as tumultuous as could be expected. While Harlem and the notoriety of the play ensured that New York theaters were sold out, the film’s expansion across the country was fraught with censorship, as theaters edited perceived offenses, and tragedy, as upticks in lynching occurred throughout the South on opening weekend. (Jones‘s restored form is about four minutes short of the original.) The film’s reputation was further diminished by Robeson’s blacklisting in the 1950s, which extended to suppression of his work; it is now mostly unknown to the American public, in spite of its importance as a piece of iconoclast art.
After Jones, Robeson attempted to further connect with his heritage by starring in films as native Africans, to varied success; while all of the films endorse the stereotype of the noble savage to some degree, the first, Sanders of the River (1934), became grossly colonialist due to studio pressure, turning the actor against the Hollywood system for good. Robeson thereafter worked on British race films until swearing off film altogether in 1943, starred in plays, and acted as a propagandist for civil rights and the Soviet Union.
Check back next time for thoughts on the two most famous black musicals Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, both from 1943.