Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on July 21, 2016
On the last two Sundays of July, TCM is airing a selection of groundbreaking films made by African-Americans during the early 20th Century. Faced with racism within the industry these pioneering filmmakers were forced to work outside of the Hollywood studio system. Independently they created hundreds of diverse “race films” addressing the concerns of black audiences that were screened in segregated theaters across the country. Due to neglect, many of these films have been lost but what remains is an innovative, wide-ranging and fascinating record of black culture.
The films will be hosted by TCM’s own Ben Mankiewicz along with Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, a Professor at The University of Chicago and author of Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity. Stewart’s research and teaching explore African American film cultures from the origins of the medium to the present. She also directs the South Side Home Movie Project and is co-curator of the L.A. Rebellion Preservation Project at UCLA as well as an appointee to the National Film Preservation Board. Stewart is currently completing a study of the African American actor, writer and director Spencer Williams.
The programming will feature ten TCM premieres and includes groundbreaking silent films such as the comedy shorts Two Knights of Vaudeville (1915) and Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled (1918) along with Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920), Richard E. Norman’s Regeneration (1923) and Frank Peregini’s Scar of Shame (1927). You can also catch Micheaux’s Birthright (1939), starring Carman Newsome as a black student who graduates from Harvard only to face the racism of the times, along with Spencer Williams’s Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946) and The Blood of Jesus (1941) that Spencer wrote, directed and starred in.
Most of the movies airing are new to me so I’m looking forward to enriching my own film history but I am familiar with the silent drama Within Our Gates. This was Oscar Micheaux’s second feature and it stars Evelyn Preer as Sylvia Landry, the daughter of an African-American woman and white man who was raised by a black family. The plot is rather windy and difficult to summarize but my DVD copy describes it as: “Jilted by her fiancé, Sylvia Landry returns down south to her roots, and takes a job teaching at the Piney Woods school for black children. With the school facing bankruptcy, Sylvia journeys north to try to raise funds. After much hardship, she secures the backing of a wealthy philanthropist and returns home in triumph to her beloved school. At the moment of her greatest joy a shadowy figure emerges to blackmail Sylvia. She is forced to either flee, or have her tragic and shameful past revealed.”
Sylvia’s “tragic and shameful past” involves the lynching of her adoptive parents after they’re wrongly accused of murder and attempted rape at the hands of her white father. These scenes are played out in a series of extended flashbacks weaved together with stark cross-cuts that exemplify the brutality they illustrate.
Often cited as the director’s critical response to D. W. Griffith Birth of Nation (1915), which is hampered by racism and historical inaccuracies, Micheaux reportedly said that Within Our Gates was actually a direct response to the social instability following World War I. The film was shot in Chicago, a city that suffered race riots in 1919 during the infamous Red Summer when horrific white on black crime was widely reported across the Nation. The film’s damning assessment of lynch mobs and emphasis on white racism and violence raised plenty of eyebrows at the time. Many feared that Within Our Gates would contribute to the social unrest throughout the country so some theaters refused to show the film and others made extensive cuts that removed the lynching and attempted rape.
Along with Micheaux’s deft handling of highly controversial material, the film benefits from a standout performance from the lovely Evelyn Preer. Preer was born in Mississippi in 1896 and grew up in Chicago where she got her start performing in minstrel shows and vaudeville. In 1918 she began her working relationship with Oscar Micheaux and went on to appear in nine of the director’s films but only Within Our Gates has survived.
Preer’s performance as the suffering but persevering Sylvia is a stand out due to her natural charisma and ability to convey a well of pent up emotions. It’s impossible to forget the extended scenes where she’s forced to fight off her father’s sexual advances. A wild mane of long black curls frames her oval face and her wide-eyes beautifully convey her fear and sadness. It’s no wonder that Preer became one of the most admired and beloved African-American performers of her time.
Preer’s screen career extended to the stage where she received critical acclaim for her roles in black productions of many plays such as Oscar Wilde’s Salomé and John Willard’s The Cat and the Canary. She also performed in musical cabarets and recorded a number of songs, including a few with famed bandleader Duke Ellington. In the late 1920s, she began working with the Christie Film Company in Hollywood making sound films. One of the few that has survived is Melancholy Dame (1929), where she excelled in comedy and she eventually became a contract player with Paramount. Sadly, Preer died early in 1932 at the young age of 36 just months after giving birth to her first child. Her funeral in Los Angeles was reportedly attended by 10,000 people who mourned the actress with tearful songs and remembrances. Today we only have a handful of her films and recordings to admire but Preer’s talent is undeniable and you can see her at her best in Within Our Gates airing this coming Sunday on TCM.
TCM’s Pioneers of African-American Cinema programing is a cross promotion with Kino Lorber’s upcoming five-disc DVD box set of the same name, which will be released next Tuesday. Jacqueline Najuma Stewart was one of the curators of the set and fellow Morlock R. Emmet Sweeney had a hand in the production. According to the Kino Lorber website, “This collection of the works of America’s legendary first African-American filmmakers is the only one of its kind. Funded in part by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, the packaged set includes no fewer than a dozen feature-length films and nearly twice as many shorts and rare fragments. Subject matter includes race issues that went unaddressed by Hollywood for decades.” For more information about Kino Lorber’s upcoming release please see their website.
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