'Race' Movies: Separate and Unequaled

Susan King is a Times staff writer

Turner Classic Movies' monthlong festival "Separate Cinema," which begins Wednesday on the cable network, is the first major television retrospective of "race" movies--independently made films starring black performers and directed and written by black filmmakers.

Unlike mainstream Hollywood movies that invariably offered demeaning stereotypes of African Americans, these low-budget black films--produced between 1916 and 1950--tackled such subject matters as racism, blacks passing themselves off as white and lynching.

"We feel this is a very important part of our film history," says Tom Karsch, senior vice president of programming for TCM. "The message hasn't gotten out nearly as loudly as it should."

Two years ago, TCM showed a few "race" films during Black History Month. "It was at that point we felt it was a very interesting topic," Karsch says. "It was an area that was very unexploited. It was an area that people needed to learn more about. We might not get watched by mass audiences, but we felt so strongly it was important to be seen."

The TCM festival will feature 29 films, including movies starring Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Spencer Williams and Herbert Jeffrey. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, who appeared in "race" movies early in their careers, will host the evenings.

The series kicks off with the 1994 "American Masters" documentary "Midnight Ramble," which derives its title from the fact that white movie theaters would often show these films after midnight; "Within Our Gates," a 1920 film directed by the most prolific black filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux; and the world premiere of the restored version of Micheaux's 1921 drama "Symbol of the Unconquered," which had been lost for several decades.

TCM's marketing group learned about the existence of "Symbol of the Unconquered" while doing research for this festival.

"During the course of our research, we learned there was this priceless gem of a film that they discovered in a vault in Belgium. We felt it was a great centerpiece to the festival."

"Symbol of the Unconquered" stars Walter Thompson as a homesteader--a frontiersman in the oil-rich Northwest--who is nearly forced off his land by the Ku Klux Klan. Despite the Klan, he prospers in the oil business and marries a neighboring homesteader.

Richard P. May, vice president of Film Preservation, Warner Bros. and supervisor of the restoration, explains that the Museum of Modern Art acquired this print from the Belgium Cinematheque.

The problem, he says, is that the film had Flemish title cards. "TCM had made arrangements with a professor at Yale, Charles Musser [of the Oscar Micheaux Society] to do a translation into English. It became my responsibility to get the titles made up and [supervise] the laboratory work."

The print, May says, was in pretty decent shape. "It does have built-in scratches and damage, which happens on many things that get found and have been around for 70 years."

But it is also missing a reel. "It is not complete. There is a gap. We have four reels. Maybe it was five reels." The story line from the missing footage is now provided on a title card.


More than 300 of the 500 black independent films made between 1916 and 1950 have been lost. In fact, it's estimated that fewer than 100 exist.

But according to professor Thomas Cripps, who has written several books about black cinema, more and more of these films are being discovered.

"The fascinating thing is that they sit around in warehouses because often processing labs took in the negatives as a kind of collateral, because they were not big studios which had a line of credit, nor were they studios that had their own processing plants. I think they are going to be discovered for years. Each time a firm folds up or moves, there is a likelihood of something that is going to turn up."

For this festival, Karsch says, several films came from a collector who had found them in a vault in Texas. "He came to us knowing Turner had a library, so he actually approached me about having access to these films with prints that were pretty good-looking. That was another challenge, to get prints that still hold up."

Cripps says these films rarely get exposure because they seem like they're from "another culture. They are not Hollywood straight-line narratives with recognizable stars. They were shot in a way that is much more European than Hollywood, in that there were not endless retakes."

The themes, he says, "were stuff that no Hollywood studio would attempt. A race movie would be speaking to a direct issue in black circles. This is a people who were held down, and these movies held out a promise. Sometimes critics objected to [the films] saying this is an unreal world full of not only black criminals and their victims, but black cops, black judges. Yet that is part of the charm of them; it said that black people could be judges."


When to Watch

July 1: Oscar Micheaux Night

5 and 11:30 p.m.: "Midnight Ramble" (documentary)

6 and 11 p.m. and 1:45 a.m.: "Symbol of the Unconquered" (1921)

7 p.m.: "Within Our Gates" (1920)

9:30 p.m.: "Swing" (1938)

Midnight: "Scar of Shame" (1927)

July 8: Paul Robeson and Herbert Jeffrey

5 p.m.: "King Solomon's Mines" (1937)

6:30 p.m.: "Song of Freedom" (1936)

7:45 p.m.: "Jericho" (1937)

9:15 p.m.: "Two Gun Man From Harlem" (1938)

10:30 p.m.: "The Bronze Buckaroo" (1938)

11:30 p.m.: "Harlem Rides the Range" (1939)

July 15: Josephine Baker and Spencer Williams

5 p.m.: "Princess Tam Tam" (1935)

6:30 p.m.: "Zou Zou" (1934)

8:30 p.m.: "Go Down, Death" (1944)

9:30 p.m.: "The Blood of Jesus" (1941)

10:30 p.m.: "Dirty Gertie From Harlem, U.S.A." (1946)

11:45 p.m.: "Juke Joint" (1947)

July 22: Crime Stories

5 p.m.: "Dark Manhattan" (1937)

6:20 p.m.: "Mystery in Swing" (1940)

7:30 p.m.: "Gang War" (1940)

8:45 p.m.: "Miracle in Harlem" (1948)

10 p.m.: "Midnight Shadow" (1939)

11 p.m.: "Midnight Ramble"

July 29: Sports / Musicals

5 p.m.: "The Jackie Robinson Story" (1950)

6:30 p.m.: "The Spirit of Youth" (1937)

7:45 p.m.: "Keep Punching" (1939)

9:15 p.m.: "Duke Is Tops" (1938)

10:30 p.m.: "Broken Strings" (1940)

11:30 p.m.: "Junction '88" (1947)

12:45 a.m.: "Sepia Cinderella" (1947)

2 a.m.: "Boy! What a Girl" (1946)

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