The Story of Eve: The Sexy Twenties Part III


The Story of Eve: Sinner, Saint and Part-time Movie Star

And in the interim, the first Black screen goddess made her debut in King Vidor’s all Black musical Hallelujah (1929).

Nearing the last rows, the group burst into song, singing to the
heavens…Good, gentle folk, the Johnson’s are pictured as serene
and complicated–as long as their basic instincts are kept in check.
When these are unleashed, however, trouble’s a brewin’…In this
case, trouble proves to be…full-bosomed, spicy cabaret dancer,
Chick (Bogle, 1973; pp. 28-29).

So Hollywood hadn’t changed so much after all! Director King Vidor’s portrayal of Black folk was both racist and unrealistic. The images he conjured up were not based on people, but on his own fantasies. Thus the problems of “The Negro,” as articulated by Vidor, did not spring from living in an oppressive society but from Black folks own inadequacies. Ergo, there are no White characters in Hallelujah.

For Vidor, sexual women–especially sexual women of Color–were the embodiment of evil and the gateway that opens the door to humankind’s “baser instincts.” He would pull the same filmic stunt, years later, with Indian women in Duel In the Sun.
Chick, played by actress Nina Mae Mckinny, is trouble in paradise and she is not “real.”

She represents Vidor’s obsession with Black and Brown sexuality; his dark meat fantasy. His dark Eve. She is half-white and, split in two: a character at war with herself. Her black half symbolized her sexuality, her white half her viginal twin.

Against McKinny’s simmering sexuality, Vidor placed Hallalujah’s good girls, “Missy Rose” and “Mammy Bowser; both asexual. For love and lust Zeke turns his back on his own family and on Missy Rose. Ultimately, in a fit of jealous rage, Zeke kills Chick.

Many critics did not take kindly to Vidor’s portrayal of Black life. “One letter to the editor of a black paper charged that King Vidor’s ‘filthy hands were reeking with prejudice.’ Another writer referred to the movie’s ‘insulting niggerisms'” (Leab. 1975; p. 93).
The irony is that Vidor had tried to make a break from Hollywood’s stereotypes about Blacks–even going so far as to consult Harold Garrison, the great-grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd. But he failed miserably.

As the British critic John Garrison later remarked:”I note from a
publicity puff that Vidor freed the Negro from misunderstanding
just as Abe Lincoln freed him from slavery. Both statements are
exaggerated (Leab, 1975; 93).

References: Leish, K W, Cinema. 1974
Bogle, D. Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies, and Bucks. 1973
Leab, D.J., From Sambo to Superspade, 1975

Copyright Valjeanne Jeffers 2013, Valjeanne Jeffers-Thompson, 1997 all rights reserved.


The Story of Eve: The Sexy Twenties Part II


The Story of Eve: Sinner, Saint and Part-time Movie Star

As films edged into the 1920s, the dreamweavers got raw. Indeed, the ’20s has been decribed as one of the most liberated of film eras. Let’s just take a peek, shall we?

Enter “Flappers:” wild thangs who liked living on the edge. These young women drank booze from silver flasks, rode with fast young in fast cars, and had sex–and plenty of it.

“The studios presented an endless stream of films about America’s flaming youth; movies in which flappers and boyfriends drove fast cars, used hip flasks and partipated in wild orgies…that lasted until dawn,” (Kenneth W. Leish, Cinema, 1974; p.45).

I know you’re asking “what’s the catch?” Did flappers die in car crashes, or wind up in poverty? Or were they cruel, heartless monsters (like Bara) who filmically sucked the life’s blood of innocent men?

The answer is none of above. About the worst thing that happened to these young women was that they got married (although there was a catch as we’ll see later).

And Hollywood didn’t stop there. The dreamweavers began to portray unfaithful wives in films such as Male and Female, Three Weeks and Don’t Change Your Husband. In these movies sex-starved wives had affairs because they weren’t getting any TLC at home. And directors depicted these liaisons as perfectly acceptable. In Three Weeks for example:

A young queen escapes from her loveless life for a brief period, during which a handsome commoner makes passionate love to her, first on a bed of roses and later on tiger skins. At the end of three weeks she returns to her people, thoroughly satisfied (Leish, 1974; p.46).

What on earth was going on? The answer lies in an economy that was booming. World War I had only recently ended. The war had generated a lot of jobs for everbody–including African American men and women and White women. The Great Migration (1910-1930)–thousands of Black folk fleeing the South for the promised land– had already begun. Hollywood’s generous attitude toward White women was a reflection of this post-war affluence.

Yet, as history has shown us, when some are enslaved there can only be so much freedom for everyone else.

Meanwhile, the first Black screen goddess made her debut in King Vidor’s musical: Hallelujah (1929).

MoMA | King Vidor’s

Hallelujah took as its theme the age old problem of Good Colored
Boy going bad and the battle between the callings of the spirit and
temptations of the flesh. The film opens on the idyllic little
Johnson farm where the family–Pappy Johnson, Mammy, their adopted
daughter Missy Rose, their eldest son Zeke, and their youngest boys
–energetically gather the cotton harvest (Bogle, 1973; pp.28-29).

To be continued…

References: Leish, K W, Cinema. 1974
Bogle, D. Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies, and Bucks. 1973

Copyright Valjeanne Jeffers 2013, Valjeanne Jeffers-Thompson, 1997 all rights reserved.

Atlas Shrugged Hits Theaters… And It Ain’t a Coincidence

I’ve never been one who held much stock in coincidence. And I’m very familiar with Hollywood’s subtle, and not so subtle efforts to sway politics and values. Susan Faludi wrote about this in Backlash. And I further explored it in The Story of Eve. When, for example, women began moving in the workplace and demanding equal treatment, movies about the joys of motherhood and having babies, babies and more babies started popping up all over the place; along with quite a few movies in which strong female characters were fimically “killed off…”

But that’s another story. Let’s stick to the subject, shall we? The movie Atlas Shrugged, which was just released, is based on the novel by Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand, in her politics and fiction, advocates the type of society in which the most vulnerable are left to their own devices… the poor, the sick, the victims of storms, the elderly…Just left to sink or swim. Don’t bother me with your problems, you’re on your own. This of course would mean doing away with medicare and social security. Ron Reagan described Ayn Rand (MSNBC) as a sociopath.

Now does the name Ayn Rand ring a bell? Ayn Rand was someone who Paul Ryan (yes the VP nominee) said: “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.”

This, of course, became quite uncomfortable for him when it was revealed that Rand believed in “an extremist vision of America that celebrated greed and selfishness, rejected altruism as “evil” and opposed the fundamental tenets of Judeo-Christian morality. (She was also a militant atheist who favored abortion.)” Paul Ryan is Catholic and rabidly pro-life. He only believes abortion should be allowed in cases of rape and incest– and until very recently was in favor of changing the defintion of rape to rape vs forcible rape.

I’ve always believed in facts. In evidence. So what are the facts? Fact 1: We have an election coming up in less than a month that may very well restructure America as we know it. Fact 2: The next president will get to appoint two Supreme Court Justices who can overturn Roe vs. Wade. Fact 3: Not to mention Social Security could be privatized and Medicare turned into a vocher system. Yep. Just give granny a coupon and tell her to shop around for her health care. Fact 4: Corporations have pledged billions to defeat President Obama.

If President Obama is re-elected we don’t have to worry about this. If the other guy takes office… well that’s another story. Ayn Rand’s dream of a society for the super rich where haves have, and the have nots starve comes to pass.

Now I wonder, why on earth would Hollywood release Atlas Shrugged less than a month before the presidential election. Do the corporations think a movie is going to sway our feelings? Drum up support for Romney? The same corporations that have spent so much money to defeat President Obama?

Yes. That’s exactly what they think. Let’s prove them wrong.

References: Is Paul Ryan for or Against Ayn Rand?

Romney comments about the 47% who think they’re victims.

The Story of Eve: The Genius of Oscar Micheaux

Clip from Body and Soul

As the era rocked on, only one Black dreamweaver survived the competition from Hollywood and even the Great Depression: Oscar Micheaux.

“In 1931, when most black independants were closing up shop he released The Exile, the first all-talking motion picture made by a black company. For almost thirty years, Micheaux wrote, directed, produced almost thirty-four pictures. His last film, The Betrayal, released in 1948 was promoted as ‘the Greatest Negro Photoplay of all time.'” ( Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Bogle, 1973, 2001). He is also the author of seven books (e.g. Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer and The Forged Note)

Micheaux’s company would too eventually fold. Small, Black film companies that did not have the same budget and audience as Hollywood could not possibly compete with Tinsel Town. Yet Oscar Micheaux was a genuis. A visionary. And his movies were decades ahead of their time.

Like other independants, Micheaux was trying to entertain a mostly Black audience. But his race movies had a twist. For while his films touted Bourgoise values, he did not shy away from depicting social problems– like intraracism and prostitution. Micheaux’s honesty did not exactly endear him to movie critics (From Sambo to Superspade, Daniel Leab, 1975).

Although he initially received high praise from the Black press, in time critics began to take him to task for his depiction of the African American community (Leab, 1975). Film critic Lester Walton, though he praised the Micheaux movie, The Brute (starring prizefighter Sam Lanford) was offended by the scenes of crap dives and wife beating (Leab, 1975). Walton said in no uncertain terms that scenes like these contributed to negative sterotypes of African Americans, and really weren’t very different from the attitudes of the White press.

Micheaux, for the most part, turned a deaf ear to his critics. And in his portrayal of Black women, he was in a class by himself–even today. He brought women of a different social class to the screen (Bowser, 1970). In The Brute, for example he exposed the rackets, prostitution and inner conflicts about caste and color–his female characters were easy prey for hustlers including a jackleg preacher whose terrian was both urban and rural (Bowser, 1970).

One of Micheaux’s most brilliant creations was Body and Soul, starring the late, great Paul Robeson in his first screen debut. The plot revolves around the Black laundry woman, her daughter and the handsome preacher. The mother has set aside all her savings for her daughter’s eventual marriage to the right man (Bowser, 1970). Yet her uncounscious, sexual fantasies about her daughter’s fiancee are revealed in a nightmare.

That Micheaux would even fimically tackle a subject as weighty as “unconscious sexual fantasy” is testimony to his genuis and vision placing him with– if not above– the best European directors of his day.

Yet it would take more than the dreaweavers portayal of Black folks to make a difference in our oppression. It would take a World War II.

To be continued…
Copyright Valjeanne Jeffers-Thompson, Valjeanne Jeffers 1997, 2012
all rights reserved.

The Story of Eve: The Early Years (continued)

One of the most disturbing things about Black independant movies was the intraracism: by this I mean the tendency to use lighter-skinned perfomers to play the parts of heroines and heroes (a trend which is still very popular in today’s films).

Now again I ask the reader to remember that these are Black filmmakers making films for Black patrons– yet no one is rasing an eyebrow about a practice which is so obviously indicative of self-hatred: expressing distaste for the color of one’s own skin.

Another unsettling trend, was the manner in which Black women were portrayed. While the filmmaker sung her praises putting her on a pedastal as wife and mother, the Black woman on screen was rarely, if ever, heroic (Pearl Bowser, Black Film History p. 50). In race movies, as they were called, she was helpless, rarely a winner, often unlucky in love and frequently lost her man, her status or both (Bowser, p.50).

Sisters were also, filmically symbolized as the receptacle for the sins of the race (Sound familiar?). Within this motif, the Black woman was depicted as a stumbling block which blocked the heroes path to success–an obstacle which he must overcome (e.g.Scar of Shame, 1927).

Tell how different are things today? Did (do) the dreamweavers create these images to depict the fact that Black women were catching hell? Or were they designed to cage Sisters?

One African American independant stood apart from the rest. Oscar Micheaux.

To be continued…

Copyright Valjeanne Jeffers, Valjeanne Jeffers-Thompson 1997, 2012 all rights reserved. Excerpts from The Story of Eve have been published in PurpleMag.

The Story of Eve: The Early Years… Continued

W.D. Griffith (Birth of a Nation) had provocatively endorsed racism and sexism. But he had also made money. From this point forward, until around the 1980s, Black folks would never be portrayed as outright villians– that was far too controversial. But for the remainder of the silent film era, and as films began to “speak,” we would be depicted as mammies, jezebels, and uncle toms.

In response to the negative imagery of White Hollywood, the Black dreamweavers emerged–African American independant filmmakers. These independants were in business as early as 1913, making movies such as The Butler, The Grafter and The Maid. And they were not at all opposed to featuring other folks of color as perfomers.

While I find it admirable that the Black dreamweavers included other Black and Brown folks in their films, it disturbs me as Hollywood was busy making clowns out us, we turned around and (sometimes) pandered to the same stereotypes. For example, in the 1921 Lincoln production of By Right of Birth was the tale of Romero a Mexican-American stockbroker who was cheating Blacks and Indians out of valuble oil lands (Leab, 1975). Comic relief was provided in the film by Romero’s chaffeur, Pinky (Leab, 1975).

To be continued…
Copyright Valjeanne Jeffers, Valjeanne Jeffers-Thompson 1997, 2012 all rights reserved.

The Story of Eve: The Early Years… The journey continues

Let us examine W.D. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation (1915): one of the racist movies of all time, as well as one of the biggest money makers in film history. Birth of A Nation was the slavery ideal come to life, and two families: the Cameron and the Stoneman were pivotal to its plot.

“Dr. Cameron and his sons are gently benevolent ‘fathers’ to their childlike servants. The servants themselves could be no happier. In the fields they contentedly pick cotton. In the quarters they dance and sing for their master. In the big house Mammy joyously goes about her chores. All is in order. Everyone knows his place. Then the civil war breaks out and the old order cracks.” (Danny Bogel Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films 1973 p.12)

The war years are terrible! In the South there is [title card/Birth of a Nation]: “ruin, devastation, rapine and pillage!” Lions, and tigers and bears –oh my! Reconstruction begins and now a band of uppity Northern darkies and low life Yankee carpetbaggers enter the picture.

They corrupt the former slaves — who then turn on their good and loving masters. Who will save the South?

Into this conflict, Griffith introduced Lillian Gish: as “Flora Cameron” as one of the first — if not the first Silver Screen virgins. As Flora Cameroon, Gish played a frail, blond teenager menaced by Griffith’s next creation: “Gus,” the “brutal, Black buck.” Gus was the Southern nightmare of the Black rapist come to life.

Of course, according to Southern mythology, the only reason Black men wanted freedom was so they could rape White women — picking cotton 16 hours (and without pay) had nothing to do with it. Cast beside Gus, Flora became an icon: a blond symbol of virginity.

At the other end of the purity spectrum stood “Austin Stoneman:” abolitionist and all around bad guy. What’s more he has a Black mistress: “Lydia Brown!” Stoneman’s character was actually patterned to resemble Thaddeus Stevens, a true to life antislavery congressional leader and is he’s thus depicted as: the leader who would force the South to grant blacks equal rights.

Lydia as both his housekeeper and mistress is described as the “the weakness that is to blight a nation” (Leab, 1975 P.27). Too Black to pass for White, yet too White to live among her own kind, Lydia is the classic tragic mulatto and a powerful symbol.

She is the femme fatale: the archetypal bitch who leaves death and destruction in her wake. Notice, readers if you will, her “male” characteristics: she is power hungry, aggressive and refuses to humble herself before White males.

Throughout Birth of a Nationshe anguishes over her predicament as a Black woman in a hostile white world (Bogle, 1973; p.14).

And Lydia is (drum roll if you please) sexual. No greater sin hath any woman. In fact, she is Birth of Nation’s only passionate woman. Thus the myth of passion and sexuality as evil, as Original Sin, and of woman as its bearer was recreated on the Silver Screen.

…[Austin] determined to bring the South to its knees after its defeat is momentarily trapped by her Lydia’s animalistic vibes… [She] “is his one weakness and the cause of his downfall (Bowser, p. 44)

Juxtaposed between two polarities of Black and White stood Mammy: the asexual, Aunt Tomasina fiercely devoted to preserving the status quo. Griffith ever the demonic genius added another element to the Mammy configuration: Sapphire, a creature one part Mammy, one part Amazon; the Black woman who is an shrew in her relationship with Black men, the mythic ball buster and castrator of the Black male.

Sapphire would become a full blown myth during the 1930s (Amos and Andy) to be reborn as the Black Matriarch of the 1960s. Whatever else Griffith was, he was a trend setter, and the molds he cast dominated the Silver Screen for decades to come. For example in his portrayal of Mammy as dark skinned, he set the stage for the typecasting of darker Black women as unattractive well into the Civil Rights era.

A dark black actress was considered for no role but that of a mammy or aunt jemima. On the other hand, the part-black woman — the light skinned Negress — was given a chance at lead parts and graced with a modicum of sex appeal…In fact it was said in 1958 and 1970 that the reason why such actresses as Eartha Kitt in Anna Lucasta and Lola Falana in The Liberation of L.B. Jones failed to emerge as important screen love goddess was that they were too dark (Bogle, 1973; p.15).

Copyright Valjeanne Jeffers 1997, 2009, 2012 all rights reserved
Excerpts from The Story of Eve have been published in PurpleMag 2010