The Story of Eve: The Sexy Twenties Part III

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The Story of Eve: Sinner, Saint and Part-time Movie Star
THE SEXY TWENTIES: PART III

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.

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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.

Strong women in movies

I’m a scifi addict and I’m sure I spend way too much time watching science fiction movies. But one thing I’ve noticed recently is the tendency of strong female characters to be killed or left without a man in scifi movies. Cases in point: Catwoman (starring Halley Berry) discovers her awesome abilities and has to leave the man she loves; Jean/The X-Men becomes the phoenix and she’s killed (not what happened in the comic book by the way); and Rogue/The X-Men who has to live a life without human physical contact. This brings to mind 1980s movies, scifi and otherwise, which killed off strong women in movies — or left them without men. Passion has often been portrayed in American media as something dangerous; men and women in film can have neutral, lukewarm sexless relationships (for example, in Batman Begins); but no more. And women’s right to be sexual; their right to chose, their ability to be good single parents ect is demonized in movies; especially during conservative political perids. Like the one we just came out of. I’m not making this up: Susan Faludi in Backlash said the same during in 1992; that the media had since the late 1980s waged war against the feminist gains of women. Media reflects the political spirit of our times. And come to think of it has has become more conservative over the last eight years. I feel like motherhood, marriage, and the “dangers” of being raised without a father are being shoved down our throats in film and movies. But peep this: President Obama grew up in single parent home. Ok, with a lot of support from his grandparents — this is still a break from the traditional two parent home. How, I wonder, will Obama impact the media portrayal of family values? Of women? And single parent homes?

Media and the hood…A new beginning?

I just had a very intense discussion with a young man about “the street”
— “the hood” and its importance to African American media. And I feel compelled to share my response just to get it off my chest.
Black folks read by lamplight as slaves with the threat of death hanging over their heads. At the turn of the century there were 100s of Black doctors, lawyers, teachers (over a 1000). I shared the “beef” as it were between Booker T. Washington and WEB Dubois. Washington’s advice to Black folks was to “cast down your buckets where you are:” take whatever White folks give you and make it work. WEB Dubois in contrast advocated the “talented tenth”: the most gifted of our race would lead the others to economic and intellectual prosperity. Rather than contasting these two historic giants as right or wrong, I pointed out that each was speaking from his own worldview. Booker T. Washingston, was no Uncle Tom. He was trying to map out a strategy for our survival: in the South African Americans were being lynched weekly. I finished with a discussion of the Civil Rights movement — emphasizing the waterhoses and dogs used to subdue the activists. And I speculated that these brothers and sisters must be rolling over in their graves. “I gave my life for this s–t?! So Black folks could shoot each other down in the street likes dogs?!”. Is any of this celebrated in mainstream media. Nope. What we get is thugs, bling and b—-es. I concluded my rant with a sumary of all we’re doing today — the countless blue and white collar workers; their sucess and struggle. This never seems to make it to the TV screen either.
Except that President Obama made history. They couldn’t keep that quiet — couldn’t keep it off the news. Now perhaps the media will begin to celebrate the beauty that is Black America instead of “the hood.” And to my brothers and Sisters let’s do the same. As we enter a new year let’s celebrate ourselves: all we’ve been through; all we’ve accomplished; and look with hope to the coming era. And in 2009 let’s ask
— let’s demand that the media celebrate the positive things about the Black community. Or at least give us some variety.

A Movie about Biggie Smalls? Hollywood Cut it Out!

A movie about Biggie Smalls? Please stop! I’m a Black woman — and as a Black woman I’m bone tired of watching movies about my folks going to jail, rapping or playing sports. We do other things: we are doctors we are lawyers, we are teachers — damn we just elected a black president! My youngest son pointed out that if they made a movie about any rapper it should’ve been Tupac. But I guess to present a media portrait of an intellectual whose mother was a panther and is still an activist would’ve been too much like common sense — like fair. Don’t get me wrong: I actually liked Biggie and I think what he was able to accomplish from such humble beginnings was outtasite. But I don’t like what rap became during the late 1980s — how it was transformed from protest music into a commercialized product which celebrates the worst aspects of African American culture; and which in recent studies has been actually linked to violence, promiscuity and poor academic performance in children. Do I sound like I have a chip on my shoulder? Sorry but too many of us are asleep and movies like these don’t help the cause. This is some more mainstream media garbage to convince Black children to limit their aspirations. I feel like I’ve been warped back in time and I’m watching a pop eyed Black butler on the silver screen. He’s wearing white gloves and trailing behind a handsome White actor:”… Lawdy, lawdy I jus knows she loves you suh’…” Fast forward to Jackie Robinson… Nat King Cole…Lena Horne. Our firsts and their tokens. A whole lotta folks sacrificed and some of them died so African Americans could aspire to something more so that we could move past these historic firsts;so we wouldn’t be confined to stereotypes and to show America — through the media — Black folks could do something besides chase balls, go to jail and entertain.