The Story of Eve: The Sexy Twenties Part III

ninamaemckinney_t588

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 Sexy Twenties Part II

normatalmadge

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

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).

Hallelujah
MoMA | King Vidor’s Hallelujahwww.moma.org

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.

The Story of Eve: The Sexy Twenties

Theda Bara

“The business of films is the business of dreams…but then dreams are scrambled messages from waking life, and there is true in lies too,” (America in the Movies, Michael Woods, 1975; p. 16).

Mary Pickford was Lilian Gish’s (The Birth of A Nation) first successor, and she soon became a star playing childish, virginal roles. Pickford starred in such family films such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Poor Little Rich Girl. Unfortunately for her, audiences refused to accept her in more mature roles. She retired in 1928, after a lifetime of playing teenage virgins (Leish, 1974).

At the opposite end of the purity spectrum stood Theda Bara who debuted as a femme fatale in the 1915 production of A Fool There Was.
Bara became famous on screen as a femme fatale– known for her sexual wiles, and for destroying sucessful, gullible men.

Native Americans also made their debut shortly before the 1920s: as savages attacking White women and helpless settlers in covered wagons. Of course these weren’t real “Indians,” they were White performers in red face. Interesting enough, they appeared in films just as the radical pan-Indian movement of the 1920s was taking shape (draw your own conclusions). Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) a dynamic Sioux leader founded the the National Council of American Indians during this era. By the 1920s, Native Americans had drawn attention to the kidnapping of their children (“off-reservation schooling), to reservation disease and poverty (Amott & Matthaie, 1991).

Yet 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.
To be continued…

Copyright Valjeanne Jeffers-Thompson, Valjeanne Jeffers 1997, 2012 all rights reserved.
Excerpts from The Story of Eve have been published In PurpleMag 2010

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 Eve Syndrome


Picture taken from MysticPolitics

i found god in myself, and i loved her, i loved her fiercely
~Ntzozake Shrange

Before beginning, I’d like to state for the record that I am a Christian– a forward thinking, leftist progressive Christian — but a Christian nonetheless. I think it makes my discussion even more powerful. So, with that being said let us go forth…

It is in ancient Western Civilization, before the birth of Jesus Christ, that the mythology of American culture began. Imagery that became fantasy in television, film and music. It is here that the myth of woman as doppleganger began.

The myth of woman as janus-headed bitch-goddess, or as virgin-whore, is both racist and sexist. Within this paradigm, the image of God is distorted so that He is perceived as a racist patriarch. At this mythology’s core is the oppression of all. According to this myth, if woman is virgin she is both the chattle and nurturer of man.

This synergy of racism and sexism, within American culture is easily typified by ongoing myths of Black women, for example in the myth of the “mammy:” the stereotype of submissive (often elderly) Black female who works Whites and is obsessively devoted to them.

Bell Hooks, in Ain’t I a Woman (1981) gives a brilliant description of the literary mammy:

“She was first and foremost asexual…she also had to give the impression of not being clean so she was the wearer of a great dirty head rag; her too tight shoes from which emerged her large feet was further confirmation of her bestial cow-like quality. Her greatest virtue of course was her love for white folks whom she willingly and passively served.”

Although Mammy first emerged in literature, she later made her way to films and TV (for example in Gone With the Wind). She’s centuries old, and has had countless face-lifts. But Mammy still endures as a popular media stereotype (e.g. in the popular film, The Help).

Thus the ideal woman, the virgin, is without sexual desire; or she has desires man dominates and controls them. She is passive and she poses no threat to the social or political order. She, and only she, mythic goddess, is worthy of becoming wife and mother.

This is the reasoning behind the anti-abortion movement. In the minds of conservatives, women’s bodies — including their reproductive organs– are the property of men.

In contrast, if a woman is not virgin then she is mythic whore. Whores are agressive, self-actualizing and passionate. Whores have their own minds and they are independant. They are the possessors of their own sexual desires: a whore’s sexuality is her’s, and her’s alone, to control. Thus, within the paradigm of media and religious mythology, a whore is only good for one thing: to be used sexually and then tossed aside.

As part of this brainwashing, men and women are socialized to believe that love and passion are antitheical. You can have one or the other. But not both. And this ideology is embedded within American media. In films for example, it was only during the last decade that we began to see men and women passionately– and sexually– loving one another without one or both of them being killed off in the plot.

To be continued…
Copyright Valjeanne Jeffers 2012, Copyright Valjeanne Jeffers-Thompson 1997 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?