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Black film history at Universal


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I was surprised how difficult it was to study Black film history for this video - there seemed to be so little information out there. Less surprising was how much oppression there was, and how roles really did play racist caricatures or simply reinforce the status quo - like exclusively casting Black people as maids, chefs, drivers, etc. Can you guys think of any studio films before the 1940s that broke the norm and cast a Black actor otherwise? 

 

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1 hour ago, antoniacarlotta said:

I was surprised how difficult it was to study Black film history for this video - there seemed to be so little information out there. Less surprising was how much oppression there was, and how roles really did play racist caricatures or simply reinforce the status quo - like exclusively casting Black people as maids, chefs, drivers, etc. Can you guys think of any studio films before the 1940s that broke the norm and cast a Black actor otherwise? 

The great Paul Robeson often received top billing for such films as "The Emperor Jones" (United Artists, 1933), a drama based on the stage play by Eugene O'Neill.

See the source image

 

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Leigh Whipper as Crooks in OF MICE AND MEN (1939). Having played the same role on Broadway, Crooks was a sympathetic character and not the patented black stereotype found in so many other films of that period. Of note, Whipper was also one of the founders of the Negro Actors Guild of America.

MV5BY2MxZTViM2UtMjkzZi00ZjgzLTgxNDctYTJm

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2 hours ago, jakeem said:

The great Paul Robeson often received top billing for such films as "The Emperor Jones" (United Artists, 1933), a drama based on the stage play by Eugene O'Neill.

See the source image

 

I suppose this fits the description of my question since it's a different type of role, but wasn't this movie seen as superbly racist and problematic, even at the time it was released? This may not fall under the umbrella of maids, drivers, etc but I'd argue it still reinforced the status quo...or worse.

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19 minutes ago, antoniacarlotta said:

I suppose this fits the description of my question since it's a different type of role, but wasn't this movie seen as superbly racist and problematic, even at the time it was released? This may not fall under the umbrella of maids, drivers, etc but I'd argue it still reinforced the status quo...or worse.

Well, we are talking about a 1930s film, which means there probably weren't any inspiring major releases about Blacks until the 1940s. "The Emperor Jones" has its moments, but it was chewed up for the most part by code restrictions.

Fortunately, independent Black filmmakers (most notably Oscar Micheaux) tried to fill the void.

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Sorry AC, I can't think of any examples to give you which were made in the 1930s, but I will say that the very first movie I remember seeing years ago on TV and which starred a black man as a complex individual and which allowed the actor who played him to flesh out his character in a fashion much more than as just a stereotype, would be the role James Edwards played as a WWII soldier in 1949's Home of the Brave...shown here with Lloyd Bridges and Frank Lovejoy...

Home_Brave_1949_668-613x463.jpg

It is often said that "without a James Edwards, there might not have been a Sidney Poitier".

(..unfortunately, Mr. Edwards would die in 1970 of a heart attack at the relative young age of 42)

 

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I've always been impressed by Rex Ingram's performance in George Stevens' 1942 comedy "The Talk of the Town." The Black actor played Tilney, the non-stereotypical valet to a respected law professor (Ronald Colman). The film, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), also starred Cary Grant and Jean Arthur.

Conversations Over Chai: Talk of the Town (1942)

 

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  • 1 month later...

Sorry to hijack this thread, but it seems like the best most recent topic to add this MOMA film to:

This was linked on the National Carousel Association FB page because of the early carousel's historical significance. Note the brass ring arm. I love how some ladies are sitting astride while others sidesaddle. It goes pretty fast, I could see how they'd slide right off!

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Clarence Brooks as the Howard Unversity-educated Haitian physician Dr. Oliver Marchand in Arrowsmith (1931).  He was in only two other movies; his day job was musician.

I actually read the book before seeing the movie.  I was half-expecting the movie either to eliminate the character, make the character white, or turn the serious character into a bad joke.  I was pleasantly surprised that not only was the character in the film, but played right as it was originally written by Sinclair Lewis.

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On 6/25/2020 at 2:17 PM, TomJH said:

Leigh Whipper as Crooks in OF MICE AND MEN (1939). Having played the same role on Broadway, Crooks was a sympathetic character and not the patented black stereotype found in so many other films of that period. Of note, Whipper was also one of the founders of the Negro Actors Guild of America.

Leigh Whipper also shone as Momba in King of the Zombies (1941).

cap1161.jpg?resize=400,300

From left, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, who was the first black actor to receive a contract from a major studio; Leigh Whipper, Marguerite Whitten, Mantan Moreland.

 

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Clarence Muse was an actor who was more likely to play atypical, that is, more normal, roles.  And even in the stereotypical roles of butler or servant, he performed in an atypical manner.  A role that stands out is in a movie called Black Moon (1934), where he plays a charter sailboat owner.

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