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Blackface/Birth of a Nation/Oscar Micheaux/racism and prejudice


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Maybe I'm the only Black on this board but I thought I should reply maybe some won't post with me anymore but here goes. Speaking for myself I kind of gotten over getting mad at whites in blackface because many like Al Jolson for instance was actually paying homage to black performers by putting on a darker face and portraying black talent, slang and humor, than some were just making fun. The black entertainment is very evident in the classic Hollywood and Broadway. Many of the great stars credit Blacks as influencing them. Greta Garbo who never singed or danced or did anything containing to Black culture said blacks energy, heart, soul, left an impression on her and she tried to put some of that through her performances. As far as all the blackface it gets boresome but it shows what whites than thought of Blacks than and still today...nothing but "d a r k i e s" who are only good for singing and dancing. It just shows the ignorance and non-concern for others. You wouldn't see MaDonna, Britney Spears in blackface today because they know what will happen. But back then we had to sit back and take it because Blacks had no say. Maybe if more whites who were bold enough like Myrna Loy, Libby Holman, or Clark Gable to speak out about all the racism and stereotypes of Blacks, maybe it could of ended but most didn't care, it wasn't happening to them, they didn't want a black on their level anyway, they could care less about the "colored" but only to play the maid or servant or maybe to teach them how to sing and dance. It takes a strong one to go against the majority and to treat a black equal, in those days you didn't want to known as a n***** lover, that could end your career and you could be shunned but someone like Myrna Loy cared more about her fellow man than superiority and fame and fortune. Now, today, you got black comedians who make fun of whites, and whites have the nerve to get mad and say that's prejudice and racist, well I think what went around is coming around. Blacks had to sit back and take it than but I look at the talent not the color, some whites couldn't do that.

 

If they do show The Birth of a Nation than I hope they show Oscar Micheaux's answer to that film showing the truth about who was **** who and being violent and so on. Both of these movies shows the lies, deceit, corrupt, and why some of these beliefs are still present. Whites may very well get mad over Micheaux's, Blacks will of course get upset over Birth of a Nation, naturally, do we suppose to sit up and applaud it and overlook the cruelty and look at the great work? My heart goes out to the blacks who had to go through such hell for no reason, the stupidity, mentally ill is very apparent.

Could you sit through a movie without getting a little mad if you saw your race humiliated and ridiculed? But it shows how all the hate started and why it still is here and how it was breeded into the white race. It didn't happen over night and it won't end over night. If I was white I would be upset at seeing what my past ancestors did and it would really open my eyes.

 

White Hollywood had a racist label for all races, chinese, asian, mexican, blacks, orientals you name it. Even Hollywood did pictures on whites racism and prejudices toward non whites and none of them ever provided a reason for why. Merle Oberon had to pass for white to be a star, she couldn't as a Indian though she wasn't dark but it was in her blood. Fredi Washington was told if she passed, she would be as big as Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Constance Bennet, Claudette Colbert, she said, why can't I be what I am, though she was as white as them, she was a black woman and that's why. There's no telling how many did pass for white for fame and fortune. It wasn't all Hollywood's fault, they had to please the majority in America. Any actress who looked to ethnic was made to look more whiter because americans believed white was right and better, right because they knew how they would be treated if they weren't white, the very same people this country didn't belong to in the first place.

 

I don't believe in forgetting the past, the past lets us know where we come from and possibly where we going and how to make up for past bad behaviors. I think the past shows the ignorance, stupidity and having no reason for cruelty and brutality but having to use it to be number one and controlling. A lot of whites say forget the past, is it to keep their conscience clear? I feel why not talk about it, to try to get over it. Don't be offended if your not guilty. Ancestors past actions is still evident. We learn from the past why things happen the way it did.

I find it interesting that America apologized to the Chinese or Japanese for doing them wrong in ww2, and they wanted war with America, yet America apologized and repayed them, yet their thinking about whether to apologize to Blacks, they very people who been the most loyal, fought in all the wars for the white's freedom but didn't have full freedom here. Should have Blacks waged war with white america? Would that the only way to get respect. Food for thought!

Another thing, all the things that was thought of as ugly on blacks now is considered beauty...fuller lips, a voloptous behind, people don't want to be snow white anymore. Yet, many treat ones who really have darker skin badly. It's not about color, it's all about control, power and knowing who's boss.

 

I see a lot of partiality here at the board, you all know every white actor or actress there is but hardly any Black, you know a few token ones, the ones who meet your standards. Me, being an open minded person. I know basically all the white and black of classic entertainment and I don't put white over here and black over there. I judge all their beauty and talent together. I wish TCM wouldn't wait until black history month to play certain films, why not show them year round. It seems people want to honor the people who portray the talent but not the ones who created it and behind it. We don't ever hear about Willie Covan who taught white dancers many of their great choreography in the movies. We hear about Busby Berkeley, but they kept the black man hidden but not his genius of dancing. Ralph Cooper is never applauded for his work behind the scenes in "Poor Little Rich Girl," which is considered Shirley Temple's and Alice Faye's best. We all know if these were white men, they would talked about a great deal.

 

To reply to the one poster, I would be apart of the NAACP or any other black organization that would help blacks in their community by being their backbone, their voice, No one else would! It's apart of the black culture, helping, accomplishing, enduring, sacrificing, unity and through it all blood, sweat and tears but usually a win at the end. For the one poster, you don't have to join the **** to feel like your superior. Let's just try to make up for the past by being better people. If ones followed God's rule of looking at the heart and not judging outwardly appearance we would be a better people.

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very well said and I agree with you that Hollywood certainly had its share of prejudices--including GAYS---but we can't change history and The Birth of a Nation was representative of its time, like it or not. I think your idea of showing the Oscar Michaux film(s) as a balance is an excellent idea.

 

And I agree that the hypocrisy of Merle Oberon and Dinah Shore "passing" and having big careers while Fredi Washington (who was excellent in Imitation of Life) disappeared is just mindboggling. But on another level, even currently the big black and hispanic stars generally do not look like Hattie McDaniel or have accents like Lupe Velez. They basically "pass" even now. Whether it be Halle Berry or Jennifer Lopez.

 

It's interesting that the terrific Rita Moreno played mostly "whites" and that great actresses like Alfre Woodard and CCH Pounder get passed over in favor of Berry (who I think stinks on ice).... So on it goes.

 

I haven't seen Birth of a Nation in a long time, but other than the **** recuse scene I honestly can't remember any outright racist stuff.... Maybe I need to buy the DVD.....

 

Ed

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ayresorchids:

 

Not only do many of these films exist -- until a couple of years ago they used to play regularly on TCM during Black History Month. Changes in the Academy Awards schedule have led TCM to use February for the Salute to the Oscars, and the Black History Month special seems to be gone. The first year they did this, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were guest commentators on the movies and there was also a documentary about the movies ("A Separate Cinema"), which is worth seeking out.

 

The films themselves are not very impressive technically. They were made outside the mainstream, on budgets that would make a porno movie look expensive, and much of the acting is amateurish at best. The comedians usually steal the show, along with some excellent music. My favorites were Boy! What a Girl! (this is available quite inexpensively on DVD from the Alpha label), with Tim Moore, and a pair of Spencer Williams productions, Go Down, Death and The Blood of Jesus, made just before WW2, both crude (because they were made so cheaply) but fascinating. Most of the movies in the genre had an urban setting and characters, which was cheaper to film on rented sound stages, but the two pix by Williams deal with rural blacks and are shot partly outdoors.

 

There were about a dozen of these films that TCM used to show every February, plus a couple of Josephine Baker films from France, several Paul Robeson vehicles, some of Oscar Micheaux' silent films, and even the Herb Jeffries westerns about a black singing cowboy.

 

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We also did a month-long tribute to independent African-American filmmakers (including Oscar Micheaux) a few years ago (it was in July, not a part of Black History Month). We're planning an extensive look look at race in Hollywood next year, although it won't be a celebration of African-American filmmakers, rather an attempt to put films like "Birth of a Nation" and the Jolson films into a historical context.

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What a great topic! For anyone interested in learning more, I highly recommend Donald Bogle's book Toms, Coons, Mammies, Mulattoes & Bucks. It is a history of black actors in Hollywood. The title refers to the stereotyped roles that blacks were limited to in those days. Bogle's theme is that, although those roles were offensive, we should not forget that the actors who played them were gifted, and these fine performers deserve to be remembered and honored.

 

I went to see Gone With the Wind in a theatre once in San Francisco, and every time Hattie McDaniel appeared on screen, the audience broke out in appreciative cheering, laughter and applause. None of the other actors got that kind of reception. I don't think they were reacting this way because she was playing the typical cartoonish black servant. It was because she was larger than life, whip-smart, full of ginger and wonderfully funny. Her unforgettable, Oscar-winning performance as "Mammy" still seems fresh today and is a good example of the point that Bogle makes in his book: that a great performer can transcend the limitations of racial stereotypes.

 

Unfortunately, Hattie McDaniel as "Mammy" was the exception to the rule. Many more black performers played shuffling simpletons, lazy servants or Uncle Toms. It's uncomfortable to see such blatant racism on the screen today but as you point out, it's important that we remember the past and learn from it. And I also agree with you, msladysoul, that we need to move forward and work toward being better people so that we can replacing prejudice with enlightenment.

 

With regard to the lack of postings on black performers and filmmakers on this board, I would personally love to see more written about the people you mentioned and others who are unjustly neglected. Because classic films were made in an era when blacks and other races were marginalized, non-white performers and filmmakers were drastically underrepresented in the business compared to the number of whites, so that might be the reason, rather than racism, that they are correspondingly less well-represented here.

 

This is not to say that there is no racism in the world. Unfortunately, it persists, especially among the poor and ignorant, who seem to think that other groups' success takes something away from them. We still have a long way to go.

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ayresorchids, There's a great boxed set out by Image called The Origins of Film which contains a disc showcasing silent African-American films and includes Micheaux's Within Our Gates, which has run on TCM and a film called The Scar of Shame, which is a standard melodrama of the period, along with a unique sound experiment from 1923 with Eubie Blake. They're fascinating, particularly the Micheaux film since most of his work is long gone. Also included in the box is A Florida Enchantment (1915) which deals with gender-swapping, literally (and includes some very obvious white performers in blackface). It is all historically relevant and interesting.

 

Johnny

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In 1918 Griffith made a wonderful film called The Greatest Thing In Life. Only stills appear to exist from the film, plus of course you can read up about the film in Lillian Gish's memoirs.

 

From "Dorothy and Lillian Gish" (Scribner, 1973):

 

"This film was Griffith's answer to those who thought he did not like black people. He wrote a story of a white snob who fancied himself better than others. The story ended in a shell hole with bombs bursting near by. The snob is with a dying black man who in his delirium thinks the white man is his mother. He takes him in his arms and when he asks his "Mammy" to kiss the pain away, the white man kisses him full on the lips - and holds it. The audience sat tense and wept. A daring scene to film even today. It is a pity that this picture has been destroyed or lost."

 

 

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Had to get a new name to sign in.

Ayeorchirds, its so many of these black cinema films available, no their not big budget films, don't look for extravagance but their worth watching, it you can look pass the flaws you will see some great beauty and good acting by Francine Everett, Sheila Guyse, Dorothy Van Engle, Edna Mae Harris, Mae Turner - who I call the black Claire Trevor, Monte Hawley, Ralph Cooper, Laurence Criner, Henri Wessell, Reginald Fenderson, Edward Brandon, you will see the potential there. You will blacks playing parts, not black but like whites, playing people from all walks of life, even Shakespeare. If you go to www.acinemaapart.com you will see some cheap good movies to buy because you won't see these regularly on tv. I suggest all of Micheaux films, Spencer Williams. Ralph Cooper opened the first black studio out in Hollywood called Million Dollar production and it put out some of the best movies, even the black press applauded them, their films were the first to be played not only in black theaters but on the "white time" as they use to call it, they had the best actors and actresses and some good camera techniques in Busby Berkeley fashion. I found even though we don't know now, these people were movie stars to the black community and given the same publicity in the black newspapers, they had posters, lobby cards and such. I wish more recognition would be given to them as Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge but its hard when we don't really know these people or what happen. But researching them in the old magazines and newspapers were enriching and seeing their importance.

 

I just got from ebay by searching "all black cast" a lot of black movies, particuarly some shorts which feature Evelyn Preer, Paul Robeson called the best actress of the race and she was to. She did a lot of work in early Hollywood, she use to do a lot of singing which a lot of the white actresses would lip sync to but we don't know how many and for who.

She died in 1933. There were black acting troupes. Orson Welles directed Macbeth with a black cast and it received great reviews.

I would like more light put on the blacks who played maids such as Mildred Washington and Theresa Harris who really showed their talent, especially in the pre code era where Blacks were given more of a chance and were very pretty. I'll never forget Mildred and Claudette Colbert together in Torch Singer and Ginger Rogers and Theresa in Professional Sweetheart and Nina Mae McKinney with Dorothy Mackaill in Safe In Hell. It wasn't just maids catering and seen and unheard, they really had great chemistry together. I'm surprised Nina Mae don't get much honor being the first black and doing more movies than any other actress of that era and being the first in U.S. and European magazines and being so talented and beautiful. I was reading how Clara Bow and her had a so-called affair and some arguement in the newspapers.

 

Donald Bogle's books sometimes get me upset because he seems to relate everything to race and color than just applauding these people's work and telling about them.

 

Also, most of these black films were produced and directed by white men. Moon Over Harlem is considered the best of Black Cinema by Edgar Ulmer. I suggest these titles to you, Moon Over Harlem, Paradise In Harlem, Swing, Blood of Jesus, Miracle In Harlem, Mystery In Swing, The Exile, Ten Minutes to Live, Girl in Room 20, Gang Smashers, The Duke Is Tops, Juke Joint.

Green Pastures is a great movie made in Hollywood, it was on the stage successful for many years and brought the same cast to Hollywood. It is wonderful.

 

Here is a website on unsung black talents and beauties of the golden era

http://www.angelfire.com/jazz/ninamaemckinney/

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