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Black Cinema Part III - the TV age and beyond

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 15, 2010 12:42pm | Post a Comment
This is the first installment in a three part history of early Black Cinema.
To read Part I, covering the independent Race Movie years of the 1910s and '20s, click here
To read Part II, covering the Hollywood Studio years of the 1930s and '40s, click here



In American silent films, minority roles were almost invariably filled by white actors in exaggerated and offensive make-up. Latinos in silent films usually played greasers and bandits; Asian-Americans usually played waiters, tongs and laundrymen; and blacks usually played bellboys, stable hands, maids or simply "buffoons." Not surprisingly, both Asian-Americans and blacks responded by launching their own alternative silent cinemas. But whereas Asian-American Silent Cinema quickly faltered, silent, black "race movies" flourished. In the 1930s and '40s, Hollywood began to phase out the practice of blackface (while continuing the practice of redface and yellowface) and successfully wooed race movies' sizable and thus profitable audience. By the 1950s, with its enormous budgets and star power, Hollywood had effectively co-opted and destroyed the independent Black Cinema known as race movies. The result was that there were far fewer examples of Black Cinema in the decade. In the years that followed, as TV chipped away at film’s dominance, a few black actors began appearing on the small screen in shows like Beulah (1950-1953) and The Amos 'n Andy Show (1951-1953) which, whilst hardly socially progressive, at least offered more acting opportunities for black actors.

 

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Los Angeles' Pan-African Film Festival ...a year heavy on Nollywood and South African films

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 12, 2010 03:46pm | Post a Comment
Pan African Film and Arts Festival
Los Angele
s’s Pan-African Film Festival is currently in effect (February 10-17). I have a long-lasting love-hate relationship with it. On the one hand, their website (despite improvements this year) remains hard to navigate, is rife with typos, incomplete information and omissions. In other words, it’s inexcusably bad. How about a calendar, folks? 

In addition, every year I take issue with the selection of films. The programmers have a very odd definition of “Pan-African.” Last year was the worst, with the focus on the African diaspora coming at the expense of even a single African feature. Thankfully, this year there are several African features but still some questionable choices. It’s nice to see films about Africa’s many-but-usually-ignored non-black people, such as Finemachiyamoché, about Moroccan Jews, and Florida Road, starring members of South Africa’s sizable south Asian population. On the other hand, Forgotten Bird of Paradise, about Papua is, regardless of its possible merits, an embarrassing example of the organizers' colorist, transracialist equation of African-ness with pigmentation rather than actual African ancestry. The inclusion of an Iranian film, The Stoning of Soraya M., is a real head-scratcher. Are they equating Islam with African-ness now? Another odd choice is Darfur, directed by German hack Uwe Boll (BloodRayne 3, House of the Dead, Postal Zombie Massacre and other garbage).

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Posted by Billyjam, February 10, 2010 11:34am | Post a Comment

Dr Carter G Woodson
Since a lot is being blogged about Black History Month both here at the Amoeblog and in the blogosphere in general this month, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a moment to briefly examine the history of Black History Month itself, as well as present a general timeline of black history. One thing that amazes me is the short time span that Black History Month has been around, especially considering that African Americans have been a part of the American fabric dating back to the colonial times. Black History Month only officially started a short 34 years ago, even if the practice of observing black history dates back to the 1920's, which is still not that long ago in a historical context.

Originally known as Negro History Week, it was created in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a scholar with a Ph. D from Harvard who was the son of parents who were both formerly slaves. Woodson was so incensed that there was little or no proper written documented history of blacks in this country that he fought hard to initiate change. Up until that point on the rare occasion in which blacks were included in the American history books it was in a negative light -- they were typically portrayed as inferior human beings to the white ruling class.

A decade before initiating Negro History Week, Woodson laid the foundation by establishing the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History which began with careful documenting and writing the history of blacks in this country. The formation of that association led to the creation of the Journal of Negro History which, in turn, led to the launching of Negro History Week 84 years ago for which the second week in February was designated. Black History Week officially began in 1972, and four years later (in 1976) it became Black History Month. Below are a few random select key dates (by no means fully comprehensive) in American black history -- many officially documented by Woodson.

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(In which we consider Paul Robeson.)

Posted by Job O Brother, February 7, 2010 03:22pm | Post a Comment

Harry Houdini vs. Laurie Anderson

My actual heroes in this world are few and disparate. From Harry Houdini to Laurie Anderson, from John Lennon to Mrs. Mary Eales, they reflect people who may inspire and impact me with their art, their political activism, their bold-faced chutzpah, or any combination thereof.

But perhaps no one embodies all these traits to such heightened super-awesomeness for me than the great Paul Robeson.


Rad.

Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1898. His father was an escaped slave-turned-church minister; his mother was from a Quaker family, and died tragically when Paul was six, which isn’t funny at all, so don’t laugh.

Paul received a full academic scholarship to attend Rutgers University, which I hear is a pretty good school, though I’ve never been there myself because I’m allergic to schools. Seriously. If I even step foot on a campus I start itching, sweating, and my head comes completely off and falls to the ground and rolls away.

While attending Rutgers, Robeson distinguished himself as one of the finest football players. He was valedictorian of his class, which allowed him to excuse himself from class to get water from the drinking fountain without the need of a hall pass.

Robeson went on to study at Columbia University. He continued to pursue sports and also performed on stage in theatrical productions. Sadly, it was during this period that his mother died a second time. The young Robeson soldiered on despite grief, occasionally finding solace in rowing, sometimes in boats, other times, less successfully, in giant holes dug into the earth by mole-people.

It was also at Columbia that he immersed himself in language studies – an interest that would come into play throughout his life. He would become fluent or near-fluent in twelve languages, with many more languages represented in his musical repertoire, such as Russian, Japanese, Yiddish and Klingon.

In 1921, Robeson married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, and while their marriage lasted until her death in 1965, it wasn’t a monogamous relationship, and saw near divorce when Paul was going through his (historically misunderstood) “lederhosen phase.” They gave birth to one child, a son, Paul Robeson, Jr. (It’s interesting to note that he was not named after his father as many people assume, rather an entirely different Paul Robeson of no familial relation, who’s similar moniker is merely a remarkable coincidence.)


"I love looking at floors with you, honey..."
Paul Robeson & Eslanda Cardozo Goode

Robeson became increasingly popular as an actor and singer. He found acclaim performing the lead role in Shakespeare’s Othello, which, though the character is black, was most often played by white dudes in blackface. He also originated the role of Joe in Show Boat, one of the most significant pieces of American musical theatre.


The ballad "Ol’ Man River" from Show Boat would come to be Robeson’s signature song. It was through his insistence that the original lyrics were changed from…

Ol' man hamburger,
Dat ol' man hamburger
He mus'know ketchup
But don't say pickles
He jes'keeps grillin’
He keeps on grillin’ along.


…To the now famous lines we know today. Throughout his career, and reflecting his increasingly political beliefs, he would continue to change the lyrics to the song, transforming it from a soulful but depressed ballad to a defiant and triumphant call for justice and equality.




Robeson and his wife moved to and lived in England for a little over a decade, until the outbreak of World War II. During this period, Robeson starred in a variety of films – many of these roles being strong, dominant men and profoundly disturbing to the more racially intolerant American audiences. Besides the film version of Show Boat, perhaps Robeson’s most famous film was The Emperor Jones, an adaptation of a Eugene O’Neill play he had also starred in on Broadway. The movie had a scene in which Robeson’s character killed a white man – a first in film at that point. This scene was cut for U.S. audiences, some of whom were enjoying scrumptious bags of buttery, hot popcorn! Yum!


His radio performances of pro-American songs during the War won him national celebrity. It was also during this time that he did other stuff and, y’know, things. He probably ate some good food, talked to peeps – whatever. I mean, I don’t have any evidence, but the odds are pretty good. I’m guessing he probably didn’t vanquish fire-breathing dragons and steal their treasures, or follow dwarves into underground caverns where he learned to forge weaponry from enchanted silver, but again, this is speculation based on educated guesswork. I can’t know everything, people!


Robeson’s travels and interest in cultures exposed him to the suffering and hardships of the poor and working-class. His fight for racial equality evolved into a fight for equality of social classes. Increasingly, he saw the capitalist structure as an oppressive force. He became more outspoken about his politics, supporting many controversial, socialist institutions. His support of the newly founded U.S.S.R. invited generous and heated criticism from the conservative and paranoid U.S. government and conservative and paranoid white supremacists.


Robeson sacrificed his career and reputation to fight against injustice as he saw it. He was vilified and persecuted by those in power. Like fellow crusader Martin Luther King, Jr., Robeson was under constant surveillance by the FBI and CIA. Between 1950 and 1958, Robeson’s passport was confiscated by the U.S. Government, who wanted to suppress his political activism. Also, they were mad at him for not inviting them to his totally awesome pool party.


By the early 1970’s, as hella cool hippie types began to undermine the controlling grip of right-wing squares, there was a resurgence of appreciation for Paul Robeson. By this time, poor health and exhaustion led him to keep a low profile. He lived in his sister’s house in Philadelphia, until he passed away there in January of 1976. Since then, he has recorded no new songs, though there have been talks about a possible side-project with T.I..

Paul Robeson is my hero because he is everything I want to be when I grow up: a Renaissance man, skilled in sport and the arts, a linguist, a brave and noble fighter, never shrinking from the dictates of his conscience, and totally mother-effing handsome. I wish there were a lot more like him.



Black Cinema Part II - Race Movies - The Hollywood Studio Era

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 7, 2010 12:13pm | Post a Comment

This is the first installment in a three part history of early Black Cinema.
To read Part I, covering the independent Race Movie years of the 1910s and '20s, click here
To read Part III, covering the TV Age of the 1950s and '60s, click here


In the silent film era, most roles for minority characters were filled by white actors in make-up. As a result, Asians and blacks began making their own, alternative cinemas. But whereas Asian-American silent film quickly faltered, black silent film flourished and a great number of race movies were cranked out to eager and under-served black filmgoers. 

By the 1930s, though yellowface and redface continued to be common practice, blackface began to disappear from the mainstream as Hollywood began efforts to woo the audience it had previously been content to insult. This meant there were many new opportunities for black actors, albeit mainly as musicians, porters, chauffeurs, waiters, hat check girls, maids, bootblacks, convicts, bartenders, bone-through-the-nose Africans or buffoons. Because of the improving but still less-than-satisfying opportunities afforded by Hollywood, many black actors supplemented their Hollywood bit parts with simultaneous careers in race movies.

BLACK CINEMA OF THE 1930s

                                               

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