Movie Mix

What Ice Cube Needs to Know

Independent filmmaking didn't start with the Sundance Film Festival. A new documentary explores the rich, and largely unknown, history of independent black cinema.
Independent filmmaking didn't start with the Sundance Film Festival. Black independents can be traced back to the silent-era films of Oscar Micheaux and the "race films" of Spencer Williams in the mid-1940s. These facts are introduced in Movies of Color: Black Southern Cinema (Wellspring), a newly released DVD that examines the history of black independent filmmaking. Bonus features on the DVD include two full-length Spencer Williams shorts The Blood of Jesus andGo Down, Death -- in all, an over two-hour package and a good resource of African American popular art and heritage.

The choices Oscar Micheaux faced during the silent era are no different from those that challenge contemporary black filmmakers Network and cable-TV documentaries on film tend toward such flashy topics as celebrity biographies or the American Film Institute's yearly nostalgia polls, and are meant to send viewers off to the nearest rental store. Movies of Color: Black Southern Cinema is more useful, providing an overview of a neglected aspect of American filmmaking. It's a less glamorous history than that associated with Hollywood extravagance and mainstream recognition, yet it is a central part of the development of film culture and black expression.

Director Tom Thurman organizes this study around talking-head commentaries by an assortment of film scholars. Rather than the usual suspects trotted out on PBS, here's a refreshing panel of faces and disciplines: Bishetta Merritt, John Cawelti, Charles Regester, Gregory A. Waller, Stan Campbell, Stanley Booth and Charles Pace. These black and white representatives of mostly Southern colleges impart a distinctly personal commitment to this obscure topic. They give Movies of Color its sense of discovery and an air of urgency. Pace, who identifies himself as a "visual anthropologist," indicates how important it is to know this relatively forgotten history, implying it is part of the struggle for black identity and self-respect. The essence of independent filmmaking is to be found in the self-definition that under-capitalized, non-mainstream forbearers provided for themselves and their audiences. Ice Cube and Will Smith need to know: these historical examples of regional filmmaking (and regional scholarship) are models for an original, valuable cinema culture.

The choices Oscar Micheaux faced during the silent era are no different from those that challenge contemporary black filmmakers and observing Micheaux's filmography demonstrates how differently he responded. Such films as Body and Soul, Birthright and Within Our Gates were made with the audience's political needs -- and its emotional appetite -- foremost in Micheaux's consciousness. That he was more than a commercially aware filmmaker is what makes his movies matter nearly a hundred years later. Movies of Color relates the history of Within Our Gates to the rise of black social and film consciousness following the impact of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Charlene Regester clarifies Griffith's aesthetic innovations from his backward, racist politics. This historical paradox - crucial to understanding American film culture -- has rarely been stated so incisively. Thurman helps by juxtaposing images from the Micheaux and Griffith films (side by side in the same frame) to point out the different perspectives. This not only indicates contrasting film styles, but also vividly illustrates the opposing ideologies.

Although Micheaux was from the Midwest, he pursued the interests of Southern blacks. His movies were informed by the social perspectives that developed in the black American south and then spread northward during the Great Migration. In Within Our Gates, Micheaux's story focuses on the Southern practice of lynching (here called "a symbol that the white power structure used to control black behavior"). Pace cites the film's "representation of the major terror, major horror, major reality of black life in the South." Black independent filmmaking of this sort eschewed escapism. It proved that more substantive forms of drama and entertainment were possible.

African American film culture flourished in the new urban communities of the early 20th century. In 1939 nearly 430 black-built theaters provided a showcase for filmmakers like Micheaux and Spencer Williams. This culture derived from the church-based community center because black-themed films (then called "race movies") would be exhibited in churches when white-owned movie houses were restrictive. As a result, many of the Southern black indie films were tailored to church-going audiences. The extraordinary Spencer Williams films The Blood of Jesus and Go Down, Death are among the most spiritually adventurous movies ever made. They conveyed the moral crisis of the urban/country, blues/spiritual musical dichotomies through their documentary style and fable-like narratives. (Go Down, Death was derived from the famous James Weldon Johnson poem.) Among their still-amusing features is Williams' incorporation of moral metaphors and live musical performances. Williams himself was a performer, best known for TV's Amos and Andy series. As a director, he anticipated the same mix of message and music recently seen to less charming effect in The Fighting Temptations.

Evangelism was the purpose behind movies by Eloyce Gist, a Howard grad and a Bahai recognized in Movies of Color as a pioneer. She was America's first black woman filmmaker. Gist's films Verdict Not Guilty (1933) and Hellbound Train (1930) were parables about spiritual struggle on earth. Stan Campbell describes Gist's films as "Astonishing, however crude or primitive or amateurish. For a woman in this time it was like defying gravity." Gist exemplifies the art-making struggles that are taken for granted in today's film culture. Campbell addresses the problem black artists had "at that period of American history to get distributed, to be seen and heard." But these problems have not disappeared for such filmmakers as Charles Burnett, Wendell B. Harris, Neema Barnette and others. Being a filmmaker means becoming an evangelist for black pop expression.

The last part of Movies of Color finds an ideal paradigm for this dilemma in the 1940 film Broken Strings, written by the actor Clarence Muse and directed by Bernard B. Ray. Muse played a concert violinist who wants his jazz-loving son to continue in his tradition. With his visionary belief in creativity, Muse comes to appreciate his son's (the new generation's) taste. In a deep, authoritative voice, Muse confesses, "My heart still belongs to the classics but look what swing has done for me" -- one of the most trenchant moments in American movies, equal to the recent father-son, classical music Chinese film Together.

Armond White is film critic for the New York Press. White was staff writer for The Nation for 12 years and is the author of two books on pop culture.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.