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Looking back at black films

Movies from another era unreel from the archives for series on cable

Tuesday, June 30, 1998

By Monica L. Haynes

For those who believe black independent filmmaking began with Spike Lee, Turner Classic Movie Channel's "A Separate Cinema" is sure to be a revelation.

Josephine Baker: Star in early black films.

Hosted by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, the 29-film series begins tomorrow night and runs each Wednesday in July. The series highlights the talent, vision and tenacity of black filmmakers, who started bringing their independently produced works to the screen in the early 1900s.

Called "race movies" because they were produced for black audiences, these films featured every genre that Hollywood handled.

They also tackled some social issues that mainstream movie makers were afraid to touch, such as the lynching of black people in the South.

"This in essence was the first independent film movement," said Tom Karsh, senior vice president and general manager for Turner Classic Movies. The cable channel began putting together the series two years ago after acquiring some race films for a Black History Month film festival.

"We decided at that point we wanted to go into more depth because it's a very important part of film history and a very neglected part of film history," Karsh said.

The cable channel wanted the series to reflect a cross section of genres and stars of the day such as Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson and Herbert Jeffrey, the cinema's first black singing cowboy.

Oscar Micheaux: Prominent and prolific filmmaker

In selecting the films to be shown, producers called upon the expertise of its staff and that of film historians and professors at Yale and Duke universities and film archivist Pearl Bowser.

"It's just a special moment, I think, in history for us to reflect back on not only different aspects of black life as it is reflected in these movies but the richness of the talent that doesn't suggest the vise of the stereotype," Bowser.

Her documentary, "Midnight Ramble," chronicles the race film period, which ended around 1950.

Originally broadcast on PBS in 1994, the documentary kicks off the "Separate Cinema" series and highlights the era's most prominent and prolific filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux.

Midnight rambles were entertainment events featuring black people that were held after the regular performances. Bowser remembers seeing Lena Horne as a child in a midnight ramble after Horne's regular Downtown gig.

Micheaux used the success of the midnight rambles as a marketing tool for his films by telling theater owners about their popularity.

The grandson of a slave, he worked as a coal miner, stockyardsman and porter before becoming a homesteader in Gregory, S.D. Also a novelist, he started the Micheaux Book and Film Co. in Chicago to produce his films, some of which were based on his books.

"I think what is particularly important about the way Micheaux worked was he always seemed to have two films a year," Bowser said.

Theater owners and companies, such as Armour Meats, would invest in Micheaux's work because they knew they would get a return, Bowser said.

Micheaux's films will be featured tomorrow night, starting with the newly restored version of "The Symbol of the Unconquered." The 1921 movie is described as a "romantic drama concerned with racial pride, criticizing blacks who 'pass' for white and encouraging unity in the black community."

TCM commissioned jazz legend Max Roach to provide the score for Micheaux's film.

Discovered recently in a Belgium film archive, a print was donated by a collector to the Museum of Modern Art in New York where it was restored with funding from TCM.

Micheaux's first film, "The Homesteader" made in 1919, has been lost, but his second, 1920's "Within Our Gates," will be shown tomorrow at 10 p.m. It's the tale of a black school teacher fighting to bring education to underprivileged blacks in the South.

On July 8, the films of Robeson and Jeffrey will be featured; July 15, it's Baker and Spencer Williams, an actor and filmmaker who played Andy in the "Amos and Andy" television series; July 22 it's crime stories and July 29, sports movies.

Karsh said the films in the series will be added to the regular rotation of movies shown on his classic movie channel.

"It would be very easy to do a one-shot deal but that wouldn't show any commitment to this product."

Only TCI customers who have digital cable receive the Turner Classic Movie Channel.

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