African-American Film Pioneers at UCLA 

Retrospective pays tribute to Micheaux et al.

Wednesday, Sep 9 2009

It’s both fitting and troubling that on the same day Tyler Perry, currently Hollywood’s most powerful African-American film director, drops his latest production (I Can Do Bad All By Myself) in theaters, the UCLA Film and Television Archive kicks off its monthlong series African American Film Pioneers. Perry — a groundbreaker in his own right — strolls through halls of power his cinematic forefathers (and most of his contemporaries) could only dream of; unfortunately, his work largely nestles right alongside the most dated old-school melodrama, representing a backward slide from the formal and thematic daring of many who came before him. UCLA’s series of course features works by touchstone figure Oscar Micheaux, the writer-director-producer whose classic Paul Robeson morality tale Body and Soul (1925) and scathing Jim Crow critique Birthright (1938) are among the highlights here, along with Within OurGates (1920), Micheaux’s rebuttal to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation,and his intricately plotted murder mystery, Murder in Harlem (1935).

Also well worth checking out are the works of Spencer Williams and R.C. Kahn. Like Micheaux in both Body and Gates, Williams’ films are especially interesting for the ways they use black womanhood — its potential sexual exploitation, proposed redemption and salvation — to explore concerns of larger cultural degradation. But where Micheaux, an avowed social activist, works with a heightened political and artistic sophistication that carries over even to his actors’ performances, Williams’ approach is that of a prig’s tight lips and reflexive finger-wagging, which sometimes results in laughably overbaked acting. Tellingly, it’s the scenes of “debauchery” in Williams’ Dirtie Gertie From Harlem (1946), The Girl in Room 20 (1946) and Juke Joint (1947) that really sizzle, showing that even Williams couldn’t resist being snagged by the pull of clubbing, boozing and illicit sex. On a much lighter note, Kahn’s Harlem Rides the Range and The BronzeBuckaroo, both from 1939, star the fair-skinned singing cowboy Herb Jeffries. The films themselves are rote Westerns full of thieving land barons, conscienceless henchmen and lovely damsels in distress, while comic relief comes about in sly performances by bug-eyed sidekicks. As the laid-back hero, Jeffries has an easy charm that serves as the calm center in the whirl of flying bullets and sneering bad guys. Jeffries, now 97, is scheduled to appear at the screenings of his films. (UCLA Film and Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater; through Sun., Sept. 27. cinema.ucla.edu)

click to enlarge Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates
  • Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates

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