Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Due to the immensity of the event, many who have walked the March have recently spoken to the Akron Beacon Journal, like Ray Cox, who spoke of the experience recently.
But, as much as we like to think the civil rights movement crested in the late 50s and rose to its peak in the 60s, it began longer than that. Historians will say it began right after the Civil War ended and the slaves were officially free. But the challenges that faced them continued to present themselves in the forms of racial segregation being enforced in community, the ability to vote, and the ability to find work.
In the 1910s, the film The Birth Of A Nation came out, and it caused a lot of protests, and it gave birth to an independent film movement. Due to national segregation, these films were not shown to white audiences, but these films fought against the mainstream images reducing African Americans to stereotype. These films were called “race” films. For a long time, it was thought that these films were lost to the world, but, since the 80s, these films have received new attention. These films show that there was an argument for equality in film, long before Sidney Poitier. Of the ones to check out, there are a few that are essential classics, that use art to combat stereotype. Please check them out when you get the chance.
1. Broken Strings (1940)- starring Clarence Muse and Matthew “Stymie” Beard, the film is about a famed violinist (Muse), whom loses the ability to play the violin after a car accident, and who pressures his son (William Washington) to play and stick to playing classical, and not dally in swing and jazz music.
2. The Blood of Jesus (1941)- written, directed, and starring Spencer Williams, with Cathryn Caviness, the film is about an atheist man( Williams) who accidentally shoots his devout Baptist wife (Caviness) who is at the crossroads between heaven and hell, and is tempted by the devil.
3. The Bronze Buckaroo (1939)- starring Herb Jeffries and Clarence Brooks, this film is a musical western that could easily equate a Gene Autry feature. Jeffries is Bob Blake, a singing cowboy who helps a farmer’s daughter (Artie Young) find her father, who was kidnapped for not telling where gold was on his property.
4. The Duke Is Tops(1938)- Lena Horne’s film debut. This film is similar to A Star Is Born, with a show company producer( Ralph Cooper) who sacrifices his own success, so that his girlfriend (Horne) could have a successful career).
5. Gang War (1940)- long before the social stereotype of thinking men of color were gang members, this film, starring Ralph Cooper and Gladys Snyder, was trying to show that their talent in telling a story about gangsters was on par with films that James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson makes. The film is about a gang member (Cooper), who amasses control over a crime syndicate and fights a neighboring gang for control over the territory.
6. Body and Soul (1925)- Paul Robeson’s film debut, as a preacher who is not what he seems. While the film predates Elmer Gantry by forty five years, the film is an amazing look into the complex humanity of church life.
7. Within Our Gates (1920)- the oldest extant film written, directed, and produced by an African American, Oscar Micheaux. The film is his response to The Birth of a Nation, showing the realities of African American life in the early 20th century. The film is about an educated woman (Evelyn Preer), who dedicates her life’s work in helping a Southern black school escape near bankruptcy.
‘Broken Strings’: Getting To Play
Clarence Muse as Arthur Williams holds his son’s, William Washington as John “Johnny” Williams’ violin after he was caught playing swing with it.
‘The Blood of Jesus’: Getting Ready For Church
1941. Cathryn Caviness as Sister Martha Ann Jackson looks worried for her husband as she prepares to go to church. 1941. Directed by Spencer Williams.
‘The Bronze Buckaroo’: Romantic Resolve
1939. Herbert Jeffries as Bob Blake and Artie Young as Betty Jackson look at each other as her father has returned home with Blake’s gang. Directed by Richard C. Kahn.
‘The Duke Is Tops’: Embrace Before Curtain
Ralph Cooper as Duke Davis gives Lena Horne as Ethel Andrews a kiss before the curtain to perform. 1938. Directed by William L. Nolte.
‘Gang War’: Shooting The Stool Pidgeons
Ralph Cooper as Bob “Killer” Meade and Reginald Fenderson as Danny shoot the guys who ratted Bob out. 1940. Directed by Leo C. Popkin.
‘Body and Soul’ :Preaching the Good Book
Paul Robeson as the Rev. Isaiah T. Jenkins preaches the good word to his congregation, holding up the Bible. 1925. Directed by Oscar Micheaux.
‘Within Our Gates’: Telling About The Past
Evelyn Preer as Slyvia Landry tells James D. Ruffin about her troubled past, and her career goals. Directed by Oscar Micheaux in the year 1920.