Long before Spike Lee and John Singleton made their first films, African-American cinema had had a 50-year history as an alternative genre that few people, even film buffs, knew about. Made independently by African-American directors for African-American audiences, "race films" flourished from after World War I until the late 1940s, and provided work for talented black performers. They also offered black audiences a respectful alternative to Hollywood's portrayal of blacks as a parade of ridiculous stereotypes.
"The Presence of Absence: Mel Roman and James Montford," a collaborative multimedia installation at Scottsdale Center for the Arts by Arizona artist Roman and Connecticut artist Montford, honors this little-known part of black cinema.
This intriguing chunk of cultural history is embodied in Roman's and Montford's installation by a mock Jim Crow moviehouse. The viewer enters, through "white" or "black" entrances, a small room filled with empty seats facing a blank movie screen. A warm old jazz 78-rpm record accompanies the empty clicking of a film projector.
LED boards line one wall of the main portion of the exhibition, unfurling the rather shocking actual text used to hype early films with black characters. Emotionally powerful quotations from 20th-century African-American political, literary and artistic luminaries such as Malcolm X, Imamu Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston are stenciled on the walls throughout.
This "many-textured visual collage" of an installation was originally supposed to be a black film festival, says Roman, who put together the country's first black film festival in New York City in 1968.
"They wanted to do a festival at the Scottsdale Center, but couldn't raise the money," he says. "We finally got a grant from Playboy, which was then retracted because they felt the black population was not big enough here. I think that is myopic thinking. There are a lot of white people here that don't know anything about black arts and culture."
Both Montford (who is black) and Roman (who is white) are known for controversial art and performance pieces that often pivot around the issue of race. They had been tossing around the idea of a collaborative project for a few years, and saw this show as an opportunity to illuminate an important but ignored chapter in pop-culture history.
Visitors unfamiliar with race movies can get a good background by watching the documentary film that accompanies the exhibition, That's Black Entertainment: The Missing Link of American Cinema. Additional information is provided by John Kisch and Edward Mapp's book A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black Cast Posters, thoughtfully placed on a table nearby. It contains gorgeous reproductions of race-film posters that effortlessly trace the history of the genre.
Prior to World War I, when cinema was silent, a moviegoer could expect one of two portrayals of black characters: the slapstick fool or the happily singing slave toiling for his master. Giving films an extragrotesque twist was that almost without exception, black characters were played by whites in blackface.
The film titles say it all. The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (1905), The Dancing Nig, The Dark Romance of a Tobacco Can (1911, revolving around a man who is disgusted to find that he has proposed to a black woman), For Massa's Sake (1911) and Coon Town Suffragettes (1914) were a few of these early celluloid mockeries of black Americans.
For white America, these images constituted accepted ways of seeing. Particularly in the South, such dehumanizing depictions validated racial and social inequities and soothed whites' "fear of a black planet," so to speak. Injected into the public consciousness by an industry that was becoming the most influential propaganda machine ever known, these images became how whites thought of blacks. A classic example was The Birth of a Nation. Although seminal in the history of film, D.W. Griffith's 1915 drama about the Civil War and the Reconstruction-era South was blatantly racist. Black characters are portrayed as either shuffling, docile servants or brutal criminals who chase horrified white women. The film climaxes with a triumph by the Ku Klux Klan. Despite massive protest from both citizens and the then-six-year-old NAACP, The Birth of a Nation did fabulous box office.
In the early 1900s, independent black filmmakers were already, often with the help of white backers, putting together all-black-cast films. But following The Birth of a Nation, things went into high gear. Spencer Williams (who, ironically, went on to play Andy in the 1950s television series Amos 'n' Andy), William Alexander and prolific writer/producer/director/actor Oscar Micheaux, among others, started turning out low-budget films designed both to entertain and to "uplift the black race."
"Micheaux, for example," says Roman, "would raise the money, quickly make the films and then trek around carrying the film with him. He'd go to black neighborhoods and try to sell his films for showing. He went down South, where there was a network of spaces, old barns, whatever, segregated movie theatres, and got them shown."
The 1920s race movies offered serious roles to black actors who had no place in the white film industry. They addressed social issues affecting black Americans--the courage of families in the face of slavery and oppression, ghetto conditions, romance and religion--and used a cultural idiom that connected with black audiences.
The 1930s white industry offered more work to black performers, resulting primarily from the advent of sound. That sparked an interest in the talented black jazz musicians, singers and dancers who emerged from the well-known Cotton Club in Harlem. Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Hazel Scott and Lena Horne became household names during that time, performing in the same films as the era's white motion-picture stars, but always in race-segregated ensembles.
The race films of the '30s and '40s followed Hollywood's lead, offering black-cast versions of Hollywood genres: Westerns and gangster and detective movies. "Unfortunately," explains Roman, "the black-cowboy movies, for example, began to reflect a kind of internalization on the part of black filmmakers of the racist ideas in the white film world. When you see the black-cowboy movies, you see the good guy has a white cowboy hat, has lighter skin and rides a white horse--the bad guy has a black hat, dark skin and a black suit. It was the same with the detective stories."
By the end of the 1940s, the white Hollywood film industry had become too vast an animal to compete with, and the race-film era, which for half a century had given black actors and filmmakers the opportunity to express their lives and culture in a positive way, flickered to a close.
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"The Presence of Absence" pays homage to these films. Montford and Roman close the show with a powerful image: a towering, German-edition poster advertising The Jazz Singer, featuring the blackfaced Al Jolson. The artists added their own commentary by filling Jolson's palms with a swastika symbol and the letters "KKK," as well as a snipe in the corner announcing, "Still Playing."
One of the most popular aspects of "The Presence of Absence" is the huge graffiti board, complete with chalk, that stands at the entrance and that Roman terms a way to "ease into the show." I loved watching people, old and young alike, become incensed when the chalk ran out, which happened on two out of the three visits I made to the show. Returning to the board from the front desk, chalk in hand, folks would scribble furiously and proceed into the show, seemingly satisfied. There is a tagger in all of us.
Though "The Presence of Absence" is on a microlevel about a lost chapter in film history, and on a macrolevel about racism, this installation is ultimately concerned with the intense need for humanity to rise above racial stereotypes. Racism is about ignorance of minds and spirits, and isn't cured by "heartwarming" and historically inaccurate pabulum like Steven Spielberg's version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. It is transcended through intellectual and emotional engagement. Here, the artists have created an environment wherein the viewer is invited to think and feel and, possibly, understand something new.
This exhibition has produced one of the most fascinating and long-winded comment books I've seen in a while. Many positive comments could be described only as cathartic. The negative commentary is sadly engrossing, and proves without a doubt that Montford and Roman found their audience. "The Presence of Absence" is part of the "Lost in the Myth of America: Black Art and Culture" exhibit. "Nancy O'Connor: I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray," Texas artist O'Connor's tribute to black cowboys, and "The Studio Museum in Harlem: Twenty-Five Years of African American Art" are also part of the exhibition.