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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The race movie or race film was a film genre which existed in the United States between about 1915 and 1950. It consisted of films produced for an all-black audience, featuring black casts.

In all, approximately five hundred race films were produced. Of these, fewer than one hundred remain. Because race films were produced outside the Hollywood studio system, they have been largely forgotten by mainstream film historians. In their day, race films were very popular among African American theatergoers. Their influence continues to be felt in cinema and television marketed to African Americans.

Race films were some of the first financially successful independent films.

Contents

Financing and production

Much like early black sitcoms, race movies were most often financed by white-owned companies, such as Alfred N. Sack, and scripted by white writers. Black-owned studios also existed, including Lincoln Motion Picture Company (19161921), and most notably Oscar Micheaux's, Chicago-based Micheaux Film Corporation, which operated from 19181940. On his posters, Micheaux advertised the fact that his films were produced and scripted exclusively by blacks. Astor Pictures released several race films and produced Beware with Louis Jordan.

The race films vanished after United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. or the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948 that forced the separation of motion picture exhibitors and motion picture production companies. Black actors took the lead in several Hollywood major productions such as Pinky with Ethel Waters, Home of the Brave with James Edwards, Intruder in the Dust all in 1949, and No Way Out (1950), the debut of Sidney Poitier.

Venues

In the South, to comply with segregation, race movies were screened at designated black theaters. Though northern cities were not formally segregated, race films were generally shown in theaters in black neighborhoods.

While it was extraordinarily rare for race films to be shown to white audiences, white theaters often reserved special time-slots for black moviegoers. This resulted in race films often being screened as matinees and midnight shows. During the height of their popularity, race films were shown in as many as 1,100 theaters around the country.

Many large northern theaters incorporated special balconies reserved for blacks.

Themes

Though produced primarily in northern cities, the target audience consisted primarily of poor southern blacks and southerners who had migrated northward. Many race films, particularly those produced by white studios, attempted to impart middle-class urban values, especially education and industriousness. Common themes included the "improvement" of the black race, the supposed tension between educated and uneducated blacks, and the tragic consequences in store for blacks who resisted bourgeois values. The most famous race movie, The Scar of Shame, incorporated all of these themes.

Race films typically avoided explicit depictions of poverty, ghettos, social decay, and crime. When such elements appeared, they often did so in the background or as plot devices. Perhaps most strikingly, race films rarely if ever treated the subjects of social injustice and race relations.

Not surprisingly, race films avoided many of the popular black stock characters found in contemporary mainstream films, or else relegated these stereotypes to supporting roles and villains. Micheaux in particular went to great lengths to depict his protagonists as educated, prosperous, and genteel. Micheaux hoped to give his audience something to help them "further the race", though in doing so, he often sacrificed plausibility. Many modern black sitcoms, such as The Cosby Show, have followed a similar pattern, and have encountered similar criticism. The plausibility criticisms were based on the fact that many black sitcoms take a view from New York, Chicago or Philadelphia. They showed blacks in the highrise projects and never acknowledged the fact that black Doctors, Lawyers and other professional people exist throughout the central United States. Many of the race films struck an accord with people in these areas. There is ample evidence of large numbers of middle class black families in the interior of the country if you poll the black churches.

On the other hand, black comedians such as Mantan Moreland who had played supporting comedy roles in mainstream Hollywood films, reprised his character as the lead in such films as Professor Creeps and Mr Washington Goes To Town. Some black entertainers such as Moms Mabley or Pigmeat Markham starred in their own vehicles. They never appeared in mainstream entertainment until the late 1960s when both appeared on Laugh-In on American television.

Many black singers and bands appeared as the lead or in supporting acts in race films such as Louis Jordan who made three films.

Historical significance

Race movies are of great interest to students of African American cinema not only for their historical significance, but also because they showcase the talents of actors who were relegated to demeaning, stereotypical supporting roles in mainstream studio films. Hattie McDaniel and Clarence Muse are two of the most striking examples. A few stars from race films were able to cross over to relative stardom in mainstream films – for example, Paul Robeson and Evelyn Preer. Indeed, Hollywood studios often used race movies as a ready source of black talent.

Notable race movies

Print references

  • Diawara, Manthia. Black American Cinema. Routledge, 1993. ISBN 0-415-90397-1
  • Gaines, Jane M. Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era. University Of Chicago Press, 2001. ISBN 0-226-27875-1

External links

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