The saga of the development of American society is a study of the progression of very distinct cultures. This flies in the face of the landmark National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (better known as the Kerner Commission) of 1968, which proclaimed that the “…nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one White—separate and unequal.”
In reality, it might be argued that there have always been two Americas, a dominant one made up of various factions of Caucasians, with separate “caste” divisions to be sure. This of course, leaves out Hispanics and Native Americans, who in turn could arguably be considered part of one genetic group, but that would further complicate this review (another complication is the fact that most of the decision makers of early cinema were Jewish, who in turn crafted their product towards the tastes of a largely Christian-Protestant movie going public).
But, for the purposes of this review, it could be argued that segregation, which has dominated much of American history, has resulted in two similar, but distinct cultures. These circumstances have left a mark on the Black lifestyle. This fact of existence, while unfair, has infused African America with much of its distinctive flavor, which in turn has captivated the attention of the rest of the world.
Exclusion from society-at-large meant carving out a separate existence and alternate entertainment. Former slaves were not the only ones mandated to make their own culture due to alienation from the rest of America. Jewish expatriates who settled around New York City from the 1920s onward developed a series of vacation resorts in the Catskill Mountains northwest of that metropolis, which came to be known as the “Borsch Belt” in reference the red, beet-based soup popular in the eastern Europe they came from. From this came a legacy of unique comedic stylings carried forth by countless Jewish performers, and may arguably be seen in the contemporary delivery of Jerry Seinfeld and others.
Black Americans, or “Negroes” as they were known, developed their own chain of entertainment venues throughout the Midwest, Northeast, and Southern United States under the label the “chitlin’ circuit” after the pig intestine dish that is a staple of “soul food.” Like the Borsch Belt, these individual theaters evolved to provide a refuge from the rampant segregation of the day, and countless entertainers sprang up from the performance tradition spawned in Chicago’s Regal Theater, the Uptown in Philadelphia, and especially New York City’s Apollo.
With the advent of the then novel moving picture industry, ”colored” audiences found another amusement they were essentially barred from participating in. At least partially to counter the blatant racism exhibited by 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation”(a heroic depiction of the Klu Klux Klan in spite of its position as a landmark in the development of the cinema), companies like George and Noble Johnson’s Lincoln Pictures, Norman Studios, and most notably the enterprise founded by Oscar Micheaux endeavored to mount productions offering a more dignified image of people of color.
All in all, this was a significant achievement for a group that had little in terms of resources, in film historian Jeremy Geltzer’s words “…except the desire to tell a story.”
Geltzer’s “Race Films: 50 Years of Independent African American Cinema” (The Hollywood Press) attempts, as he says in it’s foreword “…to resurrect forgotten figures and restore the memory of the men and women who made their own screen legends.” He comes to this project with a formidable background as an entertainment lawyer, and a resume that includes producing and writing for Turner Classic Movies (TMC).
The best feature of this slim novel (138 pages) is by far the posters from the movies they advertised, and considering the work involved in the collection of images 60 years and older, a feat in and of itself. While the color reproductions are of good quality, they could undoubtedly have benefited from more imaginative layouts. Geltzer wisely ends this chronicle with the appearance of Sidney Poitier in the 1950s. Poitier’s steady, if not spectacular rise to stardom was a game changer in terms of paving the way for non-Caucasian performers in his wake.
The definitive volume for this subject remains Donald Bogle’s 1973 “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks,” now in it’s fourth edition. None-the-less, “A Separate Cinema” is valuable in the context that it provides background for the surge of Black films appearing since the emergence of Spike Lee and others towards the end of the 20th century.
“Race Films: 50 Years of Independent African American Cinema” (2015, The Hollywood Press) by Jeremy Geltzer is available at Amazon.com for $7.99.