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`Race Movies' Recast Black Past

Before black filmmakers Spike Lee and John Singleton, there was Oscar Micheaux

ONE night six years ago Pam Thomas sat down in an auditorium at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts to hear a lecture on black filmmaking. Expecting to learn more about contemporary films, Ms. Thomas was surprised to hear about a little-known aspect of black history: race movies.

Between the 1900s and the early 1950s there was a network of black filmmakers across the United States producing both serious and entertaining all-black films, known as "race movies," for black audiences. The leading director was Oscar Micheaux.

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"I had never heard of such a network or Oscar Micheaux," Thomas says, "and I got really angry, because I'm a graduate in film and communications, and how come I didn't know this?"

Thomas launched a research project while holding down a job as a program coordinator in a university alumni office. She discovered that "race movies" made by independent producers started in Chicago as a spinoff from vaudeville.

Blacks had come north by the tens of thousands, creating a society within a society with thriving black banks, businesses, newspapers, and movies. Middle-class blacks wanted to see themselves relocating successfully and succeeding in all facets of urban life despite segregation. Movies, records, and photographs affirmed their identity and successes.

By l920 there were 30 black film companies throughout the US, supplying films for more than 300 black theaters. Thomas realized if she could find those movies, some of the actors, and any black movie memorabilia, the material could be the heart of a documentary film.

Six arduous but triumphant years and $500,000 later, in a small editing room at Northern Light Productions here, Thomas sits with her co-producer, Beth Deare. Flashing by on the editing screen is a rough cut of the first 25 minutes of "Midnight Ramble: The Story of Race Movies," scheduled to be shown on PBS's "American Experience" this fall.

"A midnight ramble was either a late-night movie screening held for all blacks in a white movie theater after the white film was over," says Ms. Deare, "or it referred to blacks allowed in the balcony of a white theater for a mainstream Hollywood film, and then they stayed to see a black film."

In urban areas such as Chicago or Los Angeles, black theaters advertised race movies and black film critics reviewed them. "It cost anywhere from 10 cents to 25 cents for the movies depending on whether it was urban or rural," says Thomas. "In rural areas, the theaters were often storefronts with a little sign in the window advertising the movie."

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Deare says the quality of the films never reached the Hollywood level at the time, but "were certainly no worse than the average B movie."

At first, race movies were only comedies, echoing the black stereotypes seen in white films. But in Chicago a black named Peter Jones began making films of black community events, and in Los Angeles, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, owned by black actor Noble Johnson, produced serious dramas.

But it was Oscar Micheaux, an energetic black novelist, farmer, entrepreneur, and promoter from South Dakota, who became the most prolific producer of race films. "He was a pioneer," Deare says. "He had vision and persistence and was willing to make movies about controversial subjects."

In the wake of D. W. Griffith's 1915 movie "Birth of Nation," which presented a Ku Klux Klan view of blacks, Micheaux made "Within Our Gates" in l9l9 as a direct refutation to the Griffith film.

Micheaux's film asserts that the basis of segregation is economics. In the film the daughter of a black farmer becomes educated and has the audacity to submit bills to the plantation owner on behalf of her indentured father. A white man kills the owner, and the black man is falsely accused. The film also includes an attempted rape of a black woman by a white man and the lynching of a black family.

"The film was premiered in Chicago in l920," says Deare, "just after there had been race riots. It barely passed the Chicago board of censors and played to packed houses. In some southern towns Micheaux had to remove controversial scenes, but he put them back later. In other towns the film was banned."

Thomas and Deare found a rare print of the film in Spain and had to translate it from Spanish back to English. "We discovered that Micheaux was very successful at distributing his films in Europe and South America," says Deare. Micheaux eventually made 40 films and died on the road in l951 as he was taking his last film from town to town. He was admitted to the Screen Directors' Guild posthumously.

"The legacy of race movies lives on in a way today," says Deare, referring to the films of Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, and John Singleton, all of whom are independent black filmmakers.

"Midnight Ramble: The Story of Race Movies" received about 90 percent of its funding from PBS, with help from the Illinois Council on Arts and Humanities, the New York State Council on Art, and the National Black Programming Consortium. "We're still looking for completion funding," says Thomas.

"At no point in the history of this country," says Deare, "have black people played a passive role when it comes to their own self-definition.... We have always been vigilant about making sure significant moments were preserved and as much as possible disseminated for the greater understanding of all."

Adds Thomas: "We are rewriting a little of American history with this film."

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