Reflections of a Moviegoer
by Douglas Turner Ward
My mother and father, born around the turn of the century, can still take movies or leave em. Mostly leave em. But those of us midwife to life during the early 1930s were as hooked on films as kiddies and teenagers of today are hung-up on TV. It mattered little what we saw, but attend we did.
My initial introduction to the silver screen occurred when I was a four or five year old tot living on a plantation in the canebrake, rice-growing area of Louisiana. On Saturdays during summer, I was plucked regularly from our wooden shack, trundled five miles down a dusty road upon the shoulders of one or another of my teenaged uncles, transported by ferryboat across the muddy Mississippi and, ten minutes later, deposited in the balcony seat of a musty movie house. Infancy is treacherous to recall, but I still retain vivid memories of the bang-bang/clippitty clop-clop of Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown, Charles Starrett, Bob Steele, The Three Mesquiteers and their legions of mustachioed villains; green- green colored Buck Rogers and his dagger bearded nemesis, along with snippets from a multitude of other more vague ten or fifteen chapter cliff hangers.
In the early forties the scene shifts to New Orleans where my parents had thankfully emigrated. No longer were theatre chaperones necessary. Now attending flicks against the “Japs”; Taking little notice of Lena Horne or the Deep River Boys being wedged into films as cuttable entities; merely happy they were there…Also, like everybody else who laid eyes upon that Confederate opus Gone With the Wind, for months we went bounding around the neighborhood greeting each other with “Scarlett my dear, I don’t give a damn.” However even then, eleven year old or no, Butterfly McQueen’s piercing “Miss Scarlett” was too much to take.
At neighborhood theatres the movie fare was cheaper and cheesier. A similar program of the B to D films seen earlier during childhood. Excepting the few houses with slightly with slightly lower hanging peanut galleries, neighborhood movie houses were all-colored. Besides feature attractions of burlesque stage shows with blackout skits, risqué sketches and wonderful 15 minute shorts of popular rhythm –and- blues or jazz combos added for our viewing pleasure were the Tantone hilarics…handsome Herb Jefferies cavorting his version of sagebrush heroics in an all black West, presented in erratic sepia color; Sepiatone cops-and – robbers shorts replete with pomade hated villains, countryboy innocents and ‘stacked’ high- yeller jezebels…unintentionally rivaling Chaplin, Keaton and Mack Sennett for laughs.
The only problem with the neighborhood theatres were their location in the wrong neighborhood, that is outside of our own turf. In order to attend we had to risk physical assault from our moppet-mafia contemporizes strong arming us with “Gimme a nickel you little n…r” demands. Downtown may have been segregated but it also was much safer.
As for the majority downtown first-run theatres which excluded us completely, sky high balcony or not, whatever was offered just had to suffer without our appraisal (except later when I served a stint in one of these lily white palaces and revenged myself and the race by watching more movies than scrubbing the toilets I was supposed to swab…By mid teens, juvenile innocence and ignorance vanished. Life and the movies came into harsh focus; consciences expanded and contradictions exposed themselves. Southern life is too brutal for naiveté, reality intrudes. Now, we niggers in the stall were responding like niggers toward what we were seeing. Sympathy shifted from the paleface to the redskin; the Jap was still the enemy, but it wasn’t hard to conclude that the grits-mouth cracker “japing” at him was the same bastard “niggering” at us in the face every day of our lives. Also, by this time, the sight of a simpering black maid or molasses- minded handyman was enough to drive us to murderous fury. In any event, our Sunday saris began to bypass regular jimcrow theatres in favor of the Star Theatre girlie show where big breasted chorus lines and scanty –clad burlesque queens pranced and strutted their wares. (Burley house impresarios were more interested in our coins than protecting Gypsy Rose Lee from our gaze.) If we had to sit in the peanut gallery we might as well serve our time indulging sex fantasies.
Soon after celebrating my sixteenth birthday, with alacrity I removed myself from the deep South, intent upon seeking success and equality up North. Crazy as it may seem, freedom to attend the movie of my choice was one of the privileges which beckoned…Sure nuff, three or four days after plunking down my string tied- valise, I headed to the flicks. Lo and behold, I discovered that students of the college where I had taken refuge were reassembling their picket line to desegregate the mother! I had travelled more than a thousand miles to stroll into a ground floor cinema, only to discover the same old ka ka. Was it ever worse, this little jive Ohio town only had two movie houses for the whole city! Eventually, the deseg campaign was won, but movies saw little of my presence during the ensuing two years of higher education in both Ohio and Michigan. Ardor for the habit had dissipated.
After chucking the college scene in ’48 I entrained once again for the golden grail of Northern freedom, this time New York City. Whatever else it lacked the Big Apple city did revive my movie interest. And what a revival! I had already learned that novels could reflect reality; radical philosophy had also informed my vision of the world. But I hadn’t bargained up on the startling impact of foreign movies. I never knew they existed, but soon was awed by their achievement…The searing power of Italian neorealism: Open City-1945, Paisan-1946, Shoeshine1946, Bitter Rice-1949, The Bicycle Thief-1948 etc along with the prewar French drolleries, poetics and surrealisms of Jouvet, Bauer, Renoir, and Cocteau, combined with the gigantic, panoramic revolutionary epics of Russia: Ivan the Terrible-1944, Alexander Nevesk-1938y, Potemkin-1925, Ten Days that Shook the World- 1928, the Gorky Trilogy (The Childhood of Maxim Gorky-1938, On His Own-1939 and Moi university – 1941), the Depuy-1926, Chapayev-1935 and numerous others whose titles I have long since forgotten…Three of four years on a continuous movie binge, making up for lost and wasted time, four or five films crammed into one week. The Apollo on 42nd Street, the Stanley, Thalia, Irvin Place, like second homes…In the main I went alone. Inviting a date to a foreign movie during those years usually provoked a pouting: “I don’t wanta go to those old movies where you hafta read.”
During this period, time and protest also were forcing American cinema to develop a “new look” in its treatment of Negroes. Gross stereotypes more or less were being abandoned; the Stephen Fetchits were increasingly relegated to movie oblivion (and future TV libraries). Hollywood began to wrestle with Negro subject matter and characters… First came the wave of color syndrome films…a la Pinky- 1949, Lost Boundaries-1949 etc. with light skinned heroes and heroines (Usually portrayed by reigning white stars) wring hands and gnashing teeth over their cursed bad luck in being born pretty near pure white (Out, damn invisible hue!), or else breaking into impotent sweat every time that famous epithet was spat their way (See: Home of the Brave-1949). Protracted viewing of these films usually led one to shout: “Aww, why don’t you go on and pass.” or “Stop sweating, punch em eff in the mouth and get it over with.” They also made you suspect that every Negro wakes up in the morning rubbing his skin in pain rather than sleep from his eyes.
After this masochistic era had run its course Hollywood and allied satellites began to pursue the Negro image in earnest. The successes and failures of their efforts over the last twenty years can almost be traced through the advent and career of Sidney Poitier. No doubt Sidney’s stardom and the roles he has performed constitute a significant breakthrough contrasted with the past, but ignoring historical and sociological progress, what about the movies he and others (rarely) been featured in?
Looking backward and progressing forward in loose chronological order I’m left with the following capsule, nonprofessional critics’ impressions of some of the better known films. No Way Out-1950 and Blackboard Jungle-1955…melodramatic and self-conscious in their treatment of Negro subject matter, though possessing individual scenes of power and insight.
A Man is Ten Feet Tall (Edge of the City)-1957…well made, acted and packed with dramatic force, but weak Freudianized central plot overcomes stronger Negro subject matter.
The Defiant Ones -1958…Remembered more for providing the fuel for Godfrey Cambridge’s acid parody “Bye-bye baby” than for its own well-meaning brotherhood message.
Porgy and Bess-1959…a heavy-handed disaster made in surprising ugliness.
Paris Blues-1961…turgid and meandering, a good example of what happens when a banal white plot is puffed up to central importance while slighting the original novel’s main theme, Negro exile.
Anna Lucasta-1958…a maudlin soap-opera disaster.
Something of Value-1957…a vicious travesty of the Mau Mau rebellion, so historically untruthful and artistically false until it amounts to an insult, its non-violent, brotherhood message coming too late and directed at the wrong people.
A Raisin in the Sun-1961…a prime example of how not to film a stage play; ugly lit, claustrophobically cramped and over histrionic.
Lilies of the Field-1963…charming, well done, unpretentious; also slight, barely escapes saccharinely.
To Kill a Mockingbird-1962…heart in the right place, but devastated by that stunning good-white-father scene and monument to paternalism: Stand up Scout, your father’s passing.” …Indeed!
Nothing But a Man-1964…excellent cameo simplicity, but I still have a nagging feeling that I like it more for the maudlin pitfalls it manages to sidestep.
The Cool World-1964…Negro environment and subject matter serves as an excuse for irritatingly excessive ‘new cinema’ camera orgies.
Sweet Love, Bitter- 1967…erratic, stilted and unrealized, yet wields a certain fascination; another example of a weak white storyline getting in the way of the more natural Negro subject matter.
Most of the films cited above…along with others left unmentioned are well intentioned in the main; also sporadically interspersed with frames, vignettes, scenes and Characters which hold our interest and quicken our responses. But, as this cryptic survey concludes, few of these movies have been fully satisfying. Perfection is not my goal, but a totally satisfying whole is…and few of these American made films approach the standard. Certainly, none can compare with two movies of foreign origin which, in my opinion, are model examples of successful Negro feature-film treatment….The first: Black Orpheus-1959, French-made Brazilian location, manages without self-consciousness to present the best in-depth, fully- realized portrait of Negroes seen on film to date. Technically flawless, surpassing in visual beauty, varied and truthful in a multitude of character studies, full of humor, lyrical tenderness, earthy substance and tragic irony, this superb movie captures the full grandeur, humanity and pathos of Negro slum-dweller existence going far beyond its Brazilian environment. Without any overt reference to racial conflict, it achieves a universality rarely encountered in films, and almost stands alone as an example of how Negro subject matter can be transformed into glorious artistic fulfillment…The second Sapphire – 1959, British- made, more modest in treatment and dimension, more limiting in its popular detective thriller format, triumphs in lesser fashion, in depicting wide representative gallery of Negro characters. Its broad canvas of types, classes, professions and circumstances provide a panoramic vision of Negro life never witnessed in US films. An added bonus is its trenchant exploration of the climate of prejudice as it exists in a more benign racist society like Great Britain.
At this writing, the failure of any American film to match Black Orpheus and Sapphire is not surprising.. Even during its ‘new look’ treatment, Hollywood and allied Independents have only proven that they never have been geared pragmatically, ideologically or artistically for the task. Gross movie stereotypes no longer may prevail (they bedevil us on the late-late shows on TV), but what has replaced them seldom encompass the reality of the present. The ‘new look’ has been merely over-praised. Obsessed with and dominated by insulting, derogatory images of the past, we have been over-anxious to greet any small step forward as the ultimate; reacting like blind men gaining half-sight in one eye, mistaking it for total vision.
It is time to realize that movies in America are only accidentally art; primarily Big Business. Overwhelming control resides in the hands of the most conservative element of our society. The monopolistic oligarchy which, instead of plumbing the unexplored riches of Negro themes and characters, continues to be much more interested in entertaining us with “Southern” Confederate epics with noble, honorable, gentlemanly Rebs dedicated to their ‘cause’, not withstanding the cause was slavery or Colonials…small regiments of British troops stiff-upper-lipping their way to victory over a million spear-carrying, lame brained natives.
Bringing these reflections to a close; Once upon a time during my movie going career, I would rush to view any and all movies claiming to deal with or feature the brother. Seeing enough bad ones have been educative. A responsibility has been lifted. For instance, taking my cue from another medium, TV; Bill Cosby’s elevation to series stardom didn’t prevent me from turning the knob on discovering that the first I Spy -1965,program was about some cold-war crap. Knowing that movies with “us” in ‘em can be as awful as the rest, relieves me of all optimistic expectations. I can take ‘em or leave ‘em. Even better…I don’t hafta even atten ‘em.