Village Voice 04.19.2017 : Page 42

42 April 19 April 25, 2017 Color Adjustments A compact survey at MoMA examines images of blackness in cinema T BY MELISSA ANDERSON tary emphasizes, “America’s premier he most powerful line in a ilm blackface artist.” Williams’s extrava-last year was also the simplest: gantly darkened visage — a not uncom-“Who is you?” one black man mon practice for black male performers asks another in Moonlight , a at the time, especially those movie devoted to exploring that who worked in vaudeville, query with rare speci ics and S CREEN the actor’s primary métier — expansiveness, not foregone C APTURED stands out as an especially conclusions. This most funda-painful contradiction in mental of inquiries provides a Lime Kiln Field Day , an un inished ilm through-line of sorts to a nine-day retro-shot in 1913 and assembled by MoMA in spective at MoMA, which opened on 2014; the 62 minutes of edited footage Tuesday, centering on black representa-make it the earliest surviving feature-tion in cinema, both within and without Hollywood. A collaboration with the British Film Institute, which organized the two-month-long “Black Star” screening series in London last fall, MoMA’s “Making Faces on Film” illuminates how the question has been contorted or corrupted over the past hundred-plus years — when “who are you” was often the much uglier “who did you have to be.” That noxious straitjacketing is the focus of Marlon Riggs’s documentary Ethnic Notions (1986), a potent survey, roughly spanning the antebellum era to the mid–twentieth century, of the most baleful stereotypes about African Amer-icans as promulgated in songs, adver-tisements, cartoons, ilms, and other elements of popular culture. Soberly and conventionally presented via clips, stills, talking-head interviews, and Esther Rolle’s imperturbable voiceover narra-tion, this hour-long project nonetheless has a destabilizing force, immersing the viewer in the most sick-making totems of this country’s incurable psychosis about race: the mammy, the coon, the pickaninny, the sambo. “Contained in these cultural images is the history of our national conscience, a conscience striving to reconcile the paradox of racism in a country founded on human equality,” Rolle calmly states after a snippet of a grotesque 1947 cartoon called Uncle Tom’s Cabana plays. Riggs’s ilm peers into the darkest, dankest cor-ners of America’s past, excavating the twisted fantasies that fed the collective id — delusions that have been updated to other pathologies today. One of the performers discussed at length in Ethnic Notions is Bert Williams, No one’s a match the Bahamian-born actor who was the for Tamara best-known black entertainer during the Dobson as irst two decades of the twentieth cen-Cleopatra Jones. tury. He was also, as Riggs’s documen-length production with a black cast. Directed by two white men, Edwin Middleton and T. Hayes Hunter, this high-spirited work, which centers on Williams’s banjo-playing boulevardier and con man vying for the attentions of the neighborhood beauty, is devoid of many, though not all, bigotries; the lead actor’s absurdly sooty mug endures as the most egregious stereotype. As Wil-liams’s suitor walks his lady home, the ilm concludes with the two of them kissing — a bit of amorousness between a black man and a black woman played not for laughs, as was almost always the case then, but as an honest expression of love. The moment is anomalous not just for 1913; throughout the next several decades, black performers would rarely be permitted to display any romantic tenderness onscreen. Another Williams — Spencer — ap-pears both behind and in front of the camera in the unsurpassably titled Dirty Gertie From Harlem U.S.A. (1946), a late entry in the canon of “race ilms,” low-budget, independently produced mov-ies made far outside Hollywood that featured black casts and were created by (mostly) black ilmmakers for exhibition in racially segregated theaters. Many of Courtesy Museum of Modern Art the titles in this genre pulse with melo-dramatic élan, an invigorating lunacy showcased in Williams’s unauthorized adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s “Rain.” Dirty Gertie takes place on the Caribbean island of “Rinidad,” where the svelte hoofer of the title (Francine Everett) strings along at least three suitors while still plagued by visions of the man she did wrong in Manhattan. Terri ied that her scorned lover may come after her, Gertie consults the local “voodoo woman,” played by the director in outrageous drag, a bosomy no-nonsense truth-teller who anticipates Tyler Perry’s Madea. (Five years after Dirty Gertie ’s release, Williams would begin his four-year run as Andy on TV’s The Amos ’n’ Andy Show .) “The wages of sin is death,” a buf-foonish preacher with the unsubtle name of Mr. Christian admonishes Gertie. Nina Mae McKinney, playing hootchie-cootchie temptress Chick, learns the same lesson in King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), the irst sound ilm with an all-black cast released by a ma-jor studio — and one that revels in the caricatures laid bare in Ethnic Notions . But McKinney, only a teenager at the time of her debut in Vidor’s movie, remains Hallelujah ’s greatest joy: She transcends the oversexed, conniving role assigned to her through her volca-nic vigor, an uncontainable energy that burns up the screen. Hollywood, of course, didn’t know what to do with her singular talents. The actress signed a ive-year contract with MGM, but the company never found substantial work for her. Two decades later, Lena Horne would endure similar treatment, her career also stalled owing to the intracta-ble racism in the movie industry. After dazzling in two phenomenal big-studio Hollywood musicals from 1943, Vin-cente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (not in the MoMA series) and Andrew L. Stone’s Stormy Weather , the actress and singer grew so frus-trated with Holly-wood’s prejudice ‘Making — one of Horne’s Faces on Film: dream roles, the bira-A Collaboration With BFI Black Star’ cial Julie in George Through April Sidney’s Show Boat 26 at MoMA (1951), was given to her lily-white, non-singing pal Ava Gard-ner — that by the mid-1950s she decided to focus on her nightclub career instead. As the avenging, six-two angel of the MoMA retro, Tamara Dobson’s epony-mous shero in Jack Starett’s blaxploita-tion beau ideal Cleopatra Jones (1973) will not be vanquished or stymied by anyone — not even by her most formida-ble foe, “Mommy,” the leather-booted honkie dyke heroin-ring queenpin played by Shelley Winters. “You are no match for that black lady,” one of the power-mad lesbian’s defecting lieuten-ants reminds her. Despite the movie’s deliberate ludicrousness, the thrill of seeing that diss proven again and again remains undimmed. VILLAGE VOICE.com

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