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S&A 2013 Highlights: How to Read (Black) Classic Films

Shadow and Act By Andre Seewood | Shadow and Act January 7, 2014 at 4:26PM

S&A 2013 Highlights: How to Read (Black) Classic Films
6
"Tamango"
"Tamango"

Although the title of this article might appear pedantic and perhaps even a tad condescending, I hope to convince you of its urgent necessity and importance by the end.  The work of tenacious film historians like Sergio Mims here at Shadow & Act, Donald Bogle and others are constantly bringing to our attention buried and neglected Black films from a time period when it was once thought that the only Black films that mattered were those with Sidney Poitier in the lead.

I should like to define a certain twenty year period as the Black Classic Film Period which is roughly from 1948 with Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini’s film PAISAN which featured an episode with a Black G.I. and an Italian shoeshine boy who meet each other on the streets of Naples during WWII and ending roughly around 1970 with German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film WHITY where a Black servant murders the entire White family he works for and runs away with a White prostitute. (1)

This period is defined by Black themed films made by White American and European filmmakers who risked their professional reputations and in some cases their personal finances and careers to make films that were ultimately censored or suppressed by limited U.S. theatrical releases, deliberate miss-marketing so that the films would not reach the Black audience or as in the case of Fassbinder’s WHITY, never given a domestic or European theatrical release.

Yet as the historians of Black cinema continue to uncover more and more films from this era, I fear that the deeper significance of these films is not being appreciated because 1) they are not being “read” or understood as they relate to their historical context and 2) the films are being severely miss-judged by modern aesthetic and Hollywood studio production standards that often obscure what the films and their creators were attempting to achieve and communicate.

For example, I find it very distressing that each time a lost or neglected Black film from this period is written about, the writer always has to place the caveat that,” it’s not a perfect film by any means, but…” within the article.  Knowing as we do that there is no such thing as a perfect film (even a masterpiece has a flaw whether you’re willing to acknowledge it or not) why must nearly every Black film rediscovered from this period be characterized as,” not a perfect film by any means…”?

The reason many Black film historians are either unwilling or unable to situate these films in their historical context so that we might be able to “read” the hidden or coded messages that these films often contain is perhaps because of the limitations of article space vis-a-vis the constraints of available research time.  Another reason for the lack of analysis of these films is because of a lack of perspective concerning the circumstances of their production.  For instance, many of these films were made during the Hays Code (1930-1968) which were a set of strictures against certain risqué elements in a film (including miscegenation or interracial romance) that would censor and limit if not the production of a film, then at least its U.S. distribution.  

If it is true that during times of great political oppression and social turmoil artists hide their oppositional messages and subversive themes in genres thought of as harmless entertainment and/or code their messages and themes by placing the stories in faraway places or in different historical time periods; if this is true, then it stands to reason that White filmmakers making Black themed films could also code their oppositional messages in genres such as melodrama (Imitation of Life – 1959, Douglas Sirk, One Potato, Two Potato- 1964, Larry Peerce), American independent film (Shadows- 1959, John Cassavetes), Westerns (Sergeant Rutledge-1960, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance- 1962, John Ford), Horror (Night of the Living Dead- 1968, George A. Romero), Family Dramas (TOXI- 1952, Robert Stemmie, Nothing But A Man-1964, Michael Roemer) and the European art film (Whity-1970, Rainer Werner Fassbinder).

Many of these White filmmakers were working under the political, racial and socially oppressive circumstances just after the ending of de jure segregation (1954 Brown v. Board of Education) and during the long arduous struggle against de facto segregation.

But we cannot fully appreciate these films until we place them in their proper historical context because the true purpose of the film historian is to contextualize and analyze these films, not simply to catalogue and advertise these films.  Think here of the work of the late Andrew Sarris and the French film critics who salvaged an entire history of American cinema just after WWII by the invention of the auteur theory and the notion that meaning of a given film is coded in the filmmaker’s style and the themes he or she chooses consistently over time.

But how do we “read” the coded messages in Black Classic films?

It might be easy to demonstrate this process if we use Black music as an example.  It is widely known that African-Americans used music as a form of coded messaging during slavery to indicate time, direction and pick up points for the underground railroad which transported thousands of slaves to freedom in the north.  So, while massa and his company enjoyed hearing the Negro spirituals like “Wade in the Water” or “Swing Down Sweet Chariot” wafting from the cotton fields and shanties below them, those who could “read” the messages in the music knew the alternate (oppositional) meaning.  Today, to understand the double meaning of certain Negro spirituals we have to place the songs in their historical context and tease out the meaning based on the circumstances where the song was sung and the circumstances of the listener at that time.

Another example is the song by Isley Brothers, “Footsteps in the Dark” from their 1977 album, “Go For Your Guns.”  Known for their strongly romantic “baby making” music, The Isley Brothers “Footsteps in the Dark” sounds like a perfect example of a romantic R&B ballad with a worried lover engaging in pillow talk with his betrothed.

“Are we really sure?  Can a love that’s lasted for so long still endure?”  

But if we place the song in its historical context of 1977: Five years after Black security guard, Frank Wills’ discovery of the Watergate Break-in, three years after the resignation of Richard M. Nixon and during the brutal results of the FBI COINTELPRO actions against Black Nationalist movements like The Black Panthers, then the song can be “read” as a coded message about political paranoia and the uncertainty with regards to what direction the love of Black people should be headed after these events.

“My mind drifts not and then, looking down dark corridors and wonders what might have been.

Something’s up ahead.   Hey, should I keep this same direction or go back instead?”

Finally the lover makes his point as explicit as the melody will allow without becoming didactic by reusing the pronoun “We” and questioning our complicity in the paranoia and uncertainty of the times:

“Who feels really sure?  Can that feeling guarantee your happiness shall endure?  Do we really care?  Hey, let’s look at what’s been happening and try to be more aware.”

Thus, under the guise of a traditional R&B ballad we can find a coded message about political paranoia in uncertain times from a group whose earlier hit was an explicitly political song called,” Fight The Power,” just two years earlier in 1975.

I have used this analysis of music to strongly suggest that when we “unearth” or rediscover Black Classic films from that twenty year period (1949-1969 give or take a few years) that we should try to put the films back in their historical context so that we can read the coded messages (if any) that might be hidden within the films by their creators and performers so that we can fully appreciate the significance of their achievement.

In films from this period it is not so often what is explicitly on-screen, but instead what is off-screen and what has been deliberately suggested that allows us to “de-code” and read the messages the artists are communicating to us as they had to circumvent the Hays Code and other forms of censorship to make these “Black themed” films in times of political oppression and social turmoil in the first place.                       

One film from the Black Classic Period that warrants a deeper analysis is the 1958 Slave revolt film, TAMANGO, which was directed by John Berry and starred Dorothy Dandridge and a German actor named Curt Jurgens as interracial lovers.  In an article about the film by Sergio Mims which you can read here, Mims informs us that:

“However aside from the slave revolt storyline and all that interracial lust, the other big controversy had to do with the director of the movie, John Berry.  He was a Hollywood director during the 1940’s with some major films, and was definitely on the rise until he was “blacklisted” during the Red Scare panic in America in the 1950’s.  He was one of many people including artists, scientists and other people of all walks of life, who were persecuted and destroyed by the Congressional House of Un-American Activities Committee for having progressive leftist sympathies.”

Now the question that would begin any analysis of the film TAMANGO is: Why would a White male, recently Blacklisted, American filmmaker make a “Black” film about a slave revolt aboard a slave ship set in the 19th century during a moment in the 20th century of entrenched racial segregation and intense political conformity?  

When we place the film back in its historical context, that of the HUAC persecution of artists, intellectuals and scientists,” for having progressive leftist sympathies,” what comes to mind is the fact that the actual reason for the persecution of Communists and Communist sympathizers at that time was because of the known and increasing Communist support for African-American civil rights.  From the moment the National Negro Congress headed by A. Phillip Randolph joined forces with the International Labor Defense in 1946 to form the Civil Rights Congress, an organization of White and Black Socialists and Communists the real unspoken reason for the House of Un-American Activities persecution becomes clear.(2)

The Communist and Socialist support for African-American Civil Rights during the late 40’s and into the 50’s was a threat to the American racial/social structure that would lead directly to the persecution of artists like John Berry and others by the HUAC.

This circumstance provides us some explanation as to why John Berry sought international financing (from Italian and French sources) for this “Black themed film” of a slave revolt with an interracial romance at its center.  TAMANGO is both a gesture of defiance on the part of its “blacklisted” auteur as well as a harbinger of things to come in American society with regards to its storyline.  

If we are seeking a message to “de-code” from the film we have to begin with the setting of the film on a 19th century slave ship trading slaves from Africa to Cuba and see this as a “distanced” metaphor for the segregated social structure in America at the time of the film’s production and release.  I say “distanced” metaphor because we must remember that in times of great political oppression and social turmoil artists often set their stories in a distant time-period (past or future) and/or a distant land to criticize contemporary issues from the safe harbor that fiction can provide.  

Going further, let’s look at Mim’s discussion of the ending of the film where he asserts that as a means of ending the slave revolt aboard his ship the captain,” fires his canons into the ship’s hold at the slaves.  As they sing, their songs for freedom are eventually silenced.”  I can’t be the only one who sees that a similar situation happened to African-Americans for real during the struggle for Civil Rights during the 60’s and 70’s?  Moreover, by firing canons into a ship’s hold isn’t it likely that all would perish in the attempt to stop the freedom of a few?  TAMANGO’s message is aimed directly at the tyranny of American segregation, racial inequality and the hypocrisy of anti-miscegenation laws and customs.  

By this brief analysis I only suggest to you here that TAMANGO is a much more serious film than a simple Dorothy Dandridge vehicle as the glorified film reviewer cum Historian, Donald Bogle would lead us to believe.(3)  We just have to learn how to “read” these Black Classic Films and the first step is putting the films back in their historical context so that we can make explicit what had to be deliberately suggested in those times because of censorship via the Hays Code, outright political oppression and persecution via the HUAC.

But the sad truth is that because we don’t have the high profile film preservationists like a Martin Scorsese to raise money to restore these neglected and forgotten films, coupled with the fact that because many of the films were made by White filmmakers some in the African-American film community are suspicious if not totally dismissive of the works- we have a long way to go towards reclaiming a vital part of American-American film history.

There may be no perfect films, but if we ask the right questions we might find the perfect means to appreciate what others have tried to say to us in the past.    

Notes

(1)The period begins with Rossellini’s PAISAN (1948) because it can be considered the first film by a European auteur that openly acknowledged the African-American presence in the European theater of World War 2 and opens the door on complex questions of class, race and poverty that would culminate in the Civil Rights Movement.  The period ends in 1970 in no small part by the appearance of Melvin Van Peeple’s SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASS SONG since it was a successful independently financed African-American film which proved the importance of the Black audience to the studios and other independent White producers, ushering in the era of Blaxploitation.

(2)  See pages 301-348, for a brief history of Blacks and Communism in BLACK MARXISM: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition by Cedric J. Robinson, Zed Press, London, 1983.

(3) See pages 378-391 of Donald Bogle’s biography of DOROTHY DANDRIDGE Amistad Press, New York, 1997 and pages 172-175 of Donald Bogle’s TOMS, COONS, MULATTOES, MAMMIES, & BUCKS: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films 4th Ed., Continuum, New York, 2001  


Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.


This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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