Nonstop workshop on black films

Mar 11th, 2010

By Lauren Heaton, Yellow Springs News

When Hollywood does the Oscars like it did on Sunday, its hard to think that the American film industry is anything but big name, big budget movie-making. But every year since silent films were the rage, well-made films by talented artists, many of them African Americans, have gone largely unnoticed. Some of those films may be forgotten, but so that they are not lost, this spring [former] Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute faculty member Bob Devine is bringing them back through a public workshop entitled “African-American Film, 1920s-Present,” to watch and discuss the impact of black independent cinema.

The series got started this past Wednesday, March 10, with an orientation to films by Oscar Micheaux, a Chicago pioneer who made almost four dozen films between 1919 and 1940 and was one of the first African Americans to persist from silent film into the era of the talkies, Devine said. In an age that portrayed African Americans in popular film as “scary Negroes with rolling eyes who were maids and butlers,” Devine said, Micheaux’s work stirred controversy because it addressed head-on-issues and attitudes about race from the black perspective. In response to D.W. Griffith’s glorification of the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation, Micheaux made The Symbol of the Unconquered, the story of a Klan raid on an African-American community that was living on a valuable oil field in Alabama.

Hollywood did little to represent African Americans in film. The 1934 film Imitation of Life was the first major motion picture that gave an African American a leading role, and a speaking one. But even then, the film spent no time developing the character of Delilah Johnson, played by Louise Beavers, outside the context of her relationship with the white characters. By contrast, Devine is reviving films by black directors that afford black characters complex internal lives, with their own goals, passions and frustrations, apart from their white counterparts. .

“This series is meant to show the progression and evolution of black films that reflect how our culture thinks about race,” he said. ‘These films represent the sensibilities of African Americans, done by African Americans, cast by African Americans.”

Later films by black directors got less play than they should have, such as Ivan Dixon’s 1973 subversive film, The Spook Who Sat by the Door. Dixon marketed the film hyping the popular black image of a CIA character like Shaft and Superfly, a profitable formula in Hollywood at the time. But upon closer inspection, United Artists found that the CIA agent is really an infiltrator who wants to gain skills to train Chicago “freedom ‘fighters,” a subtle twist that caused producers to pull the film shortly after it’s release.

“In the black community that film is well known – it’s a blueprint for urban revolution,” Devine said.

The 1973 Ganja and Hess is another film by director Bill Gunn that Hollywood attempted to manipulate for profit as a “Blackula” flick. But the industry was bucked when Gunn came out with a cerebral look at the influence of African and European heritages. Producers cut it back to the simple horror movie they had intended and released it as Blood Couple, but it was later pieced back to its original form.

“I’ve seen it 100 times, and it haunts me to this day,” Devine said.

Devine first heard about many of these films in the 1980s while working to bring public television access to communities in Dallas and Milwaukee that were disenfranchised by the mainstream media. One of his friends in Milwaukee kept talking about a film called Nothing but a Man, about a man in the South who wants to be treated as nothing less than simply a man.

Eight years after leaving the Antioch College faculty, Devine returned to the college to research more about the black film industry and teach classes to help his students to “shade in some of the history that had been left out of the mainstream culture.” He spent his last five years at the college before it closed in 2008 teaching course focused on the representation of African Americans in film.

Devine chose the films for the workshop series out of about 30 of the most influential and most beautiful films from the 20th century. Some are well circulated, such as Julie Dash’s 1991 Daughters of the Dust, the first feature film by a black female filmmaker to get mass distribution, and some include better known black actors, such as Fats Waller and Stepin Fetchit. But many are hard to find copies that Devine got through black filmmakers collectives in New York and Indiana University, or even experimental clips, such as a recently uncovered anthropological research project by black writer and poet Zora Neale Hurston.

The black film series also includes some of Devine’s all-time favorite films, such as Charles Burnett’s 1977 Killer of Sheep, a lyrical film about life in the Los Angeles ghetto. The low-budget film was never shown in theaters, and it took Burnett four years just to payoff the rights to the music he used without permission, Devine said. But years after its completion the Library of Congress declared it a national treasure, and the National Society of Film Critics deemed it among the “100 Essential Films” of all time, according to the Charles Burnett Project Web site. It was also hailed by screenwriter Michael Tolkin, who said, “If Killer of Sheep were an Italian film from 1953, we would have every scene memorized.”

The Wednesday workshops are scheduled for March 10, with a focus on Micheaux; March 24, with· a focus on Michael Roemer and his 1964 Nothing but a Man; April 7, with a focus on Gunn and Ganja and Hess; April 21, with a focus on Burnett and Killer of Sheep; May 5, with a focus on Dash and Daughters of the Dust; and May 19, with a focus on Cheryl Dunye and her 1996 The Watermelon Woman. The workshops are free and open to the public as a series or as individual events, though Devine recommends participants attend all the sessions to get an evolutionary sense of the industry.

“It’s a cultural enrichment project; that’s what Nonstop is about,” Devine said. “I strongly encourage people to take advantage of films that they’ll probably never see again in their lifetime.”