That's Black Entertainment

Director: William Greaves

I'd never seen these movies before. And it wasn't because of laziness on my part; the movies that are sampled in That's Black Entertainment I've never seen available to rent or buy on video, and I've never seen them played on TV. The kind of films I'm talking about are the movies made by black Americans between 1910 and 1953. You've never heard about these movies before? Well, you've missed out on an entertaining and fascinating part of American history.

A short explanation for those totally unaware of this genre: One of the grimmest parts of American history were the segregation laws, which separated black Americans from white society in many areas. This included movie theaters - there were about 20,000 movie theaters open during the golden age of cinema, and they were off limits to blacks. According to this film, there were 1100 special theaters (other estimates I've seen elsewhere claim from 400 to 800) for people belonging to this ethnic group. If there's anything positive that came out of this segregation, it was that it created a visible market for movies made by blacks, catered to black audiences. Though most of these movies were financed and made by blacks, the movie does reveal that some financing and work was contributed by whites occasionally. Of course, with the limited audience, the budgets had to be much lower - usually even less than the cost of a "B" feature at a major studio. But these movies were still popular enough to result in several decades of uninterrupted filmmaking, making the same kind of movies (comedies, westerns, musicals, etc.) that white filmmakers would make. About 500 movies were made in those 43 years, but only about 100 of them exist today. That's Black Entertainment shows clips from 29 of these movies.

This documentary is hosted by William Greaves, who also wrote and directed. As the host and narrator, he does a good job; he has a friendly manner, and seems to know his stuff. (In fact, we see a clip of him acting in one of these movies, Souls Of Sin.) When it comes to presenting these clips, however, his skills are unfortunately weak. Take the first movie he shows, the 1935 Murder In Harlem. It's directed by Oscar Micheaux, possibly the most acclaimed black director of this period, who covered a range of gutsy topics. In this movie, he covers the uncomfortable topic of lynching, basing the story of this movie on a real life case. Actually, that's what we're told - we're hardly shown anything but two or three short clips from the movie, none of which have anything to do with lynching. And with those clips played, the coverage of Micheaux is finished - there's no more mention of him elsewhere! Still, we at least do get a tantalizing look at the movie; it's interesting that one clip shows a fair-minded white policeman talking to the black suspect, and another clip has the word "damn" being spoken out loud - you wouldn't find language like that spoken in a Hollywood movie from that year.

The next clip gives more evidence that this documentary is going to be frustrating at times. We see a clip from the 1949 Souls Of Sin, which we are told is a look at life in the ghetto for blacks at this time. The scene is interesting - one black, who is an aspiring writer working on a story, is determined to work hard and improve his life, while his friend tells him, "No one would buy it!" and is convinced that there is no possible life out of the ghetto. Once again, we are only given this short clip to look at (for the time being - another clip is shown much later in the movie, giving the movie an interesting imitation of a Hollywood "Crime Doesn't Pay" ending.) Still, it's a well acted scene, and gives us a (tiny) peek into the possible opinions of impoverished blacks in the post-war era, making us forget about the cheap set and the short length of the clip.

A lot of the clips in this movie are simply too short. Overall, I did get enough out of seeing them, but barely; I simply knew that there was a lot more good stuff that I wasn't seeing. Maybe the documentary was fixed at a 60 minute length (for future sales to PBS and cable?), and Greaves could only show so much. But I am happy that Greaves didn't cut the best parts of the documentary - the musical scenes. Just for the music scenes alone, That's Black Entertainment is worth watching. There's an incredible amount of priceless footage here. We see legendary singer Bessie Smith in her only film appearance (St. Louis Blues) and my God, can she sing! In this long clip, she starts singing first without any background music, and even then, must have brought down the house. When the background orchestra starts to play, it's even better.

We also see Nat King Cole in action in Killer Diller. I had known about Cole being a great singer, but I didn't know he was as good playing the piano. Let me tell you, he just rips up the piano. In other clips from other movies, we see other black celebrities appearing in these movies before being known by the mass audience - we see Sammy Davis Jr. (at 8 years old) doing an excellent tap dance. We see Lena Horne and Cicely Tyson showing off the stuff that made them stars. And we see the great Paul Robeson in a couple of clips that, yes, give him the chance to show off his wonderful singing voice. Not only that, but these clips show off a few interesting things - one scene has Robeson's character looking longingly at a poster for South Africa. Another clip has him playing an African warrior chief who is in awe at the British colonial troops in his land (who are there for the right reasons, of course.)

Not surprisingly, those two movies were made in England, and not by black filmmakers. The movie devotes several clips showing the racism (unconscious and otherwise) from Hollywood movies of this era. We see Bing Crosby in blackface in one clip from Crooner's Holiday. And we are shown clips from three animated shorts, including the Walter Lanz Scrub Me Mama With A Boogie Beat and the Tex Avery directed All This And Rabbit Stew(*), both of which contain outrageous stereotypes. I can understand the use of these clips, to make the point that whites would frequently misrepresent blacks. However, the movie generally shys away from showing clips from black-made movies that would be considered racist today, and I know for elsewhere that there would be a number of examples to bring up. For example, we don't see a clip of famous black cowboy star Herbert Jeffrey singing "Swanee River" on his horse from Harlem Rides The Range (nor is there any mention of Jeffrey elsewhere in the documentary.) About the only times the movie makes mention of this is a mention that Cab Calloway's behavior was objected to by some blacks even back then, and a clip from the 1933 Rufus Jones For President, where a sign in the clip we see says, "Vote here for Rufus Jones - two pork chops every time you vote" This isn't commented on. (One fascinating clip of the movie seen elsewhere shows black protesters holding signs that say "Get the Reds out of the office and put in the Blacks!")

But I think I can understand the reasoning for ignoring this uncomfortable fact. If these movies were better known, it would call for a fair examination on the subject (certainly longer.) But since these movies are little-known, I think it's important to, at least in the beginning, show off all these fascinating and great movies. Even if the quality of the writing and direction of the movies might not be good at times, they are still very important time capsules. You probably didn't know that there were black newsreels - you get to see one here. You probably didn't know what many of these yet-to-be-famous stars were doing before they broke out. You learn here. There's a good chance you didn't even know that such movies existed in the first place, and you'll learn something about them. I guarantee you'll learn a heck of a lot more about black filmmaking after watching That's Black Entertainment. Yes, there are some serious problems with how it was put together. As I said before, the clips are generally too short. There also seems to be no pattern to how the clips were put together - we jump randomly from one facet of these movies to another abruptly, and with no logic. The documentary doesn't go into the decline of black filmmaking (I suspect desegregation had a part in it,) and I would have liked to learn more about the making of these movies - to know more about the directors, the actors, and how the movies were put together. This documentary left me hungry for more, but since it got me so hungry at the end, I think that's a positive sign, so I am giving this documentary a marginal recommendation.

* I saw this cartoon a few years ago at a Tex Avery film festival. When the image of the grotesquely drawn young black boy first appeared, the (white) audience just GASPED at what they saw, and started muttering out loud. Curiously, though this cartoon and Scrub Me Mama were originally made in color, they are played in black and white in this documentary.

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See also: The Black Godfather, Hot Boyz, Out Of Sync