Now Showing at: Cincinnati World Cinema on October 20th and 21st.
Review by: Larry Thomas
In the early part of the 20th century, as African-Americans made their way north to the cities in search of employment, they were also hungry for entertainment that reflected their race in a true light. In 1910 Chicago, a cottage industry sprang up almost overnight that made films with black actors for black audiences. They were known as “race movies” and were shown in segregated theatres, both in major cities and in towns of all sizes throughout the south.
These films, and their filmmakers, are the subject of Midnight Ramble, a documentary look at this little-known segment of the entertainment industry that resulted in 500 films between 1910 and 1950.
In its brief 60 minute running time, Midnight Ramble mainly focuses on three events in race movie history. The best race movies were made in the silent era, with good production values despite low budgets. Since most of the actors were non-professionals, silent film meant they didn't have to struggle with lines. It was the D.W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation in 1915, which caused outrage in the black community. With its stereotypes and endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan, Birth of a Nation pushed the black community over the edge. This outrage led to a flourish of activity in the race movie business, and both production and attendance increased.
In the early 1920s came Oscar Micheaux from South Dakota. A well-educated black man who chose to live in that rural state, Micheaux raised seed money, and managed to write, produce, direct, and self-distribute many films. His penny-pinching was legendary among the cast and crew, and he managed to make money. He may rightly be called a predecessor to Roger Corman, renowned for his low-budget, high-profit, audience-pleasing films.
The third milestone is the advent of sound, which was, as the film states, the beginning of the end for race movies. Addition of sound caused production budgets to skyrocket, as well as expose the thespian shortcomings of the non-professional actors. While some performers were as good as any studio actors, they rarely got their due. Noble Johnson spent many years working in Hollywood, but rarely playing what he really was…a contemporary American black man. The legendary Paul Robeson got his screen start in an Oscar Micheaux silent. Herb Jefferies was the first, and only, black singing cowboy in a few films.
For viewers unfamiliar with these films, Midnight Ramble is a good beginning. While it's tough to get footage, since many of the titles no longer exist due to decomposition and neglect, there were more filmmakers around than Oscar Micheaux. And while sound was not necessarily a big help to race movies, there were still a lot of them made during the 20-year period before they ceased production. It's a frequent complaint that films these days are too long. This one is too short.
Midnight Ramble is showing at the Cincinnati Art Museum today and tomorrow at 2 pm only. Cincinnati World Cinema will host a post-film discussion each with the film's producer, Pamela Thomas.