This semester-long series deals with themes of interracialism and will include early silent short films, pre-war American melodrama, Russian, French, and British dramatizations of racial conflict, and rare prints of important yet rarely screened 1960s films which present complex treatments of interracial encounters and relationships.
This program is co-presented with the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Special thanks to Professor Werner Sollors and Ally Field.
February 7 (Monday) 9:30 pm
A selection of silent film shorts which consider questions of race and representation including Sidney Olcott’s The Octoroon (1913), Edwin Porter’s Laughing Gas (1907), What Happened in the Tunnel (1903), and Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903).
Directed by Oscar Micheaux
US, 1932, b/w, 44 min.
With Laura Bowman, Barrington Guy, Lucille Lewis
The most important African-American filmmaker of the silent era, Oscar Micheaux was also the first African-American man to produce a “talkie” and is the only African-American to have produced films in both the silent and sound eras. Veiled Aristocrats is his 1932 sound remake of The House Behind the Cedars (1925), based on Charles Chesnutt’s novel. One of Micheaux’s most controversial films, Veiled Aristocrats addresses the question of the price of success in a middle class black community through the story of racial “passing.” Lorenzo Tucker (known as the "Black Valentino") stars in this story of a lawyer who returns home to find that his light-skinned sister is about to marry a dark-skinned man, while his mother has picked a more suitable candidate.
February 14 (Monday) 9 pm
Directed by Kenneth MacPherson
US, 1930, b/w, 60 min.
With Paul Robeson, Eslanda Robeson, Hilda Doolittle
In March 1930, the actor and singer Paul Robeson participated with his wife Eslanda in the ten-day filming of the European experimental film Borderline directed by Kenneth Macpherson, editor of the film journal Close Up (1927-33), the first British journal dedicated to film as a modernist art form. Borderline attempts to depict the psychological states of its protagonists using a technique that American poet Hilda Doolittle, known as “H.D.,” called “clatter-montage,” in which an effect of superimposition is achieved through rapid montage combinations. A variation on the model of romantic psychodrama, Borderline depicts the extramarital relationship of a white man, Thorne (Gavin Arthur) and a mulatto woman, Adah (Eslanda Robeson). In reaction to this situation, the wife of Thorne, Astrid (played by H.D.) invites Pete (Paul Robeson), the husband of Adah, to join them. What follows is a series of conflicts that lead to tragic consequences for both couples in this bold exploration of interracial relationships, sexuality, desire, tension, and injustice.
February 28 (Monday) 9 pm
Directed by John Stahl
US, 1934, b/w, 109 min.
With Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Louise Beavers
Based on Fannie Hurst’s popular novel, the successful 1934 Imitation of Life is often eclipsed by the more famous 1959 version starring Lana Turner. This Depression-era version depicts two women working together to provide for their daughters and ultimately striking it rich with “Aunt” Delilah’s pancake recipe marketed by “Miss” Bea (Colbert) and based on the hard work and culinary ingenuity of her housekeeper Delilah (Beavers). Delilah is offered 20% of the profits, yet is more concerned with continuing to serve Bea and her daughter, saying “I’se your cook. And I want to stay your cook.” Despite their success, the women face conflict with their daughters as Bea’s daughter Jessie becomes her mother’s rival in love and Peola, Delilah’s light-skinned daughter, heartwrenchingly rejects her mother in her attempts to “pass” as white. Despite the caricature of the submissive “mammy” figure, the film raised the humanization of the African-American servant in American cinema to a new level, with the introduction of Christian stoicism in the face of injustice. The real star of the film is Fredi Washington, an African-American actress whose Peola became a symbol of non-passive resistance and the film’s most complex character. As Donald Bogle noted, Peola is “the New Negro demanding a real New Deal.”