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Making Black Cinema Picks for Turner Classic

ED GORDON, host:

Film historian Donald Bogle has joined Turner Classic Movies to present a look at the images of black cinema. The series is airing this month on the cable network. NPR's Farai Chideya sat down with Bogle to find out just how he chose the films in the series.

Ms. FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

You have this series all May, starting out with Birth of a Nation in 1915, and moving on to Get on the Bus in 1996. That's a long span and some very different kinds of movies.

Mr. DONALD BOGLE (Film and Entertainment Historian): You know, this is a series, you know, that does look at the evolution of African-American images. And also it's a series--we're just looking at Hollywood films. And, you know, Hollywood films were the movies that went all over the world, and they were the ones that really had a great cultural impact as far as the way that African-Americans were perceived.

So what we're doing in the series--we do open with The Birth of a Nation, a very controversial film--film released in 1915. And in Birth of a Nation we do get these stereotypes of African-Americans that will continue for decades to come. And then Hallelujah, released in 1929. Talking movies had come into vogue, and the idea was that now that movies had learned how to talk--and there were going to be musicals made and, you know, signing, dancing, talking films, you know--the idea was who could be more rhythmic than the American Negro.

So King Vidor, a major director at MGM studios. King Vidor had grown up in Galveston, Texas. And he had grown up around African-Americans. And he had long wanted to do a film that in some way dealt with African-American life and culture. So we see it today, and in Hallelujah, we do get stereotyped--images of African-Americans. Well we also do now have real African-American performers, and we do see some great talents in this film.

One of whom is Nina Mae McKinney. Nina Mae McKinney plays the character Chick, she's sort of a good time gal.

Ms. CHIDEYA: Let's hear a little bit of Chick from the movie Hallelujah.

(Soundbite of movie “Hallelujah”)

Ms. NINA MAE MCKINNEY: (as Chick) That old (unintelligible) is getting closer now, and I's getting' more scared all the time. Ohhh, that old devil's reaching out his claws for me. Can't you help your Chick, now? No, your Chick's done gone to the devil.

Unidentified Actor: No honey, you can't go. You can't go.

Ms. CHIDEYA: Donald, you'd mentioned types. You mentioned the mulatto type--and one of your books deals explicitly with all of the types of black folks there were in cinema: Mammies, bucks, mulattos. Do all of these films, up until a certain period, follow these stereotypes or archetypes? And when did they fade away?

Mr. BOGLE: Well, a real shift comes after the Second World War. And after the Second World War, of course, black GIs who had had fought abroad for the freedom of others were returning to America. And, of course, they realized that there were basic freedoms in their own country they still didn't have. And key filmmakers in Hollywood decide that they wanted to have new depictions of African-Americans. And in 1949, there were four films that just broke the mold. And these movies were the Negro problem pictures, which we are showing in this series.

Home of the Brave, about racism in the military; Lost Boundaries, about racism in a small New England town; Pinky, racism in the south; Intruder in the Dust, racism in the deep south. So they break the mold, but what's very interesting that in the 50s as we see the rise of these two important, dramatic African-American stars in Hollywood--Sidney Poitier and, of course, Dorothy Dandridge--they usher in new images of African-Americans. But it's interesting that the types in many ways have not really disappeared.

I mean with some of Sidney's films in the 50s, and part of the 60s--his noble black characters--I think we can see traces of the Tom figure that's been updated. I'm not talking about Sidney Poitier the actor, he was a great actor, and is a great actor--but the conception of these characters. With Dandridge we can see ties to the mulatto.

It continues when you get into blaxploitation cinema of the 1970s, with movies like Shaft and Superfly. We can see there, again, a break in what's been happening in Hollywood. We have these strong, aggressive, highly sexual black male characters and they have this anger, which the audience at that time very much couldn't understand. But even there, we can see ties to the old buck figure.

Ms. CHIDEYA: Turner Classic Movies also has packaged DVDs. Are these movies regular people are going to buy or are these movies that people are going to study. Because, I guess what also strikes is that sometimes people don't want to watch these older movies, because they don't like the stereotypic descriptions of African-Americans.

Mr. BOGLE: Well I think you're right. I think that a lot of times people don't want to see them. And I think that that would certainly apply to like Birth of a Nation. But, you know, we do have black movie buffs now. People who really do want to see the history, know more about it. Birth of a Nation was one film that certainly with African-Americans, I was—I've have often been asked about that. Well, where can they see it and what really happens and so forth. So they will be able to now to look at these.

You know some of the DVDs that are out--these are not actually packaged, the ones I'm thinking about, by Turner. There are other companies now that are bringing out, that have already brought out DVDs of some of these old movies.

Ms. CHIDEYA: Well, Donald, thank you so much.

Mr. BOGLE: Thank you. My pleasure.

Ms. CHIDEYA: Throughout the month of May, Turner Classic Movies will air black film classics in the Race in Hollywood: Black Images on Film series. A number of the films being shown have recently been released on DVD. Film and entertainment historian Donald Bogle served as special consultant on the project. His latest book is Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.

That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.