Because films are what many people love, the actual criticism usually gets overlooked. I’ve seen a great deal of criticism leveled at black filmmakers, but the criticism itself is not very impressive, yet no one seems to take that part of the equation very seriously. Can we really expect the films to advance while the criticism remains stagnant? It’s for this reason that I want to address the issue and talk about someone who gets no love at all these days. I’m talking about Lester Walton.
I suspect that many of you have never heard of the man so I’m going to give you an idea of what he was about.
Mr. Walton wrote for one of the early African-American newspapers known as New York Age. He started off working on the entertainment page and eventually went on to become editor for the newspaper. His contributions to the paper are interesting because he didn’t just stick to simple reviews. He seemed to really enjoy exposing the hypocrisy of the motion picture industry and engaging in social commentary that would almost always end with a call to action.
To best illustrate this I think we should start by taking a look at the August 9, 1909 New York Age article written by Mr. Walton entitled “The Degeneracy of the Moving Picture Theatre.”
While passing a moving picture theatre on Sixth avenue several days ago the writer was surprised to see a sign prominently displayed in front of the place bearing the following in large print: JOHN SMITH of PARIS, TEXAS, BURNED at the STAKE. HEAR HIS MOANS and GROANS. PRICE ONE CENT! A crudely painted picture of a colored man being burned at the stake completed the makeup of the offensive as well as repulsive-appearing sign.
Judge the great surprise of the writer when two days later while walking down the Bowery a similar sign met his gaze… It is very likely that in greater New York that there are many other moving picture theatres featuring the scene of a colored man being burned at the stake, which means the planting of the seed of savagery in the breasts of those whites who even in this enlightened day and time are not any too far from barbarism and to whom such acts of inhumanity would appeal.
The promoters of moving picture theatres make the assertion that their pictures are of an educational nature…We would like to know where do the elements of education come in so far as the picture in question is concerned?
Here is work for our ministers and others having the interest of the race at heart…These pictures can be suppressed if proper steps are taken to do so. However, if we do not start now to put an end to this insult to the race, expect to see more shocking pictures with the Negro as a subject in the near future.
Read that last sentence again and consider that those words were written a little more than five years before the release of the infamous film “Birth of a Nation.” It’s very telling that a man like Lester Walton can condemn the practices of the film industry for so many years and not get any credit for doing so, while the NAACP gets all kinds of props for its efforts to suppress the release of “Birth of a Nation.” I think there are a few reasons for this:
- – Moving picture theaters were known for cheap, tasteless entertainment when Lester Walton first began his efforts to demand that theatres stop showing lynch films. Though there were a few feature length films prior to “Birth of a Nation,” that film conveyed a level of legitimacy that the motion pictures before it just didn’t have. It rose above the level of mindless entertainment by raising the bar artistically and fundamentally changing the way motion pictures were made. White House screenings, endorsements by prominent Americans, elaborate recreation and interpretation of important historical events, and an unheard of $2.00 admission fee among other things caused this film to be taken much more seriously than any of the films that Lester Walton was addressing six years earlier.
- – “Birth of a Nation” was an attack on northern white people as well as an attack on African-Americans. Unlike lynch films that only show the spectacle of blacks being harmed, “Birth of a Nation” showed blacks being murdered and blamed it all on northern white liberals like the ones involved with the NAACP. This upset many influential white liberals and their support gave protests against the film more power than anything Lester Walton could muster on his own. Lester Walton did get a few nods from some white people in the film industry, but it was nothing compared to what happened with “Birth of a Nation” and the NAACP.
- – The third reason is closely related to the second. Lester Walton spoke for himself and was not the mouthpiece of a large organization that was created, operated, and financially supported by whites like the NAACP. The NAACP had connections that Lester Walton couldn’t compete with and this allowed the NAACP’s efforts to cast a shadow over everything he had done prior. In many of the negotiations that the NAACP engaged in with regard to “Birth of a Nation” only white representatives of the NAACP were allowed.
Keep in mind that I’m only giving reasons as to why Lester Walton’s earlier efforts have been overshadowed. I’m in no way stating that the NAACP had it easy or that Lester Walton’s efforts were not considered important during his time, but you can’t deny that Lester Walton’s efforts are virtually unheard of these days. As far as cinema is concerned he was the first to articulate many of the most popular arguments that are used today.
On June 5th, 1913 he wrote another article called “Flood Refugees” in the New York Age tackling the problem of misrepresentation that still exists today. In the article he asks:
What part will the motion picture play in properly representing the American Negro?…Following the film showing President Wilson throwing the first ball at the opening game…came a picture of flood refugees at Memphis, Tenn. All of the refugees in line were colored…The spectacle of this long line of hungry, homeless men, women and children did not touch his [Pathe’s camera operator] sympathetic chord…Under these depressing conditions he was light of heart and wanted to laugh. So he arranged three little black half-starved pickaninies in a row, sat a bowl of mush and a piece of bread before each and then waited to see the fun. Even a cultured grown-up person, when nearly famished, thinks but little of etiquette, and these did not disappoint the operator for the Pathe concern. They crammed their mouths with mush and bread until their jaws stuck out like little inflated black balloons…The ugliest of the three pickaninies had a mouth that almost stretched from ear to ear, and nostrils that were a parody on the nose. This unfortunate little creature was made to laugh, displaying a set of protruding gum that would attract unusual attention at a dental clinic…
From the “comic” pictures the audience was taken abroad…The peasants going to church on Sunday in one of the German towns was next shown…I wondered why it was that the Pathe people had seen fit to depict to the world the lowest type of the Negro-the ignorant, half-starved, homeless and deformed-while the peasantry of Germany was presented in their Sunday clothes and at their best.
Certain Negro stage types have been instrumental in making thousands of whites in this and other countries believe to be as a whole what we are not, and if the motion picture concerns continue to do as the Pathe people in showing the refugees at Memphis, or rather the colored refugees, the impression of the Negro in America will grow worse instead of better…To every section of the globe are these motion pictures sent, and when in England, France and Russia the natives see only the worst of us, the only conclusion they can reach is that the motion picture people are presenting the best types of the race…Even in the United States the white and colored citizens are living practically side by side with the white citizens, in general, knowing very little about us.
I remember when I first came across these types of arguments. I thought I was getting into something that wasn’t discussed in the days of my great grandparents, but that’s obviously not the case. I’m limiting my discussion to cinema, but the issues of racial representation were being addressed by black people back when the minstrel show was the only popular representation of African-Americans in the performing arts. Bert Williams and George Walker tried their best to take back control of the African-American image by changing the minstrel aesthetic, but there’s only so much you can do within the confines of a minstrel show. They were hopeful that motion picture technology would change things, but so much for that. I wonder what they imagined things would look like in the year 2009?
Unlike Bert Williams, George walker, and Lester Walton I don’t have to guess what things will look like in the year 2009. I’m here and I have the benefit of examining not only their ideas, but the ideas of many others and I think I would be doing a disservice to myself if I didn’t put that information to good use.
What are some of the ways that we can put this information to good use?
The first and most obvious thing to do is to be aware of the history so as not to repeat it. Why should we repeat Lester Walton’s mistakes? He wanted certain things to happen, but they didn’t. It’s not just Lester Walton either. Most of the things we hear people complaining about with regard to cinematic representation have been discussed since the beginning. If we don’t look at the words and actions of those that came before us and build on what they did we will just continue running in place.
I didn’t list the reasons why Lester Walton’s efforts were forgotten because I’m angry or because I like to reminisce over the past. We have to look at what has worked and what hasn’t and plan accordingly. You don’t have to agree with my interpretation of the facts, but we all need to be aware of the facts in order to have an informed discussion. If you come across someone who is totally unaware of the concepts that Lester Walton was trying to shed light on there’s nothing wrong with enlightening them, but to be satisfied with spouting that 100 year old argument year after year without making any attempts to advance the discussion is pointless.
One of the things that I have learned from people like Lester Walton is that a call to action is simply not enough. I can’t just implore you to read the history and build on it. I have to find different ways to bring you the information so that I can make a meaningful contribution (see my Art of Allusion post). I had my own blog at one point and one of the things I did was called Art of Allusion. It’s basically a technique I used to acquaint people with older films that they normally wouldn’t pay attention to by showing how modern filmmakers adapt ideas and techniques from older films for use in new ones. This technique seems to appeal to cinefiles and non-cinefiles alike. People who normally tune out when you talk about old films will pay attention to every word when you tie it to a film that they like.
If you don’t live near a place that has decent archives you just won’t be able to access a lot of information. There has been a lot of growth in the academic arena with respect to black cinema research over the last 15 years or so, but there are still quite a few areas that require you to do some digging.
Finally, criticism is something that I think many people take for granted. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen people hurling insults at some filmmaker, yet they don’t take the time to consider the amateurish nature of their own criticism. They are to criticism what they believe the target of their insults is to cinema, but thoughtful criticism is such an obscure thing when compared to popular movies that most people don’t care. I’m not claiming to be the ultimate film critic, but if we are going to challenge the filmmakers on what they produce I think it’s only right that we challenge ourselves as well.
I believe that many of the people that are involved in these discussions are passionate and will eventually make films if they haven’t already. People tend to admire the French New Wave, but let’s not forget that pretty much all of the major players in the New Wave started off as critics that challenged the status quo.