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A Separate Cinema in St. Louis: Black Films Blast Back from the Past

A Separate Cinema in St. Louis: Black Films Blast Back from the Past

A Separate Cinema in St. Louis: Black Films Blast Back from
the Past

by Maud Kersnowski

Classic, independent, black films from 1915-65 will be brought together
with leading scholars, actors and memorabilia for the first time, at the
St. Louis International Film Festival, this weekend. The sidebar,
entitled A Separate Cinema, is hosted by The Urban League of
Metropolitan St. Louis at the Vaughn Cultural Center and will include
screenings, panels, lectures, and an exhibit of vintage posters. Actors
Ozzie Davis and Ruby Dee will be honored at a Gala screening of George
Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” Friday night.

What is now being called Separate Cinema or early black independent
films, at the time of their release were referred to as race films or
midnight rambles because they were shown in theaters late at night.
These films featured all black casts and were marketed exclusively to
black audiences. While many were financed by white producers, others
were funded by churches, community groups or friends of the filmmakers.
While the money did not come from the Hollywood studios, much of the
subject matter paralleled the standard Hollywood genres: melodramas,
musicals, romances and of course, westerns.

Many of the recognizable names in this weekend’s movies worked in both
Hollywood and independent, black films. Sidney Poitier, Dorothy
Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horn all starred in Separate Cinema
productions and crossed over into studio features. But there are far
fewer copies of the independent films still in existence. A number of
the rarely seem films will be screened in St. Louis, with “The
Bronze Buckaroo
” starring Herb Jeffrey, “No Way Out” with Ozzie Davis
and Ruby Dee, “Bronze Venus” with Lena Horne and Paul Robeson’s “The Proud
” being a few of the better known titles on the schedule. Most of
the screenings include several shorts with such musical headliners like
Billy Holiday, Cab Calloway and Josephine Baker.

Originally, A Separate Cinema was a traveling poster exhibit put together
by John Kisch of the Separate Cinema Archives, which houses several
thousand original movie posters from pre-1965 black films. However, as Mary
Strauss, Board President of the St. Louis International Film Festival
became more excited about the posters in A Separate Cinema, she learned
more about the films themselves. A Separate Cinema quickly mushroomed
into a full blown sidebar pulling in scholars, films and actors from New
York to Los Angeles. “It’s taken on a life of its own,” says Strauss.

As films produced in segregated America, they are unknown to many people
under fifty. Most whites, regardless of age, were unaware of the vast
amount of films shot for black audiences. “Many people, especially white
people like myself, have never heard of Separate Cinema,” points out
Marsh Boeck, Vice President of Employment, Education and Development for
The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.

The creation of Separate Cinema, like the NAACP, was accelerated as a
response to D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation“, which will be screened
Thursday, in an attempt to place the entire sidebar in historical
context. This “masterpiece,” which is on many 100 greatest films lists,
details the Civil War ear, post-Civil War period, Reconstruction and
rise of the Ku Klux Klan, in an extremely sympathetic light. “Birth of a
Nation” was the first time the American public and critics sat up and
said, ‘Hey, films can really be used as propaganda’,” points out

This summer when Strauss was deciding whether or not to show the rarely
seen, racist classic she said, “I wouldn’t do it alone, without The
Urban League.” However, everybody involved in the sidebar agreed that the
film needed to be seen and discussed, to fully understand the impact it had on
America. “When the [then] president of the United States stands up and
says this is a great film, that showed Hollywood wasn’t going to show us
with any dignity or honor,” says Director of the Vaughn Cultural Center,
Almetta Jordan. “It was the impetus for Black filmmakers saying ‘We’re
going to make our own films.'”

A Separate Cinema aims at being a crash course in the history of African
American film for the community at large. For the next two weeks, St.
Louis high school students will be guided through the poster exhibit and
PBS documentary “The Mid-Night Ramble” by film collector and enthusiast
Dahati Kennedy at the Vaughn Cultural Center. Mr. Kennedy and Ms. Jordan
believe this forgotten film history is extremely important for teenagers
because movies are such an ingrained part of youth culture. “They’re the
first thing you get to do on your own, free of your parents,” points out
Ms. Jordan.

The St. Louis Film Festival’s sidebar is part of an expanding interest
in Separate Cinema. With the popularity of the 70’s and blaxploitation
films, many film buffs are beginning to look at what came before “Super
.” PBS and Turner Entertainment have both produced films on Separate
Cinema, and in the last few years, a steady stream of books, both
popular and academic, have been published, several written by panelist
attending the St. Louis festival. Museums have been buying up vintage
posters and films, and HBO currently has a Dorothy Dandridge project in
development. The day when Separate Cinema is not forgotten cinema is
quickly approaching.

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