The University of Chicago News Office
December 20, 2001 Press Contact: Julia Morse
(773) 702-8359

University of Chicago’s student film group to screen rare “race films”

The University of Chicago’s Documentary Film Group will screen a series of rare “race films” from January 6 to March 3, 2002. The films will be shown on Sundays at 7 p.m. at Max Palevsky Cinema, 1212 E. 59th St., on the University of Chicago campus. Screenings cost $4 and are open to the public.

Race films are black-cast films made before 1950 for segregated African-American audiences. They range in genre from melodramas, thrillers, and musicals to comedies and Westerns. These independent productions provided black viewers with images of African-American experience that were conspicuously absent from Hollywood films, including black romance, urban migration, social upheaval, racial violence, alcoholism, and color prejudice within the black community.

The first film in the series, Within Our Gates (Oscar Micheaux, 1920) is the earliest surviving film by an African-American director. Released the year after race riots spread through more than 20 U.S. cities, Within Our Gates was initially banned in Chicago because of references to interracial rape and lynching. After an uproar from the African-American community, the local censor board allowed a heavily expurgated version of the film to be shown.

Within Our Gates and the other silent films in the Doc series will be screened with live musical accompaniment, as they would have been shown when first released. A different musical group will perform for each of the silent-film screenings.

The film series is being held in conjunction with the graduate seminar “A Separate Cinema? Race Films in Context,” taught by Jacqueline Stewart, professor in English, cinema and media studies, and African and African-American studies. Students from Stewart’s seminar will give a short introduction before each screening to help contemporary audiences understand the films’ historical context.

“These movies were known as ‘race films’ because they were intended to uplift the ‘race,’ in the same way that many African-American activists of this era, such as W.E.B. DuBois, referred to themselves as ‘race men,’” Stewart explained. “Many African Americans sought to avoid the terms then in circulation, so instead of using ‘Negro,’ ‘colored,’ or worse, they used the word ‘race,’ as in ‘race men and women,’ ‘race causes,’ ‘race progress,’ ‘race records.’”

Race films, unlike Hollywood films of the time, allowed black actors to display their acting talent in serious dramatic roles. “When actors like Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, Louise Beavers and Noble Johnson appear in race movies, they perform in ways that acknowledge a predominantly African-American audience, and to some extent they move beyond stereotyping,” said Stewart. “Still, many of the films adopt Hollywood genres and character types, raising interesting questions about how progressive these films really are.”

The history of race films begins in 1910 in Chicago, when William Foster, a vaudeville press agent, launched his own film company. The Foster Photoplay Co. produced primarily slapstick comedies starring black vaudeville performers. Ebony Film Corporation, also of Chicago, quickly followed suit.

By the 1920s, more than 30 race-film companies were producing films destined for black-owned theaters across the country. In Chicago, race films were screened at theaters such as the Grand, the States, and later the Regal and the Met in the South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville. “Race films by maverick African-American directors such as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams laid the groundwork for later black filmmaking, from the commercial successes of 1970s ‘blaxploitation’ films to the stylistic references and social commentary of Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, and Spike Lee,” said Stewart.

Doc Films is the longest continuously running student film society in the nation, showing movies every night of the academic year. The cinema has two Eastman Kodak 16mm and two Century 35mm projectors. The projectors’ variable speed capabilities allow Doc Films to present silent films in their original format.

Photos are available

Race Films Screening Schedule

January 6, 2002
Within Our Gates
Oscar Micheaux, 1920, 99m, restored 35mm
With live piano accompaniment by Professor Thomas Christensen, Chairman, Department of Music

During the summer of 1919, there were race riots in more than 20 U.S. cities. When this film was released the following year, it was censored in Chicago because its “8,000 feet of sensational realism” included references to interracial rape and lynching. Telling the story of an educated black woman with a shocking past (Evelyn Preer), Within Our Gates is Micheaux’s second film and the earliest extant feature film by an African-American director. Sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture.

January 13, 2002
Spying the Spy
R.W. Phillips, 1918, 13m
Two Knights of Vaudeville
Ebony Film Corporation, 1915, 13m
A Natural Born Gambler
G. W. Bitzer, 1916, 30m
With live organ accompaniment by Jay Warren

Black representation in silent cinema consists primarily of comic stereotypes, creating difficulties for black actors playing comic roles, such as the legendary Bert Williams in A Natural Born Gambler. Spying the Spy was produced by Chicago’s Ebony Film Corporation, who sought to avoid dialect and stock situations in favor of a Keystone style of “quality” slapstick.

January 20, 2002
Body and Soul
Oscar Micheaux, 1924, 104m
With live jazz accompaniment by the Damian Espinosa Trio

Starring Paul Robeson as an ex-convict-turned-preacher and his twin, a mild-mannered inventor, this film is artistically and politically radical. Robeson and Micheaux used the form of double roles to expose and explore dualities within the community when its coherence and religious leadership were seen as crucial to its political advancement. Not a conventional realist work, Body and Soul violates the Hollywood codes of conventional easy-to-follow storytelling. Using flashbacks and dream sequences, Micheaux’s editing seeks simultaneity over continuity.

January 27, 2002
Ten Nights in a Bar Room
Roy Calnek, 1926, 65m, 35mm
With live musical accompaniment by Funkadesi

This film, based on a popular temperance play performed in black communities, features two of the leading black stage actors of the day: Lawrence Chenault as a shady bar room proprietor and Charles Gilpin as a drunkard. The production company, the Colored Players Film Corporation, was founded in 1926 by white producer David Starkman, who produced popular melodramas about black families and communities. Ten Nights enjoyed the longest continuous run of any race film in the silent era: four weeks at New York City’s Grant Theatre.

February 3, 2002
Scar of Shame
Frank Perugini, 1927, 92m
With live jazz accompaniment by Fred Anderson & Tatsu Aoki. A reception will follow.

Elite pianist Alvin (Harry Henderson) marries lower-class Louise (Lucia Lynn Moses), but their social differences cannot be reconciled. A melodrama of class conflict, this film is one of four produced by the Colored Players Film Corporation. Writer David Starkman hired a white director and white technicians but worked with an all-black cast. The film is notable for its relatively high production values and for its rare depiction of color prejudice and class tensions within the African-American community.

February 10, 2002
Veiled Aristocrats
Oscar Micheaux, 1932, 44m, 35mm

Micheaux frequently recycled story material, and this film is a remake of his 1925 silent film The House Behind the Cedars, an adaptation of the novel by noted black author Charles Chestnutt. Micheaux reinterprets Chestnutt’s story: here the light-skinned heroine, Rena, subverts the “tragic mulatta” trap by enthusiastically choosing to claim her black identity and a dark-skinned black entrepreneur boyfriend. This recently rediscovered print is missing footage near the beginning, and the surviving footage is rough and can be difficult to follow.

February 17, 2002
Harlem Rides the Range
Richard C. Kahn, 1939, 56m
Moon Over Harlem
Edgar G. Ulmer, 1939, 68m

Filmed on location at a black dude ranch near Victorville, Calif., Harlem Rides the Range is one in a series of late 1930s race film Westerns featuring Herb Jeffries as a singing cowboy hero. Here he plays Bob Blake, who rides to the rescue when the villain (Clarence Brooks) tries to take control of a radium mine by kidnapping the land-owner’s beautiful daughter. Jeffries rose to fame as lead singer with the bands of Duke Ellington and Earl “Fatha” Hines. The film also stars its co-screenwriter, Spencer Williams. Moon Over Harlem is a musical drama featuring jazz great Sidney Bichet.

February 24, 2002
The Girl in Room 20
Spencer Williams, 1946, 63m

Spencer Williams wrote and directed nearly a dozen films between 1939 and 1947 before concentrating on his role as Andrew “Hogg” Brown in the 1950s television show Amos ‘n’ Andy. In this urban melodrama, a small-town girl named Daisy Mae Walker moves to New York City hoping to become a famous singer. She befriends a number of interesting characters but also encounters the harsh realities of city life and the cutthroat world of show business. Will Daisy become disillusioned and abandon her dreams? Or will she continue her quest for fame and fortune?

March 3, 2002
Juke Joint
Spencer Williams, 1947, 70m

One of the last films made by the great Spencer Williams, Juke Joint is a fun-filled all-black-cast comedy about a pair of hitch-hiking con artists named Bad News Johnson and July Jones. When the two arrive in a small Midwestern town under the assumed names of Vanderbilt Whitney and Cornbread Green, they become entangled in the lives of a local family, agreeing to help train their two teenage daughters for a beauty contest. This wild take on black family life is highlighted by musical scenes featuring the talents of Red Calhoun.

Additional contact:
Jacqueline Stewart
(773) 702-7999

For more information and a complete schedule go to
Last modified at 01:55 PM CST on Friday, September 12, 2003.

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