Black movies, but no black panther: films watched

I really wanted to catch Black Panther last weekend but our schedules didn’t cooperate. However, I did wind up catching some much older black films instead.

Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams named HALLELUJAH (1929) as the first all-black movie from a major studio (MGM), telling the story of a cotton picker seduced by Bad Girl Nina Mae McKinney, redeeming himself as a preacher but when she shows up again, he falls for her once again … Like a lot of early talkies, this plays as if nobody quite knew how to act in one, and it’s very aimless in plot, possibly because director King Vidor wanted a panorama of black rural life. It’s also uncomfortable to watch the scenes of happy black folks picking cotton and apparently free of any white authority, or the portrayal of black men as barely keeping their crazed lust in check (the DVD includes a Product Of Its Time text apology before the movie begins). I wound up more interested in the commentary track (by Donald Bogle, the Bright Boulevards) author as he discussed the stereotypes, McKinney’s failed career (things weren’t at the point where the industry knew what to do with her) and various controversies (black intellectuals objected to a film focusing on rural black life). In its own right historic, but not terribly good. “That’s what I’ll do to anyone who stands in my way on the path to glory!”

This came with two shorts starring McKinney — PIE PIE BLACKBIRD (1932)is a musical shortthat includes big band music, McKinney singing and the Nicholas Brothers dancing. THE BLACK NETWORK (1936)is a stronger short, with McKinney as singer for a variety show coping with sponsor problems.

CABIN IN THE SKY (1943) has a lot of the same elements as Hallelujah but works them much smoother as perennial scapegrace Eddie “Rochester” Anderson learns that despite wife Ethel Waters’ efforts to keep him on the straight and narrow, he’s bound for the Hot Place unless he turns his life around in the next six months — which, of course, Lucifer’s son (Rex Ingram) plans to prevent by bringing Bad Girl Lena Horne back into Anderson’s life. Based on a stage musical, this is a lot of fun; Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong contribute some music. “Sometimes when you fight the devil you’ve got to jab him with his own pitchfork?”

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