Forgotten films re-exposed

DALLAS – Forgotten films discovered in an old warehouse 20 years ago now enjoy a new life across Texas thanks to technology and an effort to preserve movies made for and by blacks during the 1930s and ’40s.

Southern Methodist University got a grant last year to digitize nine feature films and seven shorts it obtained in 1983, when then-professor G. William Jones got a call about some old films found in Tyler, a town about 90 miles southeast of Dallas.

The collection, known as the Tyler, Texas Black Film Collection, comes from about 400 so-called race films made in the early part of the 20th century that included mysteries, comedies and vaudville-like shorts, and gave black audiences an alternative to the stereotypes portrayed in Hollywood productions.

The SMU films were restored and copied onto DVDs, and this fall the university distributed about 1,000 three-DVD box sets to about 900 school districts and black museums statewide.

“They’re the first type of films made for a black audience by black people,” said Phillip Collins, chief curator of the African-American Museum in Dallas. “They’re important because you had black eyes behind the cameras and the people in front of the camera didn’t have to wear a mask.”

Race films fell out of favor as the civil rights movement gathered momentum in the late 1950s and black actors like Sidney Poitier and Lena Horne got more and better roles in Hollywood films.

Rather than provide raw reminders of segregation, the films now offer a glimpse of what life was like more than 60 years ago, said Jacqueline Stewart, an associate English professor at the University of Chicago and a member of the school’s cinema and media studies committee.

“They definitely give you a picture of what life was like in the 1930s and 1940s _ the way they dressed and the music they listened to,” Stewart said. “A film can really bring those every day aspects to life.”

Actor-director Ossie Davis offers an introduction on the DVD collection. Davis, whose career began in Harlem in 1939, has appeared in numerous film, stage and TV productions, most recently on the CBS television series “Promised Land” and “Touched By An Angel.”

“I think students can begin to understand that in the past there was a split along racial lines,” Davis said.

The collection also shows the “do-for-self” spirit of blacks just after the turn of the century, he said.

“They had to make do with nothing,” Davis said. “And look what they did.”

While race films had virtually all-black casts and some black writers and directors, they were made by white-run production companies and shown in theaters that targeted blacks audiences, said Rick Worland, chair of the Division of Cinema-Television in the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU.

“They document the fact that there was a thriving black film industry, even in the shadow of something as powerful as Hollywood,” Stewart said.

Among the Tyler films found were “Juke Joint,” about two down and out men who pose as theatrical experts to get free room and board for helping the landlord’s daughter prepare for a beauty pageant, and “Murder in Harlem,” about a lawyer defending a manframed on a murder charge.

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