Friday, January 2, 2009

Oscar Micheaux and race movies

January 2 marks the birth anniversary of pioneering black director Oscar Micheaux. TCM showed three of his movies, which are in the genre known as "race" movies: movies with predominantly black casts and crews, made specifically for black audiences at a time when Jim Crow laws were the order of the day and black actors couldn't get good roles in Hollywood.

Although some race movies dealt with topics of particular interest to blacks (especially Micheaux'; he felt with his movies that he was trying to contribute to the advancement of blacks by trying to impart a message on the importance of education), other movies were much closer to being black versions of the sort of movie genres that were popular among white audiences; genres in which white movies were being made for white audiences. There were westerns, mysteries, comedies, and more; one of the more interesting race movies is the 1940 mob movie Gang War.

Gang War is comparable to a lot of the B-movies that the Hollywood studios were putting out in the 1930s. It's a story two rival gangs trying to control the jukebox racket in Harlem. Like Warner Brothers' "socially conscious" movies of the early 1930s, Gang War tries to be "ripped from the headlines", to the extent that it uses the clich├ęd conceit of using newspaper headlines to frame the scenes and drive the plot. (This isn't a criticism; white B-movies did this sort of stuff too.) There's the typical chase scenes between the police and the mob; however, because race films had extremely limited budgets, Gang War pretty much reused the same footage from one chase scene and showed it over and over. However, it makes the movie look even more zippy in its pacing that it is, which is a big plus.

The one big difference between Gang War and white gangster movies is that Black audiences liked pointless music and variety numbers even more than white audiences. As such, even a movie like Gang War has a few pauses for musical relief that might seem jarring to a viewer used to Hollywood gangster movies. On the other hand, the Black musical talent being showcased here wouldn't have had any other chance to appear on screen. And despite the low budget and concomitant bad production values, Gang War is still well worth watching and comparing to the B crime movies made by Hollywood. Fortunately, it's available on DVD.

No comments: