By Chesney Hearst, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Beginning today (Wednesday, July 31st) and running through August 19th, Rio’s Centro Cultural Banco do Brazil (CCBB) will present 25 American “race films”, as part of a collection entitled, “Oscar Micheaux: The Black Cinema and Racial Segregation”. Race films were made in the U.S. between 1910 and 1950, produced exclusively for black audiences by black filmmakers with all-black casts.
Considered by many to be a pioneer of American black cinema, Oscar Micheaux was born as the son of former slaves in 1884. He began writing during his early adulthood and when a major production company failed to turn his first novel into a film, Micheaux established his own publishing and film production companies.
The 1919 movie adaptation of his novel, “The Homesteader” became the first of over forty films that Micheaux would produce as part of the race films genre.
The genre originated in response to Jim Crow laws, American state and local laws first enacted in 1890 that mandated racial segregation between whites and blacks in public spaces.
Approximately 500 films, both silent films and “talkies”, were produced in this genre, usually with budgets under US$15,000. Micheaux distributed his own films, traveling across America from theater to theater and continuously re-editing them to suit varying censorship requirements.
A social activist, Micheaux often addressed controversial issues in his films. Plotlines included mixed-race relationships, critiques of race relations, racial betrayals, and miscegenation.
“It is also worth remembering that Oscar Micheaux began making films well before the emergence of the civil rights movement in the United States with apartheid still in force,” British filmmaker and Rio resident of 36 years, Vik Birkbeck told The Rio Times. “He made his second film “Within our Gates” in the 1920s in response to Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation” which openly supported the Klu Klux Klan.”
Both Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” and Micheaux’s “Within our Gates” will be shown as part of the CCBB retrospective as will other films by Micheaux including; “Swing”; “Body and Soul”; and “Ten Minutes to Live”. Race films from directors Jack Kemp, Edgar G. Ulmer, George Randol, Lindsay Powell and Spencer Williams along with director Brad Osborne’s 2007 documentary entitled, “In the Shadow of Hollywood: Race Movies and the Birth of Black Cinema” will also be shown as part of the collection.
“I think it’s a very important movie retrospective,” aspiring film producer Yolanda Barroso told The Rio Times. “It makes people aware of how bad the prejudice can be and how it affects a society in matters of intellectual and social growth.”
Born and raised in Rio, Barroso also spoke of stereotypical depictions of black Brazilians. “I would give you as an example the filmmaker Nelson Pereira dos Santos, who did several movies about the favela residents, the samba songwriters from the “Zona Norte” [North Zone] of Rio while you had the glamorous part of Rio being portrayed in other movies.”
Barroso who is bi-racial added, “You don’t see racism, people don’t teach us to confront it. But you feel it a lot. And then you have the stereotypes of black people [portrayed in media], that only makes it harder.”
In America, race films, independent of Hollywood, grew out of necessity to help those in the film industry maintain employment and to entertain and empower black theatergoers by offering a variety of onscreen representations.
“As a black Hollywood TV editor, I am grateful for Oscar Micheaux and people like him who paved the way for me today,” American Fred Chappell told The Rio Times, adding, “I hope this exhibit inspires black and poor Brazilians to follow in his footsteps. Everyone should be represented and have a voice in shaping Brazil’s film and TV industry.”
What: Oscar Micheaux: The Black Cinema and Racial Segregation
Where: CCBB Rio, Cinema I, Rua Primeiro de Março, 66 – Centro
When: July 31st to August 19th
For a complete listing of showtimes see here.