Memories of the Movies in Segregated America

Writer and filmmaker S. Pearl Sharp offers an audio essay about the black movie going experience during the days of segregated American cinema.

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ED GORDON, host:

The world is gearing up for the Academy Awards this Sunday. Many African Americans will be pulling for best actor nominee, Terrence Howard, who is nominated for his role in the movie Hustle and Flow. This is on the heels of last year's Oscar wins by two other black actors. But there was a time when this was unthinkable. Not only were blacks virtually shut out of the awards, but black fans watched mostly all white films from restricted balcony seats.

Actress S. Pearl Sharp says, in spite of all this, blacks have always made the best of the movie going experience.

Ms. S. PEARL SHARP (Write and Filmmaker): With all the hoopla about the Emmy's the Golden Globe Awards, and finally the Academy Awards, I decided to take a break and check out the view from the balcony.

That means dropping in on my friend, Dr. Mamie Clayton, a retired librarian with a passion for history and film. Founder of the Black American Cinema Society, and the Western States Black Research Center in Los Angeles, she has one of the country's largest private collections of early black films.

(Soundbite of movie)

Unidentified Man: Why don't you let me be and give me a divorce.

Unidentified Woman: I dare you to try to get a divorce. I'll have my brothers break your ugly neck.

Ms. SHARP: Now, I know there are a lot of young black filmmakers who think that they are doing something no one else has done before, but black folks have been involved in the movie business for almost a hundred years. Okay, when I say involved, there are two sides to that picture, the view from the main floor, and the view from the balcony.

In the good old days of all white movies and segregation, the balcony was open, and as Dr. Clayton recalls, shall we say reserved for blacks.

Dr. MAMIE CLAYTON (Founder, Black American Cinema Society, and the Western States Black Research Center): When I was a child living in Van Buren, Arkansas, the only theatre that we could attend we could have changed. We had to go up a real steep stairs. And then you open up a little door for the black people, and you go into the theatre.

Mr. ROOSEVELT RICK WRIGHT, Jr. (Professor of Film and Television, Syracuse University): The best view was from the balcony.

Ms. SHARP: Roosevelt Rick Wright, Jr. should know, his father was a motion picture projectionist in North Carolina during the 1920s and 1930s. Under the country's segregationist Jim Crow laws at the time, we certainly weren't going to allow any race mixing to be going on while enjoying a good movie.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes, we as African Americans had to go up in the balcony to watch the movie, but that was the best place to view a movie.

Ms. SHARP: Following his father's footsteps, Rick Wright, Jr. is a professor of film and television at Syracuse University.

Mr. WRIGHT: And then, of course, you're near the projection booth, and then you've got the ambiance of the projection machine, and that light coming through those portholes. I mean, that's magical.

Ms. CLAYTON: That's the only way they could see the movie, and that was the only movie house around.

Ms. SHARP: Again, film archivist, Mamie Clayton.

Ms. CLAYTON: I do remember one occasion when my sister put her foot over the balcony and her shoe fell down on the white people down the stairs, and she was scared to go get it. She went home crying. And my daddy said, shoot, I paid too much for them shoes. He went up to the theatre and got her shoe. That was hilarious.

Ms. SHARP: And here is what's important about Dr. Clayton's experience.

Ms. CLAYTON: I don't remember ever seeing a black movie before I became of age to go away to college.

Ms. SHARP: Coming along two generations later, my experience was a little like Mamie's. Raised in Ohio, the only brown skin star I saw the big screen was Bambie, yes, the deer. Then in high school in the late 1950's, the problem was not segregation, but integration. The school ran feature films in segments during lunch time everyday. But they weren't showing films that featured a suave and handsome Lorenzo Tucker, known as the black Valentino.

So I thought that swooning over Rock Hudson and cheering on white cowboys was all there was. Fortunately, a couple of decades later, Dr. Clayton rescued me. In 1977, she presented Black Talkies on Parade, a public screening in Hollywood of films made by pioneer black directors, like Spencer Williams, and Oscar Micheaux, and the Johnson Brothers. These films made between 1910 and the early 1950s had black starlets and villains, and they were made especially for the black audience.

I was transported into a whole other world. There was one of my heroes, the esteemed, dignified Paul Robeson, playing a shady hustler. It was sort of the original Hustle and Flow made by a black director, Oscar Micheaux 80 years ago. And was that a black cowboy on the screen?

Ms. CLAYTON: We had never seen a black cowboy film, up until Herb Jefferies. But Herb Jefferies--there were three or four black cowboy films. And when I saw that, I was just thought it was the greatest thing that every happened.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SHARP: Roy Rogers and Tonto, move over. No, you can leave Tonto with us. The Singing Cowboy and his comic side man were at the top of Roosevelt Rick Wright's list too.

Mr. WRIGHT: Mantan Moreland and my man Herb Jefferies in a black cowboy movie, in a black theater. The line was long all the way around the block, people trying to get in there to see this movie.

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Man: Tell the sheriff and his deputies to come to the old mine in Pedido(ph) Canyon, right away.

Mr. WRIGHT: And there was that scene where Mantan Moreland, some guys got behind him, and he was running so fast that his shoes caught on fire, sort of the stereotyping of the era, but it was magnificent.

Ms. SHARP: Do you think that we are missing something today?

Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, we're missing it big time. The theater served as a social nerve center, as a sociological center of activity for the community. Everybody came to the movies. They dressed up.

(Soundbite of movie)

Unidentified Man #1: Hello.

Unidentified Man #2: What are you doing here?

Unidentified Man #1: I rode out here. Don't you see my horse.

Unidentified Man #2: Tried to help your bother get away, huh?

Unidentified Man #1: No, sir. I thought you all wanted to race.

Unidentified Man #2: I ought to run you in.

Unidentified Man #1: Well, you all run me out there, you might as well run me in.

Ms. SHARP: I wasn't there, but I definitely get the sense that there was a no apology talk back to the movie closeness in the balcony. That was enlarged when blacks began owning theaters and could sit on the main floor. And that's what I love about watching the old films. They stimulated a race bonding that's quite frankly a lot of us are scared of today.

Now, our balcony is the high desk, flat screen, in home movie theater, where, like Superman, we hold the remote control ready to leap to all channels in a single bound. It makes me a little said to say, in the words of a popular film critic...

(Soundbite of movie)

Unidentified Man: If you all don't get back time for lunch, you gone miss the best mess of chitlins that you ever laid your lips over.

Ms. SHARP: Oops, wrong reel. I meant to say, the balcony is now closed.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: S. Pearl Sharp is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

LENA HORNE: (Singing) What have I got that the others ain't?

ED GORDON, host: To take us out, here is the divine Lena Horne with Honey in the Honeycomb, from the 1943 film, Cabin in the Sky.

(Soundbite of song "Honey in the Honeycomb")

GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. And if you'd like to comment, call us at 202-408-3330; that's 202-408-3330.

NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium. I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS AND NOTES.

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