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Black Film Maker Still Battling Stereotypes

May 30, 1986|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

Forty-three years ago, Carlton Moss wrote "The Negro Soldier," a wartime documentary film that many still regard as a milestone in helping to break down racial stereotypes.

But Moss, still an active film maker, and a Comparative Culture Program lecturer at UC Irvine, contends that Hollywood's portrayals of blacks remain grossly distorted.

His bleak view is shared by other black critics, even though black-theme productions--such as Steven Spielberg's movie "The Color Purple" and NBC-TV's top-rated "The Cosby Show"--are flourishing as never before among major commercial studios.

"Nothing's really changed in four decades. Little has been done in truly examining blacks and other minorities--their cultures, their differences, their struggles--to know what it is to be a minority in this society," said the 77-year-old Moss, in a recent interview at his UCI office.

His assailing of Hollywood stereotypes is at the core of the "Minorities in Films" course Moss teaches each fall at UCI. (His other courses include those on documentary films and the current class, "The Motion Picture in Contemporary American Society.")

The "Minorities in Films" class, which Moss started in 1969 at the height of the black studies movement on U.S. college campuses, remains one of the most popular courses in the Comparative Culture Program. The course draws up to 300 students, mostly whites, to its weekly evening lectures.

Says Dickran Tashjian, director of the program: "Carlton's knowledge of the field is vast and that of the insider. He's been at the forefront of this whole, long battle."

A longtime maker of educational films, Moss has written and produced documentaries on such black heroes as abolitionist Frederick Douglass, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and educator George Washington Carver. His latest is on black leader W.E.B. Du Bois, and he also is preparing another on jazz pianists.

In the 1930s, Moss was a Harlem-based writer-actor with the acclaimed but short-lived Federal Theater Project in New York. During World War II, he was the only black to hold a prominent post in Frank Capra's famed Army training film unit.

When Moss wrote the script in 1943 for "The Negro Soldier," he sought to strike a delicate balance. "We were able to portray blacks as real human beings, not as Hollywood, minstrel-show caricatures. It wasn't going to be 'Green Pastures in the Army.' "

But, being an official War Department venture, Moss explained, the film could not suggest black militancy. "We couldn't be seen as beating the drums over Jim Crow. I wouldn't have lasted a day if we did that."

When the 45-minute film (directed by the Capra unit's Stuart Heisler) played on the national civilian circuit in 1944, some film and academic critics found "The Negro Soldier" too pallid a social document. The film, they argued, failed to portray clearly segregation in the Army or to mention the incidents of violence between whites and blacks in Southern camps.

But "The Negro Soldier" won praise from much of the Negro press and community organizations. These critics argued that the film avoided many stereotypes and offered a rare chronicle of black accomplishments. (Moss had dramatized scenes in a black church--Moss himself played the minister--and interspersed these with sagas of Negro heroes and with footage of blacks in World War II training.)

Last November, when "The Negro Soldier" was screened at an international film festival at D'Amiens, France, as part of a retrospective of American movies on blacks, the wartime documentary was cited as a turning point in black-film history.

Explained one admirer, Morgan State University historian Thomas Cripps, a major scholar on black films, in a recent interview, "If seen today and without regard to the context of the 1940s, 'The Negro Soldier' seems outdated. But it is still a landmark. Its societal impact was stronger than any (black-theme) movie today."

Since World War II, some critics contend, Hollywood's key black-theme works--such as "Intruder in the Dust" and "Sounder"--began to present black characters of dignity and depth, a far cry from typical pre-war roles of dim-witted menials.

But others say that they see no real change overall, despite more positive images in some films. Joseph White, a UC Irvine Comparative Culture professor and member of the Black Psychologists Assn., said, "There's been some progress, but only minimally. The myths may be less blatant, but they're just as pervasive and accepted."

Mayme Clayton, founder of the Black American Cinema Society in Los Angeles, said Hollywood has continued to present "basically the same old stereotypes." Nono Olu of the Coalition Against Black Exploitation, also in Los Angeles, said the stereotypes "are not only worse but also more subtly presented," while the "few good images" are isolated, token efforts.

And Moss himself put it this way:

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