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TV REVIEWS : A Picture of Movies for Black Audiences

October 26, 1994|KEVIN THOMAS

In the space of one hour, directors Bestor Cram and Pearl Bowser and writer Clyde Taylor do an excellent job in "Midnight Ramble" of surveying "race" movies, those films made expressly for black audiences in a segregated society and spanning four decades, beginning about 1910.

"Midnight Ramble," which refers to the after-hours screenings many of these approximately 500 films received, rightly focuses on the pioneering Oscar Micheaux, who managed by sheer tenacity to make more than 40 features between the teens and late '40s and was dedicated to teaching "the colored man that he can be anything."

Micheaux urged African Americans to settle in the rural West, warned against the snares of urban life and dealt repeatedly with the thorny issue of skin color as he constantly urged his audiences to better themselves.

Micheaux always had more passion than talent, skill or money, and his work suffered with the costly advent of sound, which along with the Depression, tended to diminish the aspirations of race filmmakers, as serious dramas tended to give way to musicals and gangster pictures.

But the documentarians make clear that Hollywood and TV ultimately co-opted race pictures while only occasionally dealing with the social issues that the most ambitious of them had tried to confront.

The program, part of PBS' "American Experience" series, points out that the biggest challenge facing early black filmmakers was D. W. Griffith's eternally controversial "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), the film that at once demonstrated that the American film could be an art form and a vehicle of naked racism as Griffith, a Southerner, mythologized the exploits of the Ku Klux Klan in the wake of the Civil War.

To this day, negative stereotypes of African Americans persist in films and TV, yet even in its brief running time, "Midnight Ramble" shows us enough vintage clips to suggest how effectively the black filmmakers countered this tendency with realistic images of African American life.

* "Midnight Ramble" airs at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and at 8 p.m. on KPBS-TV Channel 15 and KVCR-TV Channel 24.

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