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Cache of black movies sheds new light on past

November 28, 2003|From Associated Press

DALLAS — Forgotten films discovered in an old warehouse 20 years ago now enjoy a new life across Texas, thanks to technology and an effort to preserve movies made for and by blacks during the 1930s and '40s.

Southern Methodist University got a grant last year to digitize nine feature films and seven shorts it obtained in 1983, when then-professor G. William Jones got a call about old films found in Tyler, a city about 90 miles east of Dallas.

The collection, known as the Tyler, Texas, Black Film Collection, comes from about 400 films made in the early 20th century, including mysteries, comedies and vaudville-like shorts, that gave black audiences an alternative to the stereotypes portrayed in Hollywood productions.

Among the movies found were "Juke Joint," about two men who pose as theatrical experts to get free room and board for helping the landlord's daughter prepare for a beauty pageant, and "Murder in Harlem," about a lawyer defending a man framed on a murder charge.

The films were restored and copied onto DVDs, and this fall the university distributed about 1,000 three-DVD box sets to about 900 school districts and black museums statewide.

Actor Ossie Davis offers an introduction on the DVD collection. He said it shows the "do-for-self" spirit of blacks just after the turn of the century. "They had to make do with nothing. And look what they did."

The so-called race films fell out of favor as the civil rights movement gathered momentum in the late 1950s.

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