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Historic views of black America

January 22, 2006|Susan King

Vintage African

American Films

Warner Home Video and Fox,

$20 each

IN celebration of Black History Month in February, Warner and Fox are each releasing three films starring noted African American performers.

The Warner titles -- "Hallelujah," "The Green Pastures" and "Cabin in the Sky" -- all come with introductions explaining that these films are products of their time and reflect the racial prejudice and stereotypes of the era. The Fox films -- "Stormy Weather," "Pinky" and "Island in the Sun" -- carry no such explanations.

Hallelujah

Sound in films was in its infancy when King Vidor ("The Big Parade," "The Crowd") directed this 1929 drama-with-music that features an all African American cast -- the first ever for a major studio movie. But this MGM production is rife with racial stereotypes of the day, including the depiction of the male protagonist (played by Daniel L. Haynes) as oversexed. The scenes of him leering at women recall D.W. Griffith's portrayals of black male sexuality (using white actors in blackface) in 1915's incendiary "The Birth of a Nation."

That being said, "Hallelujah" gives viewers a chance to see these early African American performers on screen. Haynes plays a poor cotton farmer who falls madly in love with a temptress (Nina Mae McKinney). Irving Berlin supplied two of the songs for the film.

Extras: Two musical shorts from the early '30s -- "Pie, Pie Blackbird" and "The Black Network," featuring McKinney and the Nicholas Brothers -- and astute commentary from black cultural scholars Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton.

The Green Pastures

A rural African American preacher teaches the church's children about the Old Testament in this folkloric 1936 film based on Marc Connelly's Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Directed by Connelly and William Keighley, "The Green Pastures" stars some of the top African American talent of the decade, including Rex Ingram, who plays "De Lawd," and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, who is featured as Noah.

Extras: Two vintage musical shorts -- "Rufus Jones for President," starring Ethel Waters and a 7-year-old Sammy Davis Jr., and "An All-Colored Vaudeville Show," with Adelaide Hall and the Nicholas Brothers -- and commentary from black cultural scholars Herb Boyd and Ed Guerrero, who discuss the historical and sociological aspects of the film.

The most interesting extra is the trailer hosted by Warner Bros. star Dick Powell, who never mentions that the film has an all-black cast.

Cabin in the Sky

Vincente Minnelli made his feature directorial debut with this 1943 musical based on the hit Broadway play. Racial stereotypes abound in this all-black film, but that fact doesn't overshadow the superlative cast, memorable songs (including "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe") and Minnelli's inventive direction.

Anderson plays a rapscallion called Little Joe who is torn between the love of his wife (Ethel Waters) and the town's bad girl, Georgia Brown (Lena Horne). He ends up quite literally in a struggle between the Lord and Satan.

Duke Ellington also appears.

Extras: A Pete Smith short that features Horne performing a number from the movie, an audio recording of costar Louis Armstrong singing "Ain't It the Truth" and compelling commentary from two USC School of Cinema-Television professors -- Todd Boyd, who talks about the depiction of African Americans in the film, and Drew Casper, who discusses Minnelli's work.

Stormy Weather

Made by Fox the same year MGM produced "Cabin in the Sky," this frothy musical is short on plot but long on singing and dancing.

And what a cast -- Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Horne (who sings the title tune), Dooley Wilson, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers.

Extras: Commentary from Boyd.

Pinky

This "message" movie was considered daring in 1949, but today it's hard to swallow because it's so hard to believe Jeanne Crain playing a light-skinned African American woman. Crain, one of Fox studio's top ingenues, had appeared in such hits as "Margie" and "State Fair."

In this Elia Kazan-directed drama, she is cast -- way against type -- as Pinky, an African American woman from the South who has passed as white in the North, where she was going to nursing school. Pinky returns to her grandmother (Ethel Waters) and her home in the South, where she is shunned by both whites and blacks.

Crain, Waters and costar Ethel Barrymore all received Oscar nominations.

Director John Ford began the film but was quickly replaced by Kazan when producer Darryl F. Zanuck realized from early footage that Ford wasn't the right man for the job.

Extras: Lively, tidbit-filled commentary from film historian Kenneth Geist, who first saw the movie in 1949, when he was 13.

Island in the Sun

This deliciously entertaining potboiler from 1957 has a little bit of everything -- handsome actors, beautiful actresses, lush scenery, illicit love affairs, deep dark secrets and even a murder.

Harry Belafonte (who sings the title tune), Dorothy Dandridge, Joan Fontaine, James Mason, Michael Rennie, John Justin and Joan Collins are among the stars of the drama, which is set on a fictitious island in the Caribbean. The film was considered quite controversial upon release because of the interracial relationships between Belafonte and Fontaine's and Dandridge and Justin's characters.

Extras: The A&E "Biography" on Dandridge called "Little Girl Lost" and trivia-tinged commentary from veteran film writer John Stanley.

-- Susan King

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