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African American pioneers are subjects of screenings at UCLA

Writer-director Oscar Micheaux, writer/director/actor Spencer Williams and singer-actor Herb Jeffries are in the spotlight.

September 11, 2009|Susan King

Oscar Micheaux was not only the first African American to make a feature film -- 1919's silent "The Homesteader" -- he was also the first to make a sound feature film -- 1931's "The Exile." But whether the film had subtitles or spoken words, Micheaux always had bigger things in mind.

"He was very much a moralist," Jan-Christopher Horak, head of UCLA Film and Television Archive, says of the pioneering director. "He certainly had some unique ideas about uplifting the race. For the black middle class at that time period that was the goal -- uplifting the race, getting them more political and social power."

Contemporary black filmmakers have been very vocal in their admiration for Micheaux and his legacy. Spike Lee once said, "Oscar Micheaux has been my idol. He inspired me to do my first film."

Micheaux's work is being explored by the archive in its new program, "African American Film Pioneers," which opens today at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater.

Besides Micheaux, the program shines the spotlight on two other "race" film pioneers, writer/director/actor Spencer Williams, best known as one of the stars of "The Amos 'N Andy" TV series, as well as singer/actor Herb Jeffries, who made history seven decades ago as the first singing cowboy hero in all-black westerns.

The Chicago-based Micheaux began his film career quite literally going door-to -door in Sioux City, Iowa, where he had once lived, to ask for funding from farmers.

"Once he had the film finished, he literally would put it in the trunk of the car and travel around to where there were African American theaters," Horak says. "Then he would talk to black dignitaries and say, 'I will make a film with your daughter in it if you give me so much money.' "

Screening Saturday is his 1920 film "Within Our Gates," which was Micheaux's response to D.W. Griffith's racist 1915 Civil War epic, "The Birth of a Nation."

"Within Our Gates" is the earliest known surviving film directed by Micheaux.

"The reasons so few survive, especially from the silent era, is that he would literally make one print and drive it around and show it and when it wore out he would make another," Horak says.

"If they did survive, they usually survived because he managed to sell it to some foreign country. 'Within Our Gates,' for example, survived because it was sold to Spain."

Newly restored by the George Eastman House, 1925's "Body and Soul," screening Saturday, is probably Micheaux's best-known film. Paul Robeson was a young man when he made his film debut in this morality tale as an escaped convict posing as a small-town preacher.

Horak noted that Robeson "had an amazing screen presence -- and this is what would have been a total turnoff for white audiences and producers at that time -- he is just bursting with sexuality."

Williams, meanwhile, made his directorial debut with 1941's "The Blood of Jesus" after years of writing scripts for "race" films ("Blood" screens Friday). Made with an unknown cast for $5,000, the film revolves around the struggle for the soul of a woman as she hovers between life and death.

"It's such a unique look at rural African American life in the sense of him shooting on location and then the intense religiosity of the African American communities, especially in the Deep South," Horak says.

Williams also wrote Jeffries' musical western, 1939's "Harlem Rides the Range," which screens Sept. 27 along with Jeffries' "The Bronze Buckaroo" from the same year. Jeffries, who turns 96 this month and still performs jazz concerts, will appear at the screenings.

Jeffries grew up in a Detroit ghetto. "I was a ghetto baby and came out of it," he says. "We had all kinds of races; there was no segregation. When you are poor and you haven't got any money, you are not segregated. I didn't know the difference in color or ethnicity.

"I wanted to sing jazz and you couldn't sing with a band that was not of your own ethnicity," Jeffries says. "I had enough tan in my skin so I could pass for mulatto."

In the early 1930s, he toured the South with the Earl "Fatha" Hines Orchestra. He noticed that black audiences had segregated theaters. "They were watching white cowboy pictures because there were no others," Jeffries says.

He decided to give these audiences their own sagebrush hero. He returned to Chicago to talk with the money men, who ran the numbers' racket in the city whom he had met performing there with Hines.

Then he read about Jed Buell, who was producing "The Terror of Tiny Town," a western with little people.

"I thought if the guy will do a cowboy picture with little people, he will do a cowboy picture about colored people, " he says.

With his skin darkened by makeup, Jeffries made his debut as the singing cowboy in 1937's "Harlem on the Prairie." He made four musical westerns before joining Duke Ellington's orchestra, where his deep baritone made hits out of such songs as "Flamingo."

For more information go to www.ucla.cinema.edu

susan.king@latimes.com

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