No reasonable person should deny the fundamental awfulness of the segregation era, when black actors, singers, comedians, and athletes often weren't allowed to perform for white audiences. But segregation did force black entertainers to create their own distinct and vital art forms, with tiny budgets and little mainstream publicity. Many have persuasively argued that when blacks finally got their shot in Hollywood and the heartland, it was on the white man's terms. Fitting in meant selling out.
In the documentary series That's Black Entertainment, host Mario Van Peebles explores that point of view. Director Walid Khaldi surveys significant black actors and directors like Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, Mantan Moreland, and the still-controversial Stepin Fetchit, as well as taking a deeper look at two of the dominant genres of early black cinema: comedies and Westerns. Interviewees like Ossie Davis and William Greaves occasionally dance around the question of why the shuffling antics of Moreland and Fetchit were acceptable in "race movies" and appalling in studio fare—and at times, they damn with faint praise like "the movie was very professional"—but Khaldi illustrates his points with clips that make the differences in black-created films apparent. The race movies of the '30s and '40s were more upfront about drug-related crime, poverty, and spirituality, and they put Hollywood's "shiftless negro" stereotypes into a larger context, positioning them as a commentary on how to put one over on the Man.
That's Black Entertainment peaks with footage from Spencer Williams' religious melodrama The Blood Of Jesus, a National Film Registry entrant described by one of Khaldi's interviewees as "simple, but not simple-minded." By contrast, the trailers on the pointed, nostalgic Afro Promo are so overwrought that they're almost painful to watch. Afro Promo compiler Jenni Olson groups trailers for Hollywood-backed black-themed movies by subject matter and era, and she starts with Sidney Poitier's rise to prominence, when any movie with Poitier was inevitably described as "warm," "human," "refreshing," and "like nothing you've ever seen." The ads worked extra-hard to reassure white audiences, in ways that are patronizing yet historically fascinating. It would've been great had Olson added a commentary track to help explain the origins of some of these movies—like the rare Redd Foxx video-shot "gay son" comedy Norman, Is That You?—but the progression of clips from the 1951 cash-in The Harlem Globetrotters to Ossie Davis' raw blaxploitation-era social drama Black Girl is a study in the compromises of self-expression in times of social injustice.
Key features: That's Black Entertainment adds three vintage, public-domain "race movies," and Afro Promo includes two experimental shorts related to cultural identity.