Thursday, February 25, 2021

Dirty Gertie and The Blood of Jesus

Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.
(1946) and The Blood of Jesus (1941)
Some topic or other is always trending in movie-making. In 1997, there were two volcano films (Volcano and Dante’s Peak). In 1998 there were two giant asteroid films (Armageddon and Deep Impact). Also in 1998, there were two films about talking ants (A Bug’s Life and Antz). The 1940s, for some reason (perhaps because it was a real conflict in the African American community), had quite a number of films about churches at odds with jazz clubs. Last week we looked at two such films, Sunday Sinners (1940) and Go Down Death! (1944). This week we have two more. 

In 1991, The Blood of Jesus was the first race film added to the U.S. National Film Registry. It was written and directed by Spencer Williams (who also directed Dirty Gertie, as well as last week’s Go Down Death!) and Williams took a starring role as well. The film opens with a baptism: Martha Ann (Cathryn Caviness) going down to the river singing “Good News” and “Amazing Grace” and marching with fellow congregants. A voice-over talks about a time “when the Ten Commandments was the law of all the countries of the earth....When people prayed on their knees rather than preying on their neighbors.” (I doubt there ever was such a time, but maybe that’s just me). The pastor (the Rev. R. L. Richardson) baptizes Martha Ann.

Martha Ann’s husband, Razz (Williams), is not at the baptism. He claims he was out hunting, but actually, he was poaching a neighbor’s pig. Martha Ann is a new believer and the couple have been married only three months. She encourages her husband, “Why don’t you try to pray and get religion? We would be so much happier if you would.” 

“Alright, I’ll try,” Razz tells her. 

But before Razz gets to try, he accidentally shoots Martha Ann with his rifle. She isn’t taken to a hospital, no doctor comes to look after her, but the sisters from her church immediately come to her bedside, singing “Sweet Chariot.” A woman from the church tries to assure Razz, saying, “If it’s the Lord’s will for her to stay, she’ll stay, If it’s the Lord’s will for her to go, she’ll go.” This same sister prays for Martha Ann’s healing, “She is a new sister, she hasn’t had a chance to strap on her sword and fight.”

Razz listens in on the prayer as the woman prays, “Make Brother Jackson see the light! Come down and make Martha Ann well again.” Razz prays by her side.

Most of the rest of the film seems to be a dream or a vision. An angel comes down to Martha Ann who seems to leave her body. She is taken to a crossroads where she must choose the pass toward heaven or hell.

The devil sends a man named Judas to tempt her, then he laughs maniacally. Judas takes her to a nightclub where we hear singing and some quite acrobatic dancing. So, nightclubs seem to be a stop on the way to hell.

Martha Ann eventually realizes she must leave the club and goes back to the crossroads -- which we now see is the cross of Jesus. She falls in front of the cross and the blood of Jesus falls upon her.

Back in her bed, we see Martha Ann open her eyes. All the people from her church, are still surrounding her bed, and they all celebrate, somehow now sure Martha Ann is well. Martha and Razz embrace, ready now to live a godly life together. (And one assumes, never will they go to another nightclub or juke joint.)

Our final race film of the month, Dirty Gertie from Harlem, U.S.A., takes the side of the entertainers in the battle between churches and nightclubs. This film is an uncredited take on Somerset Maugham’s short story, “Rain” which had three direct adaptations (in 1928, Sadie Thompson, in 1932, Rain, and in 1953, Miss Sadie Thompson).

Gertie LaRue (Francine Everett) is a big-time New York entertainer who comes to the small tropical island of “Rinidad.” A large crowd awaits her arrival at the Paradise Hotel, and the manager gives her the honeymoon suite. Her cast and crew take up most of the other rooms in the house -- much to the annoyance of missionaries just arrived on the island, the Reverend Jonathan Christian (Alfred Hawkins) and his assistant, Ezra Crumm (David Boykin). On their arrival, they're given inferior rooms.

The preacher was already in a sour mood. “The nerve of that inspector going through our luggage.” He was on the same boat as Gertie, but delays in customs made him later to the hotel. He complains to the manager about their accommodations, “You gave us the worst rooms in the house. If we are going to teach these people about sin, we need to be comfortable. That woman [Gertie] is a painted-up trollop, a Jezebel. Why do those show folks have all the good rooms?”

Christian tells Ezra he is convinced Gertie will lead the people of the island astray, but he believes he might be able to turn her around if he talks to her alone. The missionary finds his chance when Gertie returns to the hotel late at night (or early in the morning) with a soldier and a sailor (she calls them “Big Boy” and “Tight Pants”). She flirts shamelessly with the men but sends them off and enters the hotel alone.

Christian berates her, “The Lord would be shocked to hear you talk like that! The Lord wants you to give your life to him because the wages of sin is death!”

Gertie will have none of it, “You dirty Psalm singing polecat, you want me like all the rest!” She returns to her room and tells her maid, “I hate that reformer.” But she's told the minister could cause trouble, perhaps sending her back to Harlem.

At breakfast, Ezra tells his boss, “I’m worried about you! You didn’t sleep and you haven’t touched your breakfast.”

“Ezra, I’m going to see the governor and have him send this woman and her cheap trash off the island! They will not perform tonight!” Christian rushes off, and Ezra happily eats Christian's breakfast -- he's finished his own.

He first approaches the manager of the hotel who is putting on Gertie’s show, “I’m giving you a chance to close this show and send all those devil mongers off the island.” The manager assures him the show will go on. Christian goes to see the governor who also refuses to close the show.

Christian tells Ezra of the governor’s decision and Ezra calls him a wicked man. But he asks Christian whether he should perhaps go to the show. "Otherwise, I won’t know an awful, sinful thing it is.” 

Christian tells him that’s a bad idea. He says, “I must commune with God in secret!” So he goes to his room and prays rather loudly. He asks, “Lord, what should I do with this temptress of men?” He becomes convinced that God is telling him to sneak into Gertie’s show.

So Christian and Ezra both sneak into the show, separately. The show starts with showgirls who are frankly quite modestly dressed in floor-length dresses. A couple of men join them and dance competent softshoe, while the showgirls gesture incompetently behind them.

Gertie then comes out, in an ankle-length dress and a bare midriff. She begins to pull off her gloves which is just too much for Christian. The missionary rushes the stage, comparing himself to Jesus clearing the temple, and slaps Gertie in the face. Mayhem ensues, and the show stops. His mission was accomplished! There's no way for the show to go on that night.

As a matter of fact, the show doesn’t go on at all. After she's returned to her hotel room, Gertie’s lover comes to the island from Harlem and shoots Gertie dead. 

So what kind of steeple ratings will these two films get? The congregation of The Blood of Jesus gets Four Steeples for being there for Martha Ann and Razz when they were needed most.

Christian and Ezra, on the other hand, get a measly Two Steeples for being creepy and selfish.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Race Films Double Feature

Go Down Death!
(1944) & Sunday Sinners (1940)

The confrontation in today's today's two films is classic: congregation vs. juke joint, church vs. jazz club. It does make sense. These two institutions are central in African American culture of the middle part of the twentieth century, and at times they would certainly be at odds. The central conflict in both films is between a club that's breaking the Sabbath and a Reverend who condemns the practice -- probably not an uncommon conflict when these films were made. Since the Civil War and Reconstruction, churches had played a central role in African American life, not only in the area of faith but also of community and social life. But as ragtime, blues, and jazz grew as musical forms, clubs to celebrate those forms grew as well and began to compete with the church for a role in the hearts and minds of many.

Go Down Death! opens with a rather solemn title card: “Alfred N. Sack Reverently Presents Go Down Death! A Harlemwood Studios Production - This Story of Love and Simple Faith and the Triumph of Good over Evil was inspired by the Poem “Go Down, Death!” from the Pen of Celebrated Negro Author James Weldon Johnson, Now of Sainted Memory” with the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” playing as the soundtrack.

We then see a club with drinking and dancing and women wearing slacks (it stops short of dogs and cats living together). The owner of the club, Big Jim Bottoms, is outraged by the new preacher in town who has condemned his club for being open on Sundays. Big Jim is played by Spencer Williams, who is also the film’s director. Williams directed a number of films, some with religious themes such as The Blood of Jesus and entertainments like Juke Joint. But he is most famous for Andy in the controversial television program, Amos & Andy. (The show was controversial for propagating black stereotypes, but the radio version may have been worse with Caucasians playing the African American roles.) In Go Down Death!, the club scenes feature some quite good singing and dancing (one woman seems to perform a moonwalk decades before Michael Jackson).

Then we see the Reverend Jasper (Samuel H. James) as he preaches before his congregation. He reads Psalm 1 and then briefly exposits on the text, “To be godly, one must be God-like, pure in heart, the very essence of Christ’s message.” (He does what many of my seminary profs urged, find a way to preach Jesus, even in Old Testament texts.) Little did the Reverend know that three women in the congregation were sent by Big Jim to catch the pastor in a compromising situation. The attractive young women go to the Pastor’s private study after the service.

Minnie, Mable, and Lady ask the pastor, “How might we go about being converted?” The pastor quotes passages from the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 6, urging the women to trust in Jesus. The women claim they want to hear more and ask the pastor to come with them to their apartment. Unwisely, the pastor follows them. He gives them each a New Testament and says, “If you read and ingest this much of the wholly Scriptures it will do you good.” Then the women break out alcohol, one of the women kisses the pastor on his lips, just as photographers come out from behind the curtains and take incriminating pictures.

The pastor considers resigning because of the pictures. He doesn’t trust his congregation to take his word that he is innocent. Sadly, in the news recently we have been reading about pastors who committed sexual sin but were believed when they denied the charges, so it is difficult to know what the right call for the pastor would be.

But Aunt Caroline, Big Jim’s adoptive mother, attends Pastor Jasper’s church. Her dead husband appears to her and shows her where to find the phony blackmail photos. The ghost of her husband opens Big Jim’s safe and Caroline takes the pictures. (I will not even attempt to deal with the theological implications of this spectral aid.) When Big Jim finds Caroline with pictures, he takes the pictures back, killing her in the process.

The Reverend Jasper performs Caroline’s service saying, “Weep not, she is not dead, she is resting in the arms of Jesus. Heartbroken son, weep no more. Grief-stricken niece, weep no more… She has gone to heaven. God looked at Sister Caroline tossed with pain, and God commanded that tall white angel called Death to reach down to her.” (I have a problem with pastors discouraging people from expressing their very real grief.)

The pastor went on to give a title drop, “Go down, Death! Death came on his white horse while we were watching round her bed. She saw old death coming like a falling star, but death didn’t fight Sister Caroline, he looked to her like an old friend.” This wasn't the approach taken by Jesus when He wept for his friend, Lazarus, or Paul who referred in Death in I Cor. 15:26 as “the last enemy”.

After this sermon, Big Jim is racked with guilt, hearing voices that accuse him of his crimes. He has visions of hell and runs. When he is found dead in a box canyon, Rev. Jasper says, "May God have mercy on his soul."

Sunday Sinners
has much in common with Go Down Death, including some very good small-scale musical numbers. Even the church choir in the film is very talented. It also shares the same basic conflict of a pastor opposing the depravity of club life.

As the film begins, the pastor, the Rev. Jesse Hampton (Earl Sydnor), is trying to build his attendance, “We can’t run a church without a congregation.” So he comes up with a strategy, “I’m going to direct my next sermon toward those cafe people. It might do some good.” The pastor also tries to encourage young people to come, opening a fitness center. “That’s our youngsters. The future of our church, our race! It is our duty to cry out against the evils of the city. The Cafe People are leading our youth astray.”

The pastor is particularly upset that the local cafe has scheduled the “Monster Dance Contest” on a Sunday, so he visits the cafe to see what’s going on. When his church board learns that he was at the cafe, and witnessed women dancing in skimpy clothing, they are not pleased.

Even worse for the pastor, his son, Ray (Ernie Ransom), gets a job at the cafe. He becomes involved with some nefarious characters and is accused of murder. The church threatens to fire the pastor.

The pastor decides to take the offensive. He leads his congregation from the church to the cafe. He ends up starting a fistfight between his congregation and the staff of the cafe (the pastor is very much involved in the fight). The cafe owner's wife shoots into the crowd, injuring a woman (not seriously). The police come, and for some reason are harsher with cafe staff than the church folks that came and started the fight.

And yet, somehow, this all resolves for the best. The pastor assures the cafe owner, “Our church isn’t against dancing, we just don’t want dances on Sunday nights.” So the owner agrees to close on Sundays. And all is swell.

Still, I just can’t support the Rev. Hampton’s policy of violence for community action. I am much more supportive of Rev. Jasper’s humble spirit. But jointly, the pastors and their churches achieve a meager Two Steeple average in our Movie Churches ratings.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Race Month: Hell-Bound Train

Hell-Bound Train

You often see the Devil depicted in cartoons in red tights, holding a pitchfork, sitting on the shoulder of Donald or Daffy Duck. Those images of Satan are downright nuanced and sophisticated compared to the Prince of Darkness in the 1930 silent feature, Hell-Bound Train.

Hell-Bound Train was the creation of James and Eloyce Gist, African American evangelists who never intended their work to be seen in such a questionable, disreputable place as a movie house. It was intended to be shown in churches. The couple traveled from town to town, revival to revival, using the film to warn about the wages of sin. Theirs was the only print of the film, so it is rather surprising that preservationists have managed to present as decent a print as is now available. The original print was stored in the Library of Congress and much work went into its restoration.

There isn’t a lot of what we expect to find in a feature film. There are no credits at the beginning or end of the film. There isn’t much in the way of a plot. We first see the Devil (in a costume that would probably come in last in a Halloween contest) offering all who are interested free admission to the Hellbound Train -- “Just Give Your Life and Soul,” as the ticket reads. Plenty of folks take up his offer to ride his train.

The first car of the train features dancing, and a title card informs the audience, “dancing is indecent." Bootleggers are honored guests in the car, and women are encouraged to drink. The second car has drunkards. The third car is a Jazz Club (a title card warns that such music destroys the minds of innocent children). The next car has thieves, crooks, and pickpockets. Another coach represents immorality. There even is a car for boys who “mistreat dumb animals.”

We see scenes of sinful behavior on each of these cars, all followed by the Devil dancing and exclaiming, “How my heart does rejoice!”

The last car of the train is for “Backsliders and hypocrites who used to be church members!” We see a young man actually sleeping in his own bed rather than going to church! A card warns, “Some people serve God when in town but as soon as they get on their feet, it’s back to the devil.” We also see a man who claims, “I don’t drink, I treat everybody right, I pay my debts, even if I haven’t repented or joined a church. I am as good as some of those in church.” 

But a good preacher warns, “Poor boy, he’ll regret it someday,” because the man is also a passenger on the Hellbound Train.

That last car on the train also carries “False preachers who will get together with church officers and steal the church’s money. Often they walk hand and hand with the devil. While righteous preachers carry the program of Jesus Christ.”

We then see good people going to church as opposed to those passengers on the Hellbound Train. (A title card provides something of a non-sequitur: “While some serve God on the Sabbath, others worship automobiles.”) We read that the good, churchgoing folks follow II Cor. 6:17, “Therefore come out from among them and be separate.”

We then learn the fate of those who ride the Hellbound Train. As the train comes down the tracks a sign reads, “Entrance to Hell -- Welcomes to All” and the train jumps the tracks and bursts into flames. (It looks a lot like a model train being thrown off its track and burned, but effects aren’t cheap.)

A title card warns. “Get off the train by repenting, believing, and being baptized before it is too late!”

So what Movie Churches rating should we give? Though there were good and bad preachers in the film, this week I believe we will give some other clergy the Steeple rating. The filmmaking evangelists James and Eloyce Gist certainly deserve a lot of credit for pioneering this innovation in ministry. 

Cinema historians point to the Gists as important trailblazers for African Americans. On the other hand, the content of the film is simplistic and legalistic. It is interesting that Eloyce wasn’t strictly a Christian, but a practitioner of the Baha’i religion. Baha'is teach that every religion has value, which is why, I suppose, she was willing to support her husband James’ advocacy of fundamentalist Christianity. We'll give the Gists a generous Movie Churches rating of Three Steeples (weighing the Movie portion of things more than the Church portion).

(You owe it to yourself to get a glimpse of this unique film. You may look at a Youtube clip here.)

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Race Month: Within Our Gates

Within Our Gates

In 1915 D. W. Griffith made an innovative film, a landmark achievement in cinema. In what can only be called Griffith’s masterpiece, he pioneered a variety of techniques that would become standard in filmmaking such as close-ups, tracking shots, parallel action sequences, and cross-cutting. It was a financial blockbuster, and some argue that if inflation is taken into account, it still may be the most profitable film ever made. 

This film, The Birth of a Nation, had the support of Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, who chose it as the first film to be screened in the White House. The Democrat president is said to have described the film as “like writing history in lightning.” (Wilson had another connection to the film -- the book the film was based on, The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr., was dedicated to Wilson.)

Sadly, this undeniably accomplished work of cinema was made in the service of a story that ridiculed all African Americans as stupid, lustful, and dangerous. It celebrated the Ku Klux Klan, even glorifying murderous lynching.

Through the years, African American filmmakers have rightfully responded to this racist classic with films of their own.  Nate Parker used the same title, The Birth of a Nation, for his 2016 work about Nat Turner’s slave revolt, and Spike Lee used excerpts from the  1915 film for his 2018 docudrama, BlacKKKlansman.

But long before either of these films were made, a pioneering filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux, responded to The Birth of a Nation with his 1920 film, Within Our Gates

Oscar Micheaux

Micheaux was a pioneer in almost every sense of the word. Born in Illinois, son of a former slave, he moved to South Dakota during his twenties to become a farmer and homesteader. These life experiences led him to become a writer and eventually a filmmaker. His first film, The Homesteader (which he directed and wrote based on his own novel, The Conquest) was based on his experiences in the West. It even featured a prominent role for a minister -- so we at Movie Churches would love to write about it -- but sadly. the film has been lost. No prints of the film have been preserved.

In fact, today's film, Within Our Gates, is the oldest existing "race film" made by African Americans and featuring African Americans. It was almost lost as well until a print was found in Spain. The original title cards were lost, so preservationists needed to translate the Spanish cards into English (leaving out some of the cards which provided the cultural context of American life.)

It was Oscar Micheaux’s second film, and it's a harsh critique of American racism and particularly lynching. Within Our Gates even opens with a rather sarcastic title card, “At the opening of our drama, we find our characters in the North, where the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist -- though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro.”

It tells the story of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer, or as the opening credits read, “the renowned Negro artist Evelyn Preer”), a woman who leaves the perils of living in the South to be with her cousin Alma in the North. But her cousin betrays her, and Sylvia returns to the South. There she meets the Reverend Wilson Jacobs, principal of Piney Woods School and “founder of the school and apostle of education for the black race.”

There certainly are challenges to running the school. A title card informs us that Piney Woods School is in a “land where lynching reigns supreme.” Wilson takes in all black students, even though most can’t pay the fees for the school. The pastor admits, “The colored people who live here are too poor to help us.” He tells Sylvia that the state pays “$1.49 a year to educate each Negro child.”

Sylvia decides to help Jacobs and his school, saying, “It is my duty and the duty of each member of our race to help destroy ignorance and superstition. I am going up north where I’ll try to raise the money we need. May God be with us!” This makes the Reverend slam his fist on his desk and shake her hand.

In the North we see Dr. V. Vivian (Charles Lucas) reading a copy of The Literary Digest with Teddy Roosevelt on the cover. An article in the digest reads, “Rev. Thurston has begun an active campaign for the education of the black race. He asks that the federal government contribute significantly so that Negro children in all of the United States can receive proper instruction. He called on senators and congressmen…”

This doctor meets Sylvia and comes to her aid when she's the victim of a purse snatching. Sylvia meets Elena Warwick, a wealthy, white philanthropist who is willing to contribute to the Piney Woods School until her friend, another rich woman named Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd) tells Miss Warwick she would be wasting her money. Mrs. Stratton says educating "blacks, lumberjacks, and fieldhands" would be a mistake, because "it would only give them a headache. Send the money to Old Ned, the best colored preacher in the world who will do more to keep them in their place.”

We see Old Ned in the pulpit. He preaches, “The text of my sermon this morning will be ‘Abraham and the Fatted Calf.’ Behold I foresee the black people will be first and the whites will be the last. While the white people with all their schooling and wealth and education won’t make it to heaven. While our race, lacking these vices and whose souls are more pure, most all will ascend to Heaven! Hallelujah!” Those in the congregation that aren’t asleep, nod in agreement.

Old Ned then takes his offering, “And now my brethren and sisteren, I request a small contribution. But before acceptin’ your offering, I want to relate a deplorable instance that happened while we was in intimate conversation with our Lord. Somebody has stolen money from our offering plate. I will not dispute the matter, but whoever took it, must give it back!” A number of men come forward and put money in the plate.

In the next scene, we see Old Ned visit a small group of rich white men. One says to him, “Listen here, Uncle Ned, you’re a good ol’ colored man. What do you make of this?” He shows Ned a newspaper article. 

“It’s about the Negroes’ right to vote. We are all in favor of your people -- but we can’t be havin’ Negroes voting." 

“Y’all knows what I always preach," Old Ned says. "This is a land for the white man and black folk got to know their place. Let the white man go to Hell with his politics, wealth, and sins. Give me Jesus!”

The white men clap. “Leave it to me, gen’men, I always preach that vices and sins of the white folk will end them in Hell. When the Judgement Day comes, more Negroes than whites will rise up to Heaven.”  Ned concludes. One of the men kicks Old Ned on the seat of his pants, and Ned laughs and says, “White people is mighty fine!”

But when we see Old Ned alone, he’s saying something quite different, “Again I’ve sold my birthright. All for a miserable ‘mess of pottage.’ Negroes and whites -- all are equal. As for me, miserable sinner, Hell is my destiny.”

Back in his office, Dr. Sydney is reading, “The Negro is a human being. His nature is not different from other human nature. Thus, we must recognize his rights as a human being, this is the teaching of Christianity.”

Sylvia raised money for the school, and she finds romance. And we learn something about her history. Her black adoptive parents were lynched in the South, and she was nearly raped by a white man. The film clearly inverts the good guys and the bad guys from The Birth of a Nation.

But here at Movie Churches, we're here to look at churches and clergy. Though the Reverend Jacobs has noble goals of education, he’s rather a wimp and would be hopeless without the help of Sylvia. Old Ned is a much sadder case, telling his people to give up hoping for anything good in this world and wait for the sweet by and by. That's quite different from the gospel of Jesus. Jesus promises heaven to come, but there's work in this world as well: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” This is closer to Rev. Jacobs, and the polar opposite of the “gospel” of Old Ned.

I was impressed with the bold nature of Oscar Micheaux’s work, but the pastors in his film average out to a meager Movie Churches rating of Two Steeples.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Race Films that aren't about Track and Field

The first African Americans portrayed in movies were often not African Americans: films made to present minstrel shows usually used white actors in blackface. Even though the Edison Company demonstrated the Kinetoscope in 1891 and the Lumiere Brothers started charging audiences for their presentations in Paris in 1895, it wasn’t until 1909 that we’re sure that African Americans appeared on film -- in a comedy series titled Sambo. The first mainstream film starring an African American was 1914's production of Uncle Tom's Cabin with Sam Lucas as Uncle Tom. His casting in that role is the exception to the rule that African Americans were rarely seen on screen.

Black artists and business people saw an opportunity to change that, and in 1915, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Nebraska, the Ebony Film Company in Chicago, and Norman Studios in Jacksonville made films featuring African American actors, often with African American crews. These companies were the beginning of a film industry that -- for decades -- ran parallel to the Hollywood film industry. Between 1915 and 1952, nearly 500 of what were called race films were produced. These films were targeted primarily, usually exclusively, to African American audiences.

Fortunately for Movie Churches, these films often had religious and ecclesiastical themes. Some films were made by believers for the purpose of evangelism, but even when they were not, many African American films featured the church and clergy because of the dominant role the church played in African American communities.

So this month at Movie Churches we will be looking at films made during this period, specifically, films made in 1920, 1930, 1940, 1945, and 1946. Sadly, many race films were not preserved, especially films from the silent period (but as you might note, we’ll look at one of ‘em). These are interesting films as far as film history goes, but even more interesting for our purposes is the glimpse they provide into how clergy were viewed in the African American community.

These films were usually made on the cheap and, to modern eyes and ears, they look and sound like it. But without these films, we might never have had such likely Oscar contenders as last year’s Soul, Judas and the Black Messiah, Da 5 Bloods, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom -- all produced by the major studios.

We'll begin Race Film Month on Friday with a silent film that was a response to D. W. Griffith’s racist blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation.