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This week we’ve got three films that are going to give you a lesson in Hollywood’s not-always-pleasant take on minorities on film. They are as different as night and day, but all have an to make on race portrayal in cinema. From 1932, we have Myrna Loy as an “exotic Asian”, exacting revenge on her racist classmates in the messy melodrama Thirteen Women. From 1929, we have sexy Nina Mae McKinney explode on screen as the first African American movie star in the first mainstream Hollywood film to feature an all African-American cast: the difficult but very necessary Hallelujah!. And from 1974, it’s the Blaxploitation classic Black Belt Jones, which is just as kick-ass awesome as the title suggests … plus Scatman Crothers in a karate fight. Hell yeah.
Jill’s Pick: THIRTEEN WOMEN (1932)
It’s hard to believe that Hollywood’s favorite on-screen wife often portrayed the stereotypical “exotic” temptress. But that’s exactly how Myrna Loy spent her first few years before reaching stardom in 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man. One of her more notorious early roles is in the (almost) all-female ensemble picture Thirteen Women, starring Loy as the “half-breed” Ursula Georgi, Irene Dunne, Kay Johnson, Mary Duncan, and Florence Eldridge. There’s also a brief appearance by Peg Entwistle, in her only film role, who’s known more for her tragic suicide than her acting career.
Several years after graduating from college, twelve friends–all members of the same sorority–have decided to have some fun by writing to a renowned “Swami” and asking him to read their horoscopes. Swami Yogadachi’s predictions for the women are grim, with each one faced with an early death. One of the friends, Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne), doesn’t put much stock in the Swami’s words, and tries to convince her friends it’s just all in fun. But as the women meet their deaths one by one, fulfilling the Swami’s prophecy, Stanhope begins to think that maybe it isn’t a game after all. A thirteenth woman and former schoolmate of the twelve friends, Ursula Georgi (Loy), is a secretary (yeah, we know what that means) to Swami Yogadachi.
During their time in school, the twelve friends refused to allow Georgi into their sorority because of her mixed-race. Seeking revenge, Georgi uses her hypnotic powers to control Swami Yogadachi, forecasting the doomed horoscopes of her former classmates herself.
Thirteen Women is not a very good film. For starters, there are only eleven women represented. Apparently two women and their fantastical deaths were cut before the initial release of the movie. Also, the suspense leading up to each death is, well, not very suspenseful. And with the very pre-code runtime of 59 minutes, showing the deaths of thirtee–err, eleven women (or is it just ten, since Ursula is behind them all? This is confusing…) isn’t possible without sacrificing plot and characterization (read: it’s very thin on all fronts).
The performances are blander than instant mashed potatoes. But all that said, we haven’t even come to the real issue with Thirteen Women: the horrendous Asian stereotypes. We’ve got it all, kids: the hyper-sexual temptress with evil hypnotic powers, who’s often referred to as “half-breed” and “that Hindu dame.” Oh, and if that’s not bad enough, this Asian character is portrayed by a Caucasian, Montana-born woman (“Eh, the eyeliner and arched eyebrows should do it.”).
Why should you watch this terrible film, you ask? It will make you appreciate all the great ones even more.
Carley’s Pick: HALLELUJAH! (1929)
15 years after D.W. Griffith introduced narrative cinema in 1915’s groundbreaking The Birth of a Nation – and incited a revival of hatred against African Americans – the black experience had been relegated to the shadowy recesses of Z-budget cinema. There was no place in mainstream white cinema for race pictures, and certainly no money in it, but with the advent of sound, director King Vidor had a different idea. Vidor was obsessed with making an all black picture and, after years of being turned down, seized his chance when The Jazz Singer and talkies took Hollywood by storm.
Promoted as an all-black, all-talkie musical, Hallelujah! is an operatic tragedy that chronicles the rise and fall of a poor black sharecropper (Daniel Haines) who swings between the temptations of the flesh (at the mercy of bombshell Nina Mae McKinney) and the salvation of the Lord. Hallelujah! is not an easy watch, and it is a very deep one; I would not recommend watching on a whim, unless you have proper contextual guidance, as it is easy to misinterpret the film without it. That’s why black film historian Donald Bogle’s commentary is absolutely critical. Appearing on the Warner Archive MOD version, his commentary is missing from the Warner Archive Streaming version, so you won’t be able to get to know the background behind the actors (Daniel Haynes was a college graduate from Morris Brown in Atlanta) the production (King Vidor had to put up his own salary to convince MGM to make the film) and the cultural complexities the film represents (McKinney is light skinned and keen featured, setting the standard for mainstream black beauty for everyone from Dorothy Dandridge to Halle Berry).
And even though there are holdovers from Birth of a Nation here — Zeek can be seen as a sexual predator, conflicted though he is; the sharecroppers take their paychecks and go straight to shooting craps — Vidor definitely achieves a number of firsts. In gorgeous Nina Mae McKinney (that’s ‘nine-uh’ not ‘neen-uh’) we see the birth of the first ever African American movie star; her lustful, wicked city woman “Chick” is the first time a black woman had ever been allowed to be a sex object in mainstream film. But more importantly, he was able to– in spite of the stereotypes– give a dignity to black family life and humanity to the African American experience on the whole. There is one extraordinary, sweeping, epic sequence of lamentation, in which Vidor brings the black Spiritual to screen with overpowering emotion. His close-ups, cutting to moments of intense grief, for nearly a ten-minute stretch, suspend time, achieving an almost cinema-verite quality.
Bottom line: If you remember the fact that, prior to Hallelujah!, the only time African Americans appeared as main characters in mainstream white cinema it was as villainous rapists and drunks in Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation, Vidor’s film achieves a major milestone. For all its tired tropes, the characters possess emotional depth and human complexity; for the first time ever in mainstream cinema, African Americans were allowed to be seen as human beings.
Wade’s Pick: BLACK BELT JONES (1974)
On the other side of the coin is this Blaxploitation Classic. There may be better known films of the genre (Shaft and Superfly come immediately to mind) but none are more kick-ass fun than Black Belt Jones. (I won’t mention Pam Grier movies here because those belong in a whole other category and exist on a higher plain of pure awesomeness.) Yes ,the script is horrible, and Martial Arts action star Jim Kelly is a not the most gifted thespian, but none of that matters, and in fact, helps to make Black Belt Jones – or “BB” as his friends call him – a pure popcorn party. Black Dynamite (one of the best Blaxploitation parodies) used Black Belt Jones as its template, and it’s easy to see why; it offers up all the tropes of the period and genre; bad audio and camera work, unnecessary slo-mo, the “man” behind it all is a corrupt white boss, and a hero who is a sensitive love maker and a certified bone breaker.
BB is a neighborhood crusader and sometime paid “get ‘er done” man by none other than the CIA. He’s also a beloved hero to the neighborhood, not just for his clean living and leadership skills, but his ability to kick ass. When the “Mafia” attempts to move in on a whole city block, they are stalled by one small business, a karate dojo owned by “Pop” Byrd, played by Scatman Crothers(!) Yes – THAT Scatman Crothers, who even in 1974 was old (seeing him in a big karate brawl trying to keep his toupee in place is a marvel all its own). When a local gangboss, Pinky, owes money to the Mafia, they make a deal with him to forget his debts if he can push Pop’s’ business out of the building. Black Belt comes to the rescue and with the students lays waste to Pinky and his gang. But Pinky returns and in an attempt to intimidate Pop, accidentally kills him! Now Black Belt is mad! Real mad!
That’s when Pop’s daughter, Sydney (Gloria Hendry, best known as Bond Girl Rosie Carver from Live and Let Die) shows up to find out who’s responsible for his death. Sydney’s no shrinking violet, she’s also a Martial Arts expert (the scene where she takes apart Pinky’s goons in a pool hall is a highlight) and of course, she and BB are made for each other.
While many Blaxploitation films featured endless scenes of bad dialogue, and heroes strutting down the street or driving in their cars to extended Isaac Hayes themes, Black Belt Jones is heavy on the action, which is a welcome change. Part of this is due to having director Robert Clouse at the helm, who cut his teeth on 1970s actioners, most notably Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon (which is also where Clouse first met and worked with Jim Kelly).
The movie flies by, as scene after scene of action leads to the exciting conclusion, when we get to witness BB and Sydney fighting side-by-side! Grab your favorite munchie and start streaming this bad boy today! Superfly may have had a plan to stick it to the man, but Black Belt Jones will clear every mofo in the dojo!
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