African American Cinema


Though not thoroughly synchronous, Warner Bros.' The Jazz Singer (1927) is considered the first commercially released feature to make use of the new technological development of sound. The conflict in this drama centers on the struggle of a Jewish singer, Jakie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson), who wants to perform as a jazz artist, despite his father's wish that he become a cantor. Though in his nonreligious persona Jack Robin is not actually singing jazz, his performances (in blackface) draw from the blues tradition and black spirituals, capitalizing on the appropriation of black expressive culture. Hollywood's affinity for black musical forms continued with the production of the early musical Hallelujah (1929), an all-black cast feature, directed by King Vidor, that featured black folk music and spirituals. The industry's incursion into sound race movies with this film and others, including The Green Pastures (1936) and Bronze Venus (1938), had a dramatic effect on the independent producers. Increasingly, the stars of the race movie industry migrated to the Hollywood studios, lured by the offer of higher salaries, despite the reduction in their roles to performers in item numbers or supporting characters, often as servants to white protagonists. Though some directors like Micheaux would continue to work in the sound era, the talent drain and the inability to invest heavily in sound equipment led to the collapse of many of the independent studios. To make matters worse, the devastating collapse of the US economy that began in 1929 ravaged a community whose economic stability was tenuous at best. African American audiences had less money to spend on entertainment and sought out the better-financed, high production value spectacles of the Hollywood oligopoly.

The restricted roles offered to African American actors in Hollywood expanded with the US entry into World War II. As participants in the war, in the armed forces and on the home front, African Americans could not be ignored by the culture industry, certainly not when the country was engaged in a war to ensure freedom and democracy. In films like Casablanca (1942), Sahara (1943), and Lifeboat (1944), African American characters were constructed with greater complexity and humanity. The actor Rex Ingram (1895–1969) plays a pivotal role in the war film Sahara , as a sergeant in the Sudanese army who fights alongside British and American troops. He performs heroically in the fight against the German Afrika Korps and takes charge of Axis POWs.

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