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Damn the Man, Save the Rex! – Akosua Adoma Owusu Reinvigorates Ghanaian Cinema Culture


Photo: Design 233/Obibini Pictures

Akosua Adoma Owusu is an award-winning filmmaker whose films have shown all over the world.  Earlier this year her film Kwaku Ananse won the African Movie Academy Award for Best Short Film.  She recently changed her home base from suburban DC to Accra, and in her latest project, she’s aiming to reinvigorate film-going culture in Ghana’s capital city.

Last month Owusu launched “Damn the Man, Save the Rex!” — a Kickstarter campaign to revive one of Ghana’s historic cinemas.  The campaign ends later this week on November 15, and she’s raised over two-thirds of her $8000 goal.  The BFC/A’s Nzingha Kendall interviewed her about the impetus for the project, the history of the Rex and her vision for the space.

BFC/A: One of the goals of your “Damn the Man, Save the Rex” project is to add to the vitality of the arts scene in Accra by providing a multifaceted space to showcase art and music in addition to film.  Can you tell us why you decided to launch this venture at the Rex in particular?

Akosua Adoma Owusu: Absolutely! Well, my motivation for launching the Save the Rex campaign came from how I could see this lack of support for African filmmakers, and even more, a lack of spaces for African filmmakers to exhibit and showcase their work.  Moving back to Ghana after the AMAAs [African Movie Academy Awards], I struggled to secure a venue that would premiere a short film because the film didn’t even fit the mold of any film industry structure – abroad or in Ghana.


Photo: Design 233/Obibini Pictures

Also, Ghana has lots of historic cultural institutions that have been left abandoned or have been sold for redevelopment and yet it is not really a cinema-going culture.  These spaces were originally used by local Ghanaian cultural producers and are now left unattended so they are no longer considered fascinating to people in the context of contemporary Ghanaian community.  I want to revive the Rex to give the local Ghanaian creative community and my peers opportunities to be cultural producers in a culture where memory and cultural heritage is often discarded in order to compete in a globalized world.

BFC/A: A follow up question: What role did the Rex play in Ghanaian cinema-going culture?  And why are other historic cinemas in Ghana endangered today?

Owusu: To say it simply, the Rex, among other cinema houses, was built to promote and exhibit Hollywood and foreign movies for local Ghanaian audiences.  With the fast growing and successful video film industry, there was no longer a need for a cinema-going culture. Films could go straight to DVD and directly profit the filmmakers themselves, which is very similar to the Nigerian film industry.  Many private investors in these cinema houses were more concerned about making profit from African ticket sales or promoting foreign cultures, that the cinema houses were no longer profitable.  Then other models developed, like showing locally produced films in the cinema houses.  This model was not profitable either since every household had access to a television, and people prefer to watch films at home, or on a computer or even a phone. How can these cinema houses make money, especially when theaters are also dying abroad?

I think it is time we turn the cinema house into a place where local artists can show their work for the sake of having their work seen by a local audience, which in turn will stimulate cultural production and cultural productivity.  I believe if local Africans can have opportunities to be seen by the local community, they can eventually get noticed by an international one that often rejects their voice.  In Ghana, we live in a culture where the local community would rather see more movies made from our own voice from our own perspective.  That said, I feel it is time we consider investing more in spaces where Africans can have freedom to be cultural producers and stimulate cultural production of our own culture in our own cultural spaces.

BFC/A: On your Kickstarter trailer, you mention that you’ve encountered many situations where people discuss ideal and exciting projects, but that in the end these projects rarely make it past the theoretical stage.  How is it that you’re able to take your ideas and make them reality?

Owusu: Well, I think my process of taking ideas and turning them into reality is similar to my process of making films – they just come together organically.  I really don’t have the time and energy to wait for funding to pull my films together.   I just have to do it.  I cannot wait for funding to get my films made.  I usually make my films with very little and with what already exists out there.  Kwaku Ananse, to date, has been my most expensive film and it was a co-production of 3 countries that came together to make my vision become a reality.  So, I feel that if it takes 3 countries to make my short film, and I am of 2 cultures, it is my duty as an African filmmaker of the diaspora who makes work in Africa, with Africans and foreigners, to collaborate and be of service to my creative community.

BFC/A: Who are some of the Ghanaian artists you plan to showcase at the Rex?  Or if perhaps you don’t want to let the cat out of the bag quite yet, who are some young Ghanaian artists whose work we should keep an out out for?

Owusu: Oh Yes!  Absolutely!  Many of the artists I plan on showcasing at the Rex are my great friends and this is no secret so I’d love to share who I am collaborating with and their involvement in the Save the Rex project.  One artist is my sistren, Nana Offoryiatta-Ayim, a cultural historian, curator and filmmaker.  I’m a filmmaker and curating cultural programs isn’t my forte.  However, I love how Nana has such a great great eye when it comes to spotting great local talent.

There are sculptors Nana Anoff and Mahama Ibrahim.  There is filmmaker Anita Afonu, who made a documentary, Perished Diamonds, about our dying cinema houses,  there is performance artist Serge who comes to mind….There is Wanlov the Kubolor and M3NSA, of the FOKN BOIS,  there is Kyekyeku who is the protege of legendary guitarist Koo Nimo, there is Jahwai who blends hiphop and reggae…there is Nana Asaase…and Mutombo the Poet…and a young singer, Lady Jay…gosh, I could go on forever!  All of these guys are so incredibly talented. They are the new wave of Ghanaian creatives and I can see them making history and being legends in our future. And, an organization like Accra Dot Alt brings all of these artists, including myself together for cultural events. These guys helped me find a place in Ghana when I didn’t know where I could fit in the current Ghanaian film industry and I’m looking forward to growing with them.  That’s my utopian vision of Africa…it’s right here in Ghana at the Rex Cinema, a place where a gray area of artists can unite and really have the freedom to create.

Click here to contribute and find out more about Owusu’s Kickstarter campaign.

For other information about the Rex and Ghanaian cinema culture:

Jennifer Blaylock (UC Berkeley doctoral student) on the Rex

Blaylock’s slideshow of cinemas in Accra in the late 1960s

JOT Ageyman’s blog post on the Ghanaian film industry

Brigit Meyer’s “Popular Ghanaian Cinema and African Heritage” (subscription required)

Black Sexual Economies: Conference on Transforming Black Sexualities Research

On September 27 & 28, 2013, I had the pleasure of attending, for the first time, the Black Sexual Economies conference that was held at Washington University Law in St. Louis.  Although Black Studies and its various permutations – African American Studies, Africana Studies, African Diaspora Studies – have been institutionalized for at least 40 years, research in Black Sexuality has often been marginalized within the academy. This conference brought together some of the most influential scholars in the broad, heterogeneous area of Black Sexuality Studies: Cathy Cohen, Tricia Rose, E. Patrick Johnson, Rinaldo Walcott, and Indiana University’s very own Marlon Bailey and LaMonda Horton-Stallings, to name just a few. Key organizers, presenters and other participants represented a wide variety of disciplines and research interests, as well as being representative of academic institutions across the United States.

IU's LaMonda Horton-Stallings with Cathy Cohen and Matt Richardson at Black Sexual Economies: Conference on Transforming Black Sexualities Research, Washington University School of Law, St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo: Marsha Horsley)

IU’s LaMonda Horton-Stallings with Cathy Cohen and Matt Richardson at Black Sexual Economies: Conference on Transforming Black Sexualities Research, Washington University School of Law, St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo: Marsha Horsley)

This was more than a conference, this was an experience. The emphasis was on mentorship, an often neglected and underestimated aspect of the academic environment, especially for scholars whose research is often viewed as risky, dangerous and taboo. The impetus of this conference was to provide a supportive intellectual environment for a new generation of scholars working in the overlapping areas of black/queer/trans/gender/diaspora/sexualities, opening up the now-institutionalized area of Gender and Sexuality studies, speaking to their blind spots, and creating much needed visibility around Black sexualities. While emphasizing the need to mentor younger scholars in this area, the key organizers, Mireilee Miller-Young and Adrienne Davis, were very aware of and acknowledged those scholars of an older generation, who had paved the way for us to do the kinds of research that we do. I felt as if I was part of a community, a community of scholars whom I could identify with and relate to. Community building can itself be a double-edged sword, especially when the idea of community can be exclusionary. However, the tone and atmosphere of this conference was one that celebrated and encouraged diversity – of people, for disciplines, of intellectual interests, of positions – emphasizing the potentialities of what a more progressive Black/Gender/Sexualities/Queer Studies project can look like. An important aspect of the conference was the validation of people’s research and what was most valuable was the ways in which more established scholars interacted with younger scholars, providing feedback and advice that was certainly aimed at enabling people to reach their fullest potential. Panel presentations, plenary sessions and workshops (pedagogy and methodologies) made this a holistic experience, grounding the conference in the very everyday experiences of learning how to navigate the academic institution.

Black cinema and visual culture definitely featured prominently amongst presenters. I was fortunate to present on a panel with two other scholars – Jennifer Nash and Ariane Cruz – working in the genre of pornography, an often marginalized and neglected area of research in Cinema/Film Studies. My paper was titled “Theatres of Transgression and Confession: Subverting Masculinities in Gay, Interracial, Bareback Pornography,” in which I explore representations of bareback sex between Black and White men, and argue that the association between barebacking and the death drive is insufficient to understand the complexities of this subculture. This was the natural association because of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I suggest that barebacking needs to be theorized through the framework of futurity, one where the strict delineation between races and masculinities becomes increasingly blurred. While re-working this paper I am thinking about the relationship between sexual liberation and the potentialities for a new world order. The feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive and has definitely allowed me to push my argument to the next level, as I prepare this paper for publication.

Jordache Ellapen is a Ph.D. student in the Department of American Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington.  He works as a publications assistant with director Michael Martin at the Black Film Center/Archive.


National Coming Out Day and Exploding Lineage! Film Screening

On October 11, 2013, 6:30pm, at IU Cinema there will be a free screening of Exploding Lineage! Queer of Color Histories in Experimental Media, featuring innovative work by a diverse group of 14 queer media artists of color..

March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. “Join in the march, rally, and other related events” Pamphlet. October 11, 1987. HRC Records.

March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. “Join in the march, rally, and other related events” Pamphlet. October 11, 1987. HRC Records.

Twenty-five years have passed since 300,000 to 500,000 people marched on Washington D.C. for gay rights; twenty-five years later, the fight for equality continues in the United States.

The events of October 11, 1987, represented the LGBTQ community’s frustration with the government’s response to the AIDS crisis and continued discrimination against gays.

At the time, the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights received little press coverage and it wasn’t until 1993, when another major March was launched, that the media began to pay attention to the issue of LGBTQ rights.

Still, for the gay community, the 1987 march signified a poignant moment of solidarity and unity.

In conjunction with the 1st anniversary of the 1987 march, National Coming Out Day (NCOD) was founded to celebrate individuals undertaking a significant right of passage – taking a stand to publicly identify as bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender, or queer.

Keith Haring. National Coming Out Day sticker, n.d. HRC Records.

Keith Haring. National Coming Out Day sticker, n.d. HRC Records.

October 11, 2013 marks the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and the 25th celebration of National Coming Out Day. LGBTQ people and allies will come together to celebrate diversity, acceptance, and equality this Friday.  The theme this year is “Coming Out Still Matters – When people know someone who is LGBT, they are far more likely to support equality under the law. Every person who speaks up changes more hearts and minds, and creates new advocates for equality.”

With this sentiment in mind, the the Black Film Center/Archive of Indiana University, several other IU departments, and Bloomington PRIDE are co-sponsoring a special free film screening at the Indiana University Cinema. The program of contemporary short films comes at a time when Indiana’s LGBTQ community fights HJR6, the proposed constitutional amendment that seeks to narrowly define marriage in the state as discriminatory and exclusive.

Hokum/Dr. K. Ryan Ziegler

Dr. K. Ryan Ziegler’s HOKUM draws on ideas of sex, gender, and Black masculinity and a soundtrack by Queer Harlem artists such as Gladys Bentley and Ma Rainey, to ask of its audience: what does it mean to take pleasure when viewing the queer Black female body?

Featuring innovative work by a diverse group of media artists, Exploding Lineage! Queer of Color Histories in Experimental Media, explores the complexities of identity construction in African, Asian, and Latin queer diasporas. The program, which premiered in 2012 at the 25th MIX NYC festival, includes KB Boyce’s Bulldagger Women and Sissy Men, a tribute to queer artists of the Harlem Renaissance, and Celeste Chan’s Bloodlines, a lyrical recognition of Chinese immigrants detained on Angel Island due to the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Among the twelve other  filmmakers is Dr. K. Ryan Ziegler, who was recently honored as an influential African American leader by The Root for giving voice to black transgender people through art and scholarship; and 2012 Lambda Literary Fellow Indira Allegra, a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work explores forms of queer intimacy, text, trauma and racial identity through performance, video works and handwoven textiles.

Queer Origins/Celeste Chan

Artist, filmmaker, and curator Celeste Chan’s QUEER ORIGINS is an experimental animation laced with nostalgia.

The free screening of Exploding Lineage! will take place October 11, 2013 at 6:30 pm at the IU Cinema as part of its ongoing Underground Film series. Immediately following will be an open discussion with the program’s curators, KB Boyce and Celeste Chan. Boyce and Chan founded Queer Rebels in 2008 to showcase queer artists of color, connect generations, and honor our histories with art for the future.

Earlier on Friday, the Indiana University Bloomington’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Student Support Services office will host KB and Celeste for an informal Brown Bag Lunch Talk with students.  This event begins at 12:15 pm. at the GLBTSSS office, 705 E. 7th Street.  For more information about the Brown Bag talk, contact GLBTSSS at (812) 855-4252 / 

The Exploding Lineage! event is presented by the Black Film Center/Archive and IU Cinema; and co-sponsored by Bloomington PRIDE, the East Asian Studies Center, the Center for the Study of Global Change, the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, Department of American Studies, Department of Communication and Culture, Department of Gender Studies, Film and Media Studies program, and GLBT Student Support Services.

~Ardea Smith

50 Years: The March on Washington 1963-2013

Tonight, in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, U.S. State Department is preparing to live stream The March, a 1964 documentary by James Blue about the 1963 civil rights March on Washington. Preceding the film will be a short introduction by John Robinson, Director of the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of State and following the film individuals are welcome to stay for a virtual discussion with Washington, DC-based civil rights experts who will answer participants questions and comments submitted online throughout the program. Please follow the link to participate in this global viewing party:

Official Program for the March on Washington, 08/28/1963, Source: Collection JFK-164: Post-Administration Records Collection, 1964 - 2011, National Archives

Planned March Route, Official Program for the March on Washington, 08/28/1963, Source: Post-Administration Records Collection, 1964 – 2011, National Archives

The March on Washington and James Blue’s documentary – The March

From early  June of 1963, with the formation of the coalition Council for United Civil Rights Leadership, to August 27, 1963 uncertainties plagued the minds of civil rights leaders across America. The “Big Six” had come together in June, determined to mobilize the people for a March on Washington. They had spent months clarifying the goals of the March, finding volunteers, organizing transportation, and publicizing the event. The “Big Six” faced down the threats of the Klu Klux Klan, the potential for police brutality, the lack of political support in Washington D.C., and the skepticism of the President of the United States John F. Kennedy.

Yet the biggest question that the “Big Six” could not answer was, “Will they come?”

On the morning of August 28th, 1963 the answer was apparent. While organizers had planned for anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 participants, the buses, trains, and endless streams of cars entering D.C. betrayed a much larger turnout. “Almost a continuous line of buses on the expressway,” police said. By 8:00 a.m., 100 buses an hour were streaming through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. [March, p. 184-186]

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington.] Source:  Record Group 306: Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 - 2003, National Archives

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington.] Source: Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 – 2003, National Archives

In total, over 250,000 people rallied together under the ringing voices of celebrities, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King as he exhorted “let freedom ring.”

March on Washington, 1963, Source: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, Library of Congress

March on Washington, 1963, Source: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, Library of Congress

Yet, despite the overwhelming success of the March on Washington and the outpouring of support for civil and human rights, the political wheels moved more slowly. At the end of the rally, President Kennedy invited the march leaders to the White House to discuss the pending civil rights bills, where some leaders pushed for strengthening portions of the bill. President Kennedy was cordial and non-committal in his support. As the weeks passed the civil rights legislation seemed to be stalling and the momentum and optimism inspired by the March began to fade.

Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy in the oval office of the White House after the March on Washington, D.C. Source: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand Collection, Library of Congress

Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy in the oval office of the White House after the March on Washington, D.C. Source: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand Collection, Library of Congress

It would take another 2 years before both the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) were passed.

During the political stalemate in the United States – with an uncertain ambivalence in the air over the future of civil rights – a much different message was being promoted to foreign countries. As part of the United States Information Agency (USIA), films were produced as part of a desire to attract support and cooperation for American policies in foreign countries, part of a soft power movement relying on covert propaganda. As part of the USIA’s film series, the documentary The March, chronicling the March on Washington, was produced by James Blue and released overseas in 1964.

James Blue, documentary filmmaker

James Blue, documentary filmmaker, Source: Glasstire

Despite the US government’s reluctance to lend its support in the lead up to the March and the political tepidity following August 28, 1963, James Blue’s 1964 documentary The March, presents a much more unified front in support of the civil rights movements. Carl T. Rowan, the Director of the United States Information Agency states in his introduction to the film, “Ladies and Gentleman…I have the privilege to present to you a dramatic document of man’s continuing search for dignity. It is a film about the great civil rights march at Washington. A moving exercise of one of the most cherished rights in the free society, the right of peaceful protest. I believe that this demonstration of both whites and negroes supported by the federal government and by both President Johnson and the late President Kennedy, is a profound example of the procedures unfettered men use to broaden the horizons of freedom and deepening the meaning of personal liberty.”

The film captures the buses rolling into Washington, sandwiches being made for the thousands of participants, performances along the Reflecting Pool, blacks and whites using the same water fountain, and other images meant to capture the cohesive racial equality that occurred in Washington on August 28, 1963.

Interestingly, The March was never seen by the American public. Due to concerns about the repercussions or effects of the U.S. Government using propaganda on its own people, the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act mandated that no USIA film could be shown within the U.S without a special act from Congress.

It was only with a Congressional Act in 1990 that films such as James Blue’s The March were authorized to be screened domestically.

Now, with the help of the National Archives, the American public is not only able to witness imagery from one of the largest political rallies for civil right in the history of the United States but also the ways in which the United States government portrayed The March on Washington abroad for its own purposes.

If you are interested in learning more about the making of The March, please visit the following link ( to a blog post by Criss Kovac, supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab at the National Archives. As part of a larger project to digitally restore The March, Criss Kovac provides a detailed and thought-provoking post on James Blue’s film-making process and the ensuing controversy within the USIA over the final film, its message, content, and release.

To learn more about the recent digital restoration of The March conducted by the National Archives, one can also follow the link ( to learn more about the process, from the arrival of the damaged reels to the laboratory to the compilation of the repaired frames.

For those in Washington D.C., the first screening of the National Archives digital restoration of James Blue’s The March will be held at noon, August 26th, in the McGowan Theater at the National Archives Building.  Additional screenings will be held at noon on August 27th and 28th as well. For those unable to attend in person the film will also be available on the National Archive’s YouTube channel beginning August 26th.

~Ardea Smith

Documentary Filmmaker, William Miles, Dies at 82

William Miles, also known as Bill, lived a life devoted to exploring and documenting the history, culture, and achievements of African Americans. On May 12, at the age of 82, Miles died in Queens, reported the New York Times. Although stricken with a number of health problems, the cause of his death is unknown. Born on April 18th 1931 and raised in Harlem on West 126th street, Miles lived behind and worked at the famous Apollo Theatre.  Among his many awards was his induction into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1986. He leaves behind his wife of 61 years, Gloria Miles, daughters Brenda Moore and Deborah Jones, and three grandchildren.

William Miles (photo: Don Purdue)

William Miles (photo: Don Purdue)

The New York Times recently reported:

“Mr. Miles was part historical sleuth, part preservationist, part bard. His films, which combined archival footage, still photographs and fresh interviews, were triumphs of curiosity and persistence in unearthing lost material about forgotten subjects.”

Many of Miles’s films concentrated on documenting African Americans’ contributions to the military. Miles’s film Men of Bronze (1977), also known as the Harlem Hellfighters and the Black Rattlers, has been noted as one of his most important films. The film had its debut at the New York Film Festival and later aired on national public television. Men of Bronze, which is a combination of photos, footage, memoirs, and anecdotes, captures the emotional journey of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment and the story of how they fought under the French flag due to segregationist policies during the First World War. Authors Phyllis R. Klotman and Janet K. Cutler stated in their book Struggles For Representation: African American Documentary Film and Video, “Men of Bronze (1997) became a model for documentaries that put African Americans back into military history.”

The Black Film Center/Archive holds copies of several of Miles’s films, including 16mm prints of his series, I Remember Harlem.  Other Miles material at BFC/A includes an interview conducted by BFC/A founder Phyllis Klotman and a collection of Miles’s research materials, donated in August 1997, relating to the 1992 documentary film Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II.  Co-produced and directed by Nina Rosenblum, this ninety-minute film documented the stories of black army units fighting against racism in the military and at home. The film was nominated in the 1993 Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature.  A finding aid is available online here.

In 2006, William Miles placed a major collection of his work with the Washington University Film and Media Archive in St. Louis. 

Miles was a recipient of many awards throughout his career and was a member of several distinguished organizations. Some of his awards and affiliations include: the Black Harlem Award, the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, the International Documentary Association, and the Black National Programming Consortium.

William Miles’s work will continued to be treasured for years to come, as his documentaries provide insight on the history of many aspects of African American life across an array of professions and communities.

~Katrina Overby

Starts Tonight: The Shared Ethnography of Jean Rouch @ the IU Cinema

Influential French documentarian Jean Rouch is the focus of a retrospective at the IU Cinema this month.  The series opens tonight at 6:30 pm with a double header of Les Maîtres Fous and Moi, un Noir.


Rouch’s 1967 classic Jaguar will screen on Saturday, February 9 at 6:30 pm.  Mammy Water and The Lion Hunters will close the series on Sunday, February 17 at 6:30 pm.

For more on Jean Rouch, check out African film scholar Manthia Diawara’s 1995 documentary, Rouch in Reverse.  Diawara turns the ethnographic camera on Rouch in an act of “reverse anthropology.”   Trailer HERE.

The Shared Ethnography of Jean Rouch coincides with a nationwide tour following Icarus Films’ acquisition of the North American rights for six of Rouch’s films.  The series is co-sponsored by the BFC/A, the Departments of Communication and Culture, Anthropology, History, French and Italian, the African Studies Program and the IU Cinema.

Pullman Porters on Screen, Part 2 (Since 1960)

As the prominence of American railroads began to decline drastically in the post-war era, and the escalating civil-rights movement diversified workplace opportunities for African Americans, the ubiquity of the Pullman Porter also began to fall.  In film, the ‘Pullman-Porter-as-black-archetype-for-white-audiences’ lost currency, and the figure of the Pullman Porter relocated to a very different branch of the film universe: documentaries and narrative features concerned with historical memory.


California Newsreel led the documentary charge, with Miles of Smiles, Years of Struggle (1982) directed by Paul Wagner, and A. Philip Randolph: For Jobs and Freedom (1996) directed by Dante James. Miles of Smiles chronicled the organizing of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, while For Jobs and Freedom, more broadly, focused on the wide ranging career of A. Philip Randolph.   Both documentaries were made for TV, and are currently available from California Newsreel.  [Note: BFC/A will be screening A. Philip Randolph: For Jobs and Freedom on February 6, 2013.  More on that here.] In 2006, a third major documentary, Rising from the Rails (2006), directed by Brad Osborne and based on Larry Tye’s book, was released. Below, a clip from Miles of Smiles:

The first narrative feature on Pullman Porters, 10,000 Black Men Named George, came out in 2002, directed by Robert Townsend and starring Andre Braugher, Charles S. Dutton, and Mario Van Peebles. The film’s title comes from the antebellum practice of calling male slaves by their masters’ name, a racist gesture which carried into the Pullman era (George Pullman founded the Pullman Rail Company), similar to calling someone ‘boy.’  That particular part of the experience is depicted in this scene from the movie (and here’s another interesting clip):

While Townsend’s effort seems to be the only feature film which made it out of production, there were reports of Stanley Robertson, Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, and Bill Cosby working with 20th Century Fox to produce a biopic on A. Philip Randolph and his wife, Lucille, in 2001; it’s unclear whether or not this project is still in the works, though Roberstson (who also produced Men of Honor) has passed away.

While we can appreciate the efforts made to portray Pullman porters and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, it’s hard to not feel like there is an under-representation of their experience in film, given their incredible and untold contributions to American life.  And yet, perhaps because of the influence of these films (and a slew of wonderful researchers and museums), efforts at telling the stories of Pullman porters may be on the increase.  In 2009, Amtrak launched a program to commemorate the contributions of Pullman porters.  And last year, playwright Cheryl L West’s Pullman Porter Blues took the Arena Stage – here’s a writeup from NPR.  Perhaps a sleeping car porter blockbuster is next?

Cleavant Derricks (L), as Sylvester in Pullman Porter Blues.

~ Jonathan Donald Jenner


Read “Pullman Porters on Screen, Part 1 (pre-1960)” here.

Pullman Porters on Screen, Part 1 (Pre-1960)

The legacy of Pullman porters and the labor union eventually formed by them  – the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters – is an important one in American and labor history. Correspondingly, Pullman porters have left their imprint on American film in many different ways through the years, though the volume and type of those depictions might be wanting.

Pullman Porter

Pullman porter Harry Lucas (Margaret Bourke-White/Time and Life)

When George Pullman ventured in to the business of sleeping class accommodation on the railroads after the Civil War, he made a decision to hire only black porters – attendants for all aspects of the sleeping car experience – owing to several factors: a large, newly available labor pool willing to work; the ability to pay lower wages to black men; and to recreate – for the white middle classes who would ride the train – the upper class experience of being waited on by paid servants.  Working conditions were long, tough, and underpaid, and yet it was an available job for black men systematically excluded from much of the labor force, which meant something.  In 1925, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was formed and, and conditions and pay for the profession began to improve.  The Pullman porters, aided by the BSCP, have been seen as contributors to the black middle class that grew between the 1920s and 1960s in America (excuse my brevity – you can read more in many places, including here, here, here, and here).

Pullman ID Card

The first black film company – the Foster Photoplay Company – was formed in 1909 and put out two shorts The Pullman Porter (1910), and The Railroad Porter (1912), which are often credited as the first films directed by a black director with an entirely black cast.  The slapstick films were generally considered to posit African Americans positively and not in the racist archetypes of the day (these films came out a few years before D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation), and featured Pullman porters in both.  The latter film is also credited with having the first chase scene in film history.

Pullman porters made it into the peripheries of many other films in the silent era, all too often, unfortunately, against a reductive and racist backdrop.  For example, Fast Black (1924), features two white characters, one of whom has his face accidentally blackened by a car’s exhaust pipe, and responds to an ad for a ‘colored Pullman porter.’  According to IMDb, the rest of the film is driven by “mistaken identity due to accidental blackface.”  Unfortunately, many of these films have now been lost – we know, very little, for example, about Roscoe Arbuckle’s 1919 ‘The Pullman Porter’ except that it starred white actors.  Al Jolson, whose relationship to African Americans and race in America was much more complex than initial appearances, used Pullman porter tropes and archetypes in his 1913 album and song Pullman Porter’s Parade, promoting the song with blackface material.

Al Jolson's promotion photo for Pullman Porter's Parade

Al Jolson’s promotional photo for Pullman Porter’s Parade

In the Talkies era, the ubiquity of the Pullman porter in American life is perhaps most visible through scanning over the filmography of Dudley Dickerson.   Dickerson, who appeared in around films beginning in 1932, played a Pullman porter (or some type of role on a train) in the following titles:  The Alligator People (1959), The Opposite Sex (1956), Tonight We Sing (1953), Everybody Does It (1949), It’s a Great Feeling (1949), The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), It Had to Be You (1947), Hold That Lion (1947), I’ll Be Yours (1947), Rolling Down to Reno (1947), The Falcons Adventure (1946), One Way to Love (1946), The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), A Guy, a Gal, and a Pal (1945), Together Again (1944), His Wedding Scare (1943),  George Washington Slept Here (1942), Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), Spy Smasher (1942), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), All-American Co-ed (1941), Knute Rockne All American (1940), On Trial (1939), The Sisters (1938), Broadway Musketeers (1938), The Adventurous Blonde (1937), Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936), and Polo Joe  (1936). A scan of Dickerson’s filmography (here) has him cast in a vast array of servile roles as a minor or supporting actor, and he is often not credited. Below is Dickerson in Hold That Lion (1947), a short with the Three Stooges franchise (Dickerson’s spot begins at 4:05).

However, not all films featuring Pullman porters were consigned to base and stereotypical motifs at the peripheries of films.  For example, Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play The Emperor Jones was adapted twice – in a 1933 screen version directed by Dudley Murphey (starring Paul Robeson), and a 1955 made-for-TV film produced by Kraft Television Theatre (starring Ossie Davis).  The Emperor Jones tells the story of a Pullman Porter who eventually becomes the emperor or a Carribbean island.  The story is certainly not without its criticism – frequent use of the word ‘nigger’ and plays on sexual myths about black men among them – though it certainly cuts against the grain of films featuring Pullman porters at the time.

Emperor Jones

Still, the imprint of Pullman porters on American film is more than just depictions of Pullman porters on screen.  Oscar Micheaux was a Pullman porter before becoming one of the most successful black directors in the silent and talkie era.  As a porter, Micheaux was able to travel across and see the country, establish relationships with wealthy people who would later finance his films, and learned how to manage business operations.  We’re quite thankful it helped launch his career in film, and the Lincoln Motion Picture Company.

Lincoln Motion Picutre Company

~Jonathan Jenner

AMIA 2012: Trip Report

As Assistant Archivist at the BFC/A, I recently had an opportunity to attend the annual conference of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) in Seattle. It was immensely informative (and more than a bit exciting), giving me a chance to see what work is being done in the preservation and restoration of film materials around the world—not just within dedicated film archives, but in all repositories that house these materials and have to deal with the issues that then arise.


Since many of these issues are ones that we deal with here at the BFC/A (such as identification, storage, and handling), it was nice to see that they are universal and to have a chance to get outside perspectives on them. On a personal level it was good for me, as a fairly new member of the community, to really get a sense of what that community is about and the connections that exist. It was an overview of what areas in film are still in need of attention and resources–a look at the bigger picture that can be adapted to suit the needs of the BFC/A. The amount of new information, ideas, and methods was a bit overwhelming at first—and before the end of the first day I had resolved to take in as much as I could and not get lost in the details—but by the end of the conference I felt I had come away with a general idea of where to go from here.

The issue that stuck with me the most was the need to preserve non-commercial films, including home movies. There have been strides made to draw attention to these films—and Indiana University does participate in the annual Home Movie Day—but most of the attention when it comes to issues of preservation and restoration is given to commercial film.  That remains an important and vital section of film history, certainly, but equal attention should probably be given to these amateur productions. They provide us with a living document of our past, a candid look at our history, and ensuring that these items are kept in a condition where they can be continually screened should be at the forefront of every archive that deals with film materials.

Trailer for the 10th Annual Home Movie Day, 2012

This was the topic of the first session I attended, “A Decade of Home Movie Day,” and the issue stretched throughout the remainder of the week. I have to admit that going into the conference I had never put much thought behind the challenges of such films, having spent most of my time at the BFC/A working with commercial film that usually has a large amount of metadata. I understood that preserving amateur film was important, but the issues of how to process, preserve, and screen these films had never really been laid out in such a way before. Needless to say, I returned from Seattle eager to see this work continued and expanded upon here at Indiana University and the BFC/A, and to see Home Movie Day continue to grow.

Of course, the conference encompassed other issues and I returned with a broader understanding of the field in general, and the work that is needed to continue to make the films held in archives accessible to the general public. And it does seem to be a continual effort: the conference started with an examination of the film-related clean-up efforts undertaken in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Additionally, AMIA2012 was a great opportunity to see the fruits of some of this preservation and restoration work, as a variety of these films were presented at the Archival Screening Night.

So—a bit of a whirlwind overview into the world of film archives. But nevertheless, I came back to Bloomington with a new way of looking at the challenges we face, a better understanding of the variety of material being collected, and a better knowledge of the newer developments in film preservation. But most of all, I returned with stronger than ever conviction that, in preserving film, we are preserving our shared history.

~Stacey Doyle

To See & Hear History: The SF State Strike Collection at the SF Bay Area Television Archive

Student Made Pamphlet for SF State Student Strike.

Student-made pamphlet for SF State Student Strike.

Friday, December 14th, 2012, marks the 44th anniversary of classes being suspended at San Francisco State University, amidst a strike led by the Black Student Union and Third World Liberation Front, demanding the establishment of various Ethnic Studies departments and an end to the Vietnam War.  In 2008, San Francisco State University celebrated the 40th anniversary of the strike – the longest campus strike in U.S. history – by looking back on how the event “defined the University’s core values of equity and social justice, laid the groundwork for establishment of the College of Ethnic Studies, and inspired the establishment of ethnic studies classes and programs at other universities throughout the country.”

Now, thanks to the efforts of the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive, much of the audiovisual record that documents the strike is available online, in the SF State Strike Collection.

I spoke to Alex Cherian, SFSU’s resident film archivist, who had this to say about the significance of the collection:

From the point of view of San Francisco State University, it’s one thing to be told about the riots, but it’s another thing entirely to see the campus – the same trees and buildings and students who are the same age as students now – being attacked by police.  The incident is referred to as a ‘riot,’ but what it was, really, was students being beat up by police for what they believed in.  They were there as part of the struggle to establish ethnic studies, and still today, [SFSU] has a very vibrant and active College of Ethnic Studies.  It’s something very special to see and hear how the College [of Ethnic Studies] was born, and to feel that history.

On Strike at SFSU

Police and Students Clashing in a screenshot from On Strike! (At SF State)

In addition to raw footage of newscasts from the time, the archive includes On Strike! (At SF State), a 1969 documentary by Saul Rouda and David Dobkin on the strikes. (You can purchase the DVD from California Newsreel here.)

The collection also highlights how the strike extended beyond the student body.  In one clip (here), Dr. Carlton Goodlett (a man, who, among other things, opened a family medical practice in San Francisco, published the weekly Sun Reporter newspaper which agitated for civil rights, and “became the first black American since Reconstruction to mount a serious candidacy for the governorship of California”) holds a press conference “to explain how local community and labor forces are mobilizing in unison to support student protests at SF State College, in anticipation of a protracted struggle to restructure California’s Higher Education system.”

Dr. Carlton Goodlett speaks to the press in a screen shot from the CBS affiliate in San Francisco.

Dr. Carlton Goodlett speaks to the press.

Even amidst the global upheaval of 1968 – from Paris and Prague to Chicago and Los Angeles – the student strike at San Francisco State University looms large.  Its significance–both in establishing Ethnic Studies as a respected academic discipline and in mounting a multi-racial, multi-ethnic response to institutional racism–cannot be overstated, and underscores the necessity of preserving the audiovisual record of the strike.

The San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive got its start in 1982, when local news stations were switching film formats, and looking to offload their stored materials.  The materials found their way into the SFSU library, where the film was processed and catalogued thematically.  In 2010, the archive began to digitize and publish the collections online.

“There are thousands of hours of newsreel in the collection,” said Cherian, “and we’re still turning up interesting pieces.”  In addition to the SF State Strike collection, the archive maintains several collections of related interest, including the César Chávez Collection, the Black Panthers Collection, the Japanese American Collection, and the Occupation of Alcatraz Collection, among others.

~ Jonathan Jenner


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