The Black Film Center/Archive is excited to welcome back to Indiana University Renée Baker, who is scheduled to be present for a post-screening Q&A of the 1930 film Borderline on Wednesday April 24th at 7:00 pm. (Click HERE for tickets.) Baker, who recently visited Indiana University in 2017 to premier her score for a different film, The Scar of Shame (1927), and conduct an ensemble of musicians from the Jacobs School of Music, will return to pursue research at the BFC/A related to the life and work of musician and composer Phil Moore.
Donated to IU’s Black Film Center/Archive in 2014, the Phil Moore collection includes 70 boxes of handwritten arrangements and compositions he had created for various Hollywood films, albums, radio and TV programs and live musical acts over the years. Just last month BFC/A archivist Ronda Sewald discussed the collection in a lecture about recently digitized audio materials as part of a campus wide Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative, which included several recordings of Moore’s. Baker has said of Moore that his “brilliant identity was usurped by his inability to claim ownership of so much of his work. His coaching of leading actresses and voices of the day is still a little known fact. I’m working on a project to help this visibility.”
Next Wednesday’s screening (Free Tickets HERE) features a predecessor and overlapping contemporary of Moore’s, Paul Robeson, as one of the stars of Borderline. Robeson was a singer, actor, and activist who was a star of both stage and screen. He was well known for taking up anti-imperialist causes and was a dedicated advocate of civil rights. Many of these activities led to his being blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy era.
But as film historian Charles Musser writes, Robeson also achieved some of the greatest levels of artistic breadth and depth by “playing the high-low interface with diabolical cleverness; he moved among the bohemian little theater movement of Greenwich Village, the commercial world of Broadway, the black theater of Harlem, and the leftist theater of revolutionary Russia.” What is fascinating to Musser and others is Robeson’s ability to “use[…] film both artistically and as a cultural intervention. Despite his achievements, Robeson would later go on to denounce his film career, stating:
“I grew more and more dissatisfied with the stories I played in. Certain elements in a story would attract me and I would agree to play in it. But by the time the producers and distributors had got through with it, the story was usually very different, and so were my feelings about it.”
Whether this is the case for Borderline, is one reason to make sure and see it next Wednesday (Click here for tickets). Certainly the film is complex in its depiction of race and sexuality. And the question of how effective this complexity is at communicating the kind of stories Robeson thought were most honest or important makes Borderline that much more interesting.
In the film Adah, played by Robeson’s wife Eslanda has an affair with a Thorne, a white man. The townspeople react and the brunt of their racism is put on display. Adah attempts a reconciliation with her husband, Pete (played by her real life husband, Robeson), but ends up fleeing town. Meanwhile, Thorne’s wife Astrid, played by the poet Helga Doom, seeks revenge and is met with violence. Her husband is suspected, but acquitted from criminal wrongdoing, while Pete must also leave town in light of these events.
Borderline also features an incredible technical virtuosity in silent-era filmmaking, with rapid and disorienting cuts, meant to elicit shock and intensity. Frames depicting people are juxtaposed with objects to connote uncertain meaning. And markers of non-normative gender and sexuality are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) signaled with daring resolve. The rich visual momentum of the film highlights the distortions of racism in a world where the scandal of whiteness typically just blends into the background.
Reference: Musser, Charles. “Paul Robeson and the End of His ‘Movie’ Career.” in Contemporary Black American Cinema: Race, Gender and Sexuality at the Movies. Ed. Mia Mask, Routledge UP, 2012. pp. 14-39.