Blacks have been appearing in mainstream movies ever since Erich von Stroheim first employed black actors in 1928 in "The Wedding March." Until then, black characters were played by whites in blackface.
But the black characters Hollywood wrote into scripts were always servants, buffoons or evil rapists who could barely speak English.As a reaction to this racial discrimination, blacks from the very earliest days of the motion picture were producers and directors and owned their own film companies.
Some treasures of early black cinema are now featured in "That's Black Entertainment," a one-hour cassette from VCI Home Video. The compilation of rare and historic footage comes from the Black Cinema Collection of the Southwest Film-Video Archives in Tyler, Texas.
The collection of 22 all-black movies from the 1930s and '40s was discovered in a warehouse in 1983. The 35mm nitrate prints were deteriorating in most cases, but were the last copies of the movies, which depicted the reality of black life as opposed to the Hollywood stereotypes.
In the earliest days of the motion picture, black characters were portrayed in Hollywood movies as emblems of depravity, especially in terms of sexuality. With talkies, blacks became the quintessence of song and dance, cast primarily as preachers, servants or clowns. In more modern times - and even today - many white filmmakers continue to see blacks in those ways.
Independent black filmmakers emerged in the 1920s and showed features that reflected black life: the middle and upper-middle class, black entrepreneurs, scientists, gangsters, entertainers, educators, scholars, lawyers, beauty queens, cohesive families.
More than 100 black film companies made low-budget, primarily B-movies for black theaters. The most notable filmmakers of this time included Noble and George Johnson, and Oscar Micheaux, who made Paul Robeson's first movie, "Body and Soul," in 1924.
Scenes from "Body and Soul" are featured on the video, as are "Boogie Woogie Dream," Lena Horne's first movie short; "Rufus Jones for President," in which an 8-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. dances; and "St. Louis Blues," with Bessie Smith.
"That's Black Entertainment" will be available on VHS for sale or rental beginning Jan. 30. The suggested retail price is $29.95.
Q: I have lost my favorite VCR feature since I had cable installed. I cannot tape a show to watch at another time while watching another show. Is there some way to correct this with an adapter?
A: I suspect that your cable company is among the many that are now scrambling all channels, basic as well as pay. As a result, your VCR can't be tuned to a different channel than the one you are watching. If that is the problem, the only solution is to rent a second descrambler box from the cable company. Use one to feed your TV and the other for the VCR. - Andy Wickstrom (Knight-Ridder)
THE MIGHTY QUINN - Xavier Quinn (Denzel Washington) is the island-born police chief of a Caribbean country ruled by a puppet governor and white American money interests. His childhood pal, Maubee (Robert Townsend), is something of thorn in the community's side. Maubee also is an impish bad boy who loves living on the edge, a Peter Pan with all the special skills of a ninja. Maubee is the prime suspect in the slaying of a wealthy American. But only the governor and the Americans believe Maubee to be the killer. Quinn's investigation is hampered by the CIA, the governor, South American interests and the White House, but he doggedly unravels the mystery and discovers the murderer. With a wonderful reggae soundtrack and the scenic beauty of Port Antonio, Jamaica, "The Mighty Quinn" is a smooth and exciting romp. CBS-Fox Home Video. VHS-Beta, $89.98. - Dolores Barclay (Associated Press)
THE RACHEL PAPERS - When it comes to women, Charles Highway understands the importance of artifice. When someone suggests that he just be himself, his mind boggles. "I don't have time to be myself with girls," he says. But "The Rachel Papers," Damian Harris's divinely cheeky first feature, is about just that, the story of a young lad's realization that love means never having to say you're somebody else. But being British, the movie buries its theme beneath a tide of natty patter. This is a film that rides on its spiffy cleverness, its swift wit and smart talk. It's a bracing treat. R. 1989. CBS/Fox Video. $79.98. - Hal Hinson (Washington Post)