Brute Cellar

The “race films” of the twenties and thirties prefigure the blaxploitation craze of the seventies in many ways, except they’re more likely to actually be made by black filmmakers. And they have their supernatural side too — for instance, Spencer Williams’ religious allegory GO DOWN, DEATH! interpolated stock footage of hell from Francesco Bertolini’s silent Italian production of DANTE’S INFERNO in order to illustrate the afterlife. OUANGA (aka THE LOVE WANGA, 1936) has full-on voodoo curses and reanimated zombies.

And then there’s SON OF INGAGI.

“Well, his neck was broke, two ribs caved in, his back twisted… I was thinking’ that maybe he committed suicide until I found out both arms was busted, and then I couldn’t figure it out.” Actual Comedy Dialogue from film.

INGAGI was a fake African documentary that cause outrage circa 1930 — it’s now apparently lost. SON OF INGAGI has nothing to do with the earlier film, but does concern an old woman returned from the Dark Continent with a sack of gold and an ape-man, whom she keeps behind a hidden panel in the basement, summoning him forth by Chinese gong as required. The lady is at work on some wonder drug for the benefit or mankind, which is off, since she hates mankind. Unfortunately the ape-man drinks her newly-perfected serum and rather than being noticeably improved by it, he just gets dyspeptic and furious, murdering his mistress in a fit of indigestion.

Then a nice couple move in, and find their lives tormented by the strange secret occupant of the house, who emerges from his cellar every night to murder people or steal sandwiches.

SON OF INGAGI is not a good film… its attitude to Africa seems no more enlightened than pulp fiction in white cinema, despite being scripted by the aforementioned Spencer Williams, who had a long career in “race films” as well as playing one half of Amos ‘n Andy on TV — asides from Oscar Micheaux, he’s probably the genre’s most significant filmmaker. But the movie is not really worse than PRC nonsense like VOODOO MAN — the performances are variable, but we get a musical number as a bonus, some knowing comedy, and N’Gina the ape man has a terrifically funny make-up, a sort of giant full-face beard cut into a ski mask.

On the plus side, this allows the actor to “emote” freely. On the minus side, well, I hardly know where to begin. But most movie ape man designs feel the need to completely conceal the actor’s true face to make him look simian. Somebody evidently decided that poor Zack Williams could more or less pass the way he was.

Director Richard Kahn had directed several “race westerns” like HARLEM RIDES THE RANGE and THE BRONZE BUCKAROO. He also helmed something called THE THIRD SEX, apparently an adaptation of notorious lesbian classic The Well of Loneliness — now presumed lost.

19 Responses to “Brute Cellar”

  1. Harlem Rides the Range and The Bronze Buckaroo are both quite charming.

  2. And then there are the films of Oscar Michaux – said to be the African American equivalent to Edward D Wood or Jess Franco.

    I’ve never seen any myself, but they have something of a camp/cult following.

  3. The race films are all to some extent naive/primitive/outsider art, since the filmmakers were either untrained or working with absurdly limited means. So they compare to Ed Wood, not in the usual “incompetent idiot” reading, but in the “passionate amateur” one. Within those limitations, they seem quite charming. I want to see those westerns!

  4. Michaux is worthy of intense study. He’s equivalent to Ed Wood only to the extent that he was functioning in abject cinematic poverty. He was makign films for black audiences when literally no one else was. His silent Beyond the Gates is magnificent. His talkies are all over the map. Often he’d raise money by filming night club acts to publicize them, and get a night club scnee into his films. As a result he preserved much of Black vaudeville that otherwise would have been utterly lost.

    Hoberman is partial to Ten Minutes To Live. It’s amusingly outrageous. But there’s MUCH more to Michaux than just that.

  5. I seem to remember I have a copy of TEN MINUTES TO LIVE. Perhaps I should get round to watching it?

  6. I have a copy of that but it’s incredibly poor quality — even worse than my fuzzy, misframed Son of Ingagi. But I can get other Micheaux films. In fact, I have Body and Soul, which got a beautiful release as part of the Robeson box set.

  7. Very Winsor McCay, that make-up. What a great week!

  8. Of course, there’s always this:

    Renoir’s Sur un air de Charleston, a twenty minute minstrelploitation Sci-Fi film with supernatural elements, two men in monkey suits and a half naked native dancer.

  9. I think the main difference between Ingagi and Son of Ingagi is that the latter is rather more up-front about the fact that there’s an actor behind the gorilla mask… It sounds as though Ingagi did some pretty good box office in 1930 both as exploitation pick and as controversial item.

    On Amos ‘n’ Andy, I came across a 1963 item in Variety where the NAACP objected to the sale of the series to TV stations in Nigeria and Kenya, on the basis that “We would not want our African brothers to think our lawyers are like the lawyers on Amos ‘n’ Andy”, though that hardly seemed like the most potentially objectionable element of the show.

  10. This is definitely turning into a fortnight. Poor Preminger gets just a week, but supernatural blaxploitation gets two because that’s the way I roll.

    The Renoir film is gloriously strange. Did he ever discuss the “thinking” behind it, I wonder? Might not have helped: I find his comments on Rules of the Game more mystifying than otherwise.

  11. That Renoir short is astounding. My love of Magritte is seriously shaken now.

  12. Magritte’s place should be secure — the same painting of his inspired images in The Spider’s Stratagem and The Exorcist…

  13. ‘The race films are all to some extent naive/primitive/outsider art, since the filmmakers were either untrained or working with absurdly limited means. So they compare to Ed Wood, not in the usual “incompetent idiot” reading, but in the “passionate amateur” one.’

    So the works by the pioneering black filmmakers are naive and primitive? Not sure we want to frame them that way. It’s a bit slanted, don’t you think? You say they were untrained, but no one was going to film school then. Everyone learned their craft by doing. Besides, would a Hollywood studio “train” Black filmmakers in those days? Obviously not.

    Micheaux was far from an amateur. He was a published columnist and novelist who sold thousands of copies of his work, then turned that money into production budgets and made more than 40 films that drew audiences all over the US and internationally. His work received high praise from film critics. He created a production company and sold stock in it. He was the original independent filmmaker, far from naive, and primitive only as seen by a hegemonic majority who may have a vested interest in grouping him among the “incompetent idiots” and “outsiders”.

  14. Nobody was going to film school, but if you went through the studio system, you learned their way of doing things from the ground up. Most black filmmakers didn’t have that option of course, so they had to be truly self-taught, or pick up filmmaking skills where they could.

    Another point is that on the tiny budgets involved, Hollywood gloss was not an option, and the traditional way of doing things simply wouldn’t work. Edgar Ulmer DID have studio experience, but when he made “race films” in three days in a converted tobacco warehouse, he had to improvise a different way of working.

    None of this is meant to take anything away from the filmmakers, who overcame near-impossible odds to make statements on film for a neglected audience who wanted to see themselves represented. But comparing the filmmaking to the work of outsiders in other fields seems a useful way to account for its odd qualities WITHOUT judging them by the standards of mainstream cinema. It has nothing to do with how sophisticated the writers and directors may have been, it is purely about their access to filmmaking knowledge and what they did with it creatively.

  15. David Boxwell Says:

    MOON OVER HARLEM (39): Edgar G. Ulmer’s foray into Blaxploitation. It’s sort of like a Micheaux joint, but without OM’s sheer improvisatory haphazardness (EDG manages to get everybody’s talking head in the frame, for example).

  16. A shame Ulmer, so far as I know, never made a supernatural blaxploitation movie, building on the lurid charm and oneirc rapture of his The Black Cat.

  17. Harlem Rides the Range has some charm, but by far the best of the dozen race-movies I’ve seen was the market’s last gasp: 1947’s Boy! What a Girl.

  18. That sounds delish! I’m going to check it out.

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