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Essential Event Info

W H A T :

  • Directors Pearl Bowser & Bestor Cram, USA, 1994, color with B&W archival footage
  • TRT 60 min.
  • Genres: Doc, History
  • Post-Film Discussion
  • This film is NR (Not Rated)

  • W H E N :

  • Saturday, Oct 20, 2007

  • Sunday, Oct 21, 2007

  • Screening at 2:00 pm,
    Doors open at 1:30 pm

    W H E R E :

  • Cincinnati Art Museum,
    953 Eden Park Drive, Mt. Adams
  • Easy Access, Free Parking
    click for Directions & Map

  • T I C K E T S :

  • Tickets are $9 for adults and $7 for Art Museum members and students with valid ID.

    $7 tickets are ONLY available online, by phone, at the Museum, and at the door subject to availability.

  • CWC 859.957.3456
  • tollfree 1-877-548-3237
  • Art Museum Info Desk

  • ... and at these locations
    ($9 tix only, cash only),
    use links below for maps:

  • Clifton-Ludlow Ave. -
    Sitwell's Coffee House
    513 281 7487

  • Mt. Lookout Square -
    Lookout Joe Coffee Roasters

    513 871 8626

  • Northside-Hamilton Ave -
    Shake It Music & Video
    513 591 0123

  • Covington-Main Strasse -
    The Bean Haus
    859 431 2326

  • Click here for online tickets



    Midnight Ramble
    Cincinnati World Cinema :: Kekexili


    The story of the Black Film Industry, 1910-1950 --
    the filmmakers, films and their impact upon American society.

    S U M M A R Y
    MIDNIGHT RAMBLE is more than just a story about the emergence of black American cinema. It mirrors the history of black Americans, and indeed, our society as a whole, from 1910-1950.

    It presents modern history with an easy-to-follow mix of narration, film clips and interviews. Concise and comprehensive, MIDNIGHT RAMBLE engages the audience and:

  • Recognizes roughly 500 movies created by black filmmakers.
  • Pays tribute to the entrepreneurial determination, resourcefulness and creativity of the people who started the production companies, made and acted in the films and created a distribution network that brought movies to hundreds of thousands of black Americans.
  • In response to stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood and because black audiences desired representative casts on the big screen, shows how early black cinema portrayed African-American values and lifestyles in a more realistic way, spanning genres such as romance, comedy, mystery, drama, musical and western.
  • Reveals that many of these independent films addressed topics and social issues avoided by Hollywood -- racism, religion, personal responsibility, poverty and crime.
  • Provides relevant historical perspective regarding societal changes evidenced by the great migration, the Depression and WWII, while tracking corresponding changes in the black film industry.
  • Highlights the contribution of Oscar Mischeaux, grandson of slaves and the first black American to direct feature films. Mischeaux was the architect of a film production enterprise that ranged from concept to execution to distribution, based on his vision to portray black society in a realistic way while helping black Americans realize their potential.
  • Offers a Cincinnati connection via an interview with Herb Jeffries, (known on-screen as Herbert Jeffrey) famous as a vocalist with the Duke Ellington and Earl Hinds big bands. His personal experience in our city was pivotal in shaping his decision to create a series of black cowboy movies, and he subsequently became America's first black singing motion picture cowboy.

    W H O   S H O U L D   A T T E N D

    This film is for everyone, and will appeal to people who:
  • want to learn more about the black experience in America;
  • are engaged in filmmaking or cinema history studies;
  • are interested in entrepreneurship and small business development;
  • are engaged in African-American studies and its multiple-disciplines;
  • are interested in American history, cultural anthropology, media and communications, etc.

    MANY CINCINNATI AREA RESIDENTS will remember attending, or hearing about, theaters such as the State, Regal, Hippodrome, Lincoln or Pekin. If so, we hope you will stay for the discussion after the film and share your recollections.

    ADDED ATTRACTION: Along with the documentary and our usual post-film discussion, film historian and MIDNIGHT RAMBLE producer Pamela Thomas will be present to provide additional insight and detail regarding this film and the black film industry.


    Local Reviews & Articles

    Larry Thomas, WVXU & WGUC:
       Listen  or   Read

    Cincinnati CityBeat picks MIDNIGHT RAMBLE as the Main Event of the week:

    "Once upon a time, race dominated the cultural conversation. Race music and race films spoke to and about the African American experience in a dialect that, at least initially, belonged to the race.

    "Cincinnati has a unique place in the history and development of these filmed images that deserves recognition, and it is through the exchange of our combined cultural heritage that we all begin to move forward and embrace our common future."
        ~ TT STERN-ENZI

     Read the complete CityBeat story here.

    Discussion Leader,
    Pamela Thomas

    Pamela A. Thomas is a film producer, who, along with Bestor Cram, co-produced the award-winning documentary MIDNIGHT RAMBLE: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of Race Movies for the PBS documentary series The American Experience.

    External Resources


    A Cinema Apart ~ perhaps the definitive source for surviving black independent films ... Roughly 250 titles available, including features, shorts, documentaries and newsreels, plus 'soundies' - the first music videos, made back in the 40s. Film anthologies, custom DVD compilation, posters galore and a page on black film history. VISIT THIS SITE!

    Midnight Ramble ~ Michael Mills' Modern Times website

    Midnight Ramble ~ Phyllis Benton's Film & Video website

    Separate Cinema ~ John Kisch's amazing poster website -- tons of black film one-sheets and posters, artfully displayed, plus a traveling poster exhibit. Definitely worth a visit! (Note the museum exhibit in Evansville IN, in early '08.)

    National Black Programming Consortium ~ funding, grants and support for films about African Americans

    U.C. Berkeley, "The Movies, Race & Ethnicity - African Americans"
    Berkeley Film Archives

    University of Chicago Black Film Research Online ~ filmmakers, distributors, biographies, library collections, criticism, festivals, film titles and websites, etc.

    CalNewsReel ~ film and video for social change.
    California News Reel

    Paul Robeson Links
    Princeton ~ Robeson

    Bill "Bojangles" Robinson

    Herbert Jeffrey, America's first black motion picture cowboy
    Official Jeffrey site

    Contemporary Black Film Websites

    Dallas Juneteenth Black Film Festival

    Hollywood Black Film Festival

    Los Angeles Pan African Film & Arts Festival

    New York Urban World Film Festival
    urbanworld VIBE

    San Francisco Black Film Festival

    Seattle Langston Hughes Film Festival

    Back to Top of Page


    Film Notes

    "Race movies" ~ Oscar Micheaux
    "Midnight Rambles" ~ Here comes Hollywood
    Ethel Waters, Lena Horne & more...

    THE STORY of the filmmakers, actors and their industry told in MIDNIGHT RAMBLE  is fascinating and will inspire future entrepreneurs and activists, both within the visual arts and beyond. The documentary is artfully conceived and well-produced, interspersing interviews with segments of works by a variety of African American filmmakers of the period. The film clips are a definite plus, as many of these movies have been partially or completely lost or are very difficult to find. Perhaps most notable is the story of director/producer Oscar Micheaux, who made more than 40 films in thirty years. Read more about Micheaux in the notes that follow.

    BLACKS WERE DEPICTED IN MOVING PICTURES since the inception of the art form. Thomas Edison's film group made a short film in 1895 containing black people and the 1899 short Watermelon Contest was the first widely released film that continued the inaccurate and unkind depiction of blacks developed in vaudeville. Beginning with the first film with an all-black cast, William Foster's 1910 The Pullman Porter, the black film industry offered eager African-American audiences across the nation something they had never seen before — romance, mystery, crime dramas, comedy, vaudeville, westerns and musicals on the big screen featuring all or predominantly black casts.

    THESE INDEPENDENTLY MADE FILMS were called "race movies."  While not terribly specific, this term was perfectly understood by the public, in much the same way that "race music" was understood decades later to describe the pre-rock-and-roll fusion of blues, shouter, jazz and gospel music fostered by the black community.

    IN AN ERA WHEN HOLLYWOOD avoided genuine discussion of controversial issues in our society, many independent black films tackled difficult subjects such as segregation and interracial romance. As a result, black audiences gained insights that white audiences rarely experienced — via films that dealt realistically with family relationships, societal issues, personal responsbility, faith and religion, race, poverty, crime and alcoholism.

    WHILE TECHNICALLY BRILLIANT for its time, D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic film The Birth of a Nation was harshly racist. The fact that the film was copyrighted as "The Birth of a Nation, Or The Clansman" really says it all. Many film historians believe this film was a watershed moment in black cinema history – the angry reaction of the black citizenry to Birth of a Nation heightened existing demand for independently made black films.

    UNWILLING TO ACCEPT the characterizations in Nation, as well as the inaccurate and demeaning stereotypes of blacks conveyed by virtually all Hollywood films at the time, dozens of black film companies were formed. The determination of blacks to take control of how their culture and image were conveyed on the big screen resulted in the creation of films for and about the African American community — films that were entertaining while portraying black values and life styles in a realistic manner. Ironically, Griffith's film sparked the serious growth of a parallel film industry notable for its independence, prolific output and extent of its distribution system, which included an estimated 450 black-only and another 250 theaters with separated seating.

    MADE IN 1918, THE HOMESTEADER, and the 1920 release of WITHIN OUR GATES, have assured a place in history for Oscar Micheaux as the first black American to direct feature films. These silent movies - in terms of direction, acting and production values - have pretty much been panned by film critics, but in a macro perspective this is unimportant. How wonderful if Micheaux's first films had been cinematically equivalent to the original Ben Hur, but in the reality of the times and circumstances this would have been impossible.

    WHAT REALLY MATTERS is that Micheaux's work - his books and films - spoke from the heart on sensitive subject matter: discrimination and violence against blacks, interracial relations, ambition, opportunity, etc., with the goal of educating blacks in the art of the possible - that they could accomplish anything they set their minds to. Film historian and critic Armond White tempers criticism of Micheaux by invoking the social context of his work:

    "Such films as Body and Soul, Birthright and Within Our Gates were made with the audience's political needs – and its emotional appetite – foremost in Micheaux's consciousness. ... Although Micheaux was from the Midwest, he pursued the interests of Southern blacks. His movies were informed by the social perspectives that developed in the black American south and then spread northward during the Great Migration."

    White (who happens to be black) is considered one of America's most controversial film critics. Read more about Armond White here and here.

    THE GRANDSON OF SLAVES, Oscar Micheaux was quite literally a vertical industry encapsulated in one person: Amazingly, he wrote the novels from which his films were made; he assembled the cast, props and locations; he directed the film and sometimes ran the camera; and he edited the final product.

    WHEN CONSIDERING THE CHALLENGES faced by early black filmmakers, think for a moment of modern-day individual digital video "filmmakers" whose work appears on YouTube and elsewhere on the web -- then subtract every technological element developed after 1935 and remove every 'digital' audio and video tool from their repertoire. Next, subtract the sound stages, backlots, editing suites, production teams and financial resources of the Hollywood studios that were available in the 1920s. Only then can you gain a true appreciation of what Oscar Micheaux and other independent black filmmakers accomplished with extremely limited technical and financial resources.

    IN A WORLD without 24x7 television, computers and the Internet, simply making films was not enough. Finding receptive movie theaters and a way to get the films into them was a key ingredient for filmmaker survival. Again, Oscar Mischeaux played a pioneering role: He personally toured America, visiting segregated theaters and black-only venues, previewing and selling his work, and ulimately establishing a distribution network for his films.

    THIS WAS A TIME well before megaplex shopping mall cinemas with 20 screens had been imagined. Evolving from handcranked nickelodeons, early movie screens were generally found in vaudeville halls and opera houses. Orchestra pits, organs and pianos were useful elements when showing silent films. As movies with their own sound tracks emerged, innovative (and well-financed) exhibitors tackled the risk of building stand-alone movie houses.

    AS WITH VIRTUALLY ALL public assembly venues in the early part of the 20th Century, there were white movie houses and black movie houses. The "Jim Crow"  laws enacted principally in the Southern states mandated separate facilities for blacks and whites. In some states these laws were modified for theaters, particularly in towns with a limited number of venues where film exhibitors wanted to capture ticket revenue from black and white audiences. Phyllis C. Benton, on her website midnightramble.com, offers this snippet (without specifying the particular state, but possibly her native Arkansas) titled "Jim Crow Laws Regarding Theaters":

    "Every person...operating...any public hall, theater, opera house, motion picture show or any place of public entertainment or public assemblage which is attended by both white and colored persons, shall separate the white race and the colored race and shall set apart and designate...certain seats therein to be occupied by white persons and a portion thereof , or certain seats therein, to be occupied by colored persons. "

    Benton provides a personal/family perspective on attending "race movies," describes "midnight rambles" and also has a list of available relevant film titles. Definitely worth a visit: midnightramble.com

    RAMBLING AT MIDNIGHT. The term used for the title of this documentary film, MIDNIGHT RAMBLE, comes directly from the phrase describing the presentation of films for blacks throughout the south: "Race movies" and other all-black cast pictures were shown between 12 midnight and 2 AM. The custom of attending films in this manner was referred to as taking a "Midnight Ramble." Around this time, the collection of venues for blacks in the South, featuring vaudeville and drama, was known as the Chitlin Circuit. Later, as movies took hold, according to an executive with RKO the network of theatres in the south showing "race movies" came to be known as the Midnight Ramble Circuit.

    CINCINNATI SIDEBAR:  A derivation of the Midnight Ramble theme surfaced in Cincinnati in the 1970s, in the music business. Local entertainment promoter Ross Todd created a series of "Midnight Boogies" — concerts featuring black artists such as Patti La Belle, the Funkadelics, etc., that began at 10 PM and ended at 3 or 4 AM. These popular concerts, attended by all ethnicities but mostly blacks, were presented at the old U.C. Armory Fieldhouse and also at Riverfront Coliseum in the years spanning 1975-1980.

    HERE COMES HOLLYWOOD, AGAIN. The success of race movies and the independent black filmmakers was not ignored by the big studio executives and as the sound era in films took hold, Hollywood started making black cast movies, mainly musicals. As silent films were replaced by the very expensive to make "talkies," Oscar Micheaux was the only black movie producer to survive the transition. The Great Depression of the 1930s impacted virtually every form of enterprise in America, and black filmmakers - already working with shoe-string budgets - were not spared. The combination of economic hard times and competition from Hollywood precipitated the decline of race movies and the black film industry.

    TASTES WERE CHANGING as well. The "Great Migration" of blacks from the rural south (estimated at 40% of the total southern black population) to the urban north saw African-American numbers in northern urban centers swell by 300% or more. Black audience interests began to shift from rural to city themes. Hollywood produced a number of black-cast musical films addressing this transition: Hallelujah (King Vidor, 1929), The Green Pastures (Marc Connelly, 1936), Cabin in the Sky (Vincent Minnelli, 1943) and Stormy Weather (Andrew Stone, 1943) are prime examples. Hollywood's black cast films were less daring, more polished and generally forumla-driven renditions of standard comedy, musical and mystery themes.

    ACTORS AND MUSICAL PERFORMERS, such as Ethel Waters, Ester Rolle, Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, Hattie McDaniel, and Paul Robeson; musicians/band leaders such as Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, etc., all received prominent billing in Hollywood movies. But race movie purists lamented the lack of substance in these films as well as the reintroduction of some stereotypes.

    World War II saw the beginning of a shift from Hollywood's focus on segregated (race movie) audiences to more integrated filmmaking. This was driven by NAACP pressure on Hollywood studios, President Roosevelt's creation of the Commission on Fair Employment and also by the raw number of blacks participating in the War. As a result, the number of all-black Hollywood films decreased, as did the number of independently produced race movies. The offset was minor, with only a nominal increase in roles available to African Americans in Hollywood films.

    THIS VOID WAS FILLED to some degree by the emergence of "message movies" reflecting the rise of integrationist politics at the time. Examples are Home of the Brave (Mark Robson, 1949), Lost Boundaries (Alfred Werker, 1949) and No Way Out  (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1950). While these films were an attempt to address racism, Hollywood at that time did not substantially pursue the issues faced by the growing number of urban blacks.

    MIDNIGHT RAMBLE  does not cover black cinema beyond 1950. This subject, which necessarily includes corresponding American history for the ensuing period, is covered voluminously in contemporary research and educational literature. We invite you to pursue the topic via the Internet, your public library or various courses and programs at area universities and institutions.