On Movies: History of black film, as told in posters

Josephine Baker moved to Paris at 17 and became, according to John Kisch, "the biggest black star ever."
Josephine Baker moved to Paris at 17 and became, according to John Kisch, "the biggest black star ever." (Filmbryan)
Posted: February 17, 2013

If anyone out there has a giant (27-inch by 41-inch) original MGM-issued poster for the 1929 King Vidor film Hallelujah!, John Kisch would very much like to meet you.

The director of A Separate Cinema, an archive of almost 35,000 posters, lobby cards, film stills, and graphic images chronicling the history of black cinema in America - from the Silent Era to the not-at-all-silent Tyler Perry - Kisch is still on the prowl, 40 years since he began his collection, for this holy grail of African American film lore. Hallelujah! was one of the earliest all-black sound pictures to be made by a major studio. A musical about a sharecropper who becomes a preacher after he accidentally kills a man, Hallelujah! landed an Academy Award best-director nomination for Vidor in 1930. In 2008, it was added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

Oh, and by the way, if you have the original 1935 Warner Bros. poster for The Green Pastures, the all-black Bible picture starring Rex Ingram, Kisch is ready with his wallet open.

"I don't know if they're out there or not," he says of the original "one-sheet" ad-campaign posters for Hallelujah! and The Green Pastures. "Those two in particular have confounded every collector forever. There are just none known to exist.

"I have material from other countries, and I have some of the advertising material from the American campaigns, but I don't have the key piece, and that is the American one-sheet for both of those films . . . . Are they out there? Couldn't tell you. I sure would love to think so. You're talking about Warner Bros. and MGM, so how can that not be? It's just been confounding everyone."

That said, Kisch can count among his pieces some true rarities. For instance, there's his striking one-sheet for The Emperor Jones, the 1933 adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play, with Paul Robeson. There are only three known to exist. Kisch also counts many rare and wonderful Josephine Baker posters in his collection.

"She's the star of stars," he says of the St. Louis performer, who moved to Paris when she was 17.

"She was just the biggest hit, the biggest black star ever - not to say that Beyoncé is not the biggest black star ever, but she's not! Josephine Baker was the biggest black star. Give Beyoncé another 30 years in the business and maybe she can come close."

Kisch, who lives up from New York City in the Hudson Valley, makes his collection available to museums. In addition to traveling exhibits and A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black-Cast Posters, a coffee table book published in 1992 (a new one is in the works), there is an iPad app, "100 Years of Black Film," featuring dazzling full-color images of hundreds of posters from Kisch's collection, and detailed histories of the films and casts, plus multimedia links to trailers, clips and more. It was updated just weeks ago with new material to coincide with Black History Month. (Full disclosure: CineDex, the company behind the app, produced iPad and iPhone apps for Hollywood Rides a Bike, this writer's collection of archival photographs of movie stars on bicycles.)

Kisch was a student at Bard College in the early '70s when he acquired his first poster promoting a black film. It was for a 1945 short, "Caldonia," featuring the singer and bandleader Louis Jordan. Kisch was a music buff, not a movie buff, and was especially enamored of vintage jazz and swing performers.

"I was a Louis Jordan fan, and Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and a friend gave me a couple of posters. One of them was 'Caldonia.' That really opened my eyes to wanting to get more."

A collector, and his collection, was born.

"Slowly, I started to find things - a lobby card, a still, another poster," he says. "I was really drawn by the graphics, and the musical references. I didn't really know about black history, or black film history. I had no idea - Paul Robeson? Who?

"Dorothy Dandridge? - never heard of her."

It wasn't until years later, when Kisch had established himself as a photographer in Manhattan - shooting musicians, models, actors - that his fate was sealed. Sealed by Ahmad Rashad, the Minnesota Viking-turned-TV sportscaster.

Rashad had come to be photographed, and noticed a poster Kisch has on the wall of his studio, The Bull-Dogger, a 1921 film with African American rodeo star Bill Pickett.

"He said, 'Hey, do you know about the history of that thing on your wall?'

"I said, 'No.'

"He goes, 'You better learn your stuff. And while we're at it, I want to buy that from you.'

"And he wouldn't leave without it."

The rest just snowballed, Kisch says. "I realized I've got stuff to learn, so I just started learning it all. I had to. It was too important. And then people wanted to do an exhibit. The entire collection just snowballed into this meaningful historical story."

And it is incredibly meaningful. Kisch's "100 Years of Black Film" and Separate Cinema archive documents the parallel world of "race films" that began in the 1910s, aimed at black audiences across the country. It chronicles the crossover of African American actors and performers into mainstream Hollywood fare. The racial stereotyping, the breaking of barriers, the first black stars, Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier, the rise of filmmakers such as Melvin Van Peebles, Spike Lee - it's all captured here, in posters and photographs.

"This is about film history, but it's also about black history," Kisch says. "Certainly people like Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, and a host of other current actors, they wouldn't be in the positions they are without the groundbreaking efforts on the part of those that came before them."

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.

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