Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Cinematic Black History Milestone:
First Blacksploitation Flick

Febuary is Black History Month in the United States. I'm celebrating it by calling the world's attention to cinematic milestones in Black History across all my various review blogs. Look for the "Black History Month" tag and join in the celebration by checking out the movies reviews!

Ten Minutes to Live (aka "Ten Minutes to Kill") (1932)
Starring: Lawrence Chenault, Mabel Garrett, A.B. Comathiere, and Willor Lee Guilford
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Rating: Three of Ten (but see note at the end)

"Ten Minutes to Live" is a brief anthology film--perhaps the first American-made anthology film--that highlights the sort of B-list movies that were being made as films with sound oblitarated silent movies and the careers most of the actors that performed in them. In both tales in the film, it's clear that one of things director and screenwriter Micheaux is doing is simply showing off the presense of sound. Both tales also very clearly show evidence of silent movie techniques, with the second half being obviously a silent movie that has been hastily and rather badly converted a talkie.

The first tale, "The Faker" is mostly a collection of Harlem nightclub routines (several performances by a troup of dancing girls, a couple of songs--with one being performed by the very sexy and talented Mabel Garrett, and a lame comedy act that shows that even black comedians were made up in something akin to black face when doing stand-up Back in the Day) with a paper-thin and badly acted plot featuring a con-man and abuser of women (Chenault) finally getting what's coming to him as he zeroes in on two new victims, including nightclub performer Ida Morton (Garrett).

The second tale, "The Killer", starts with a woman receiving a note from a pair of thugs as she sits with her date at a table in the night club. The note announces she has ten minutes to live. A flashback then follows, relating to us how she came to be in her present, perilous situation... and what follows is a standard silent movie melodramatic crime drama that's been retooled to show off sound. For example, car sounds have been added to a street sequence, and the sound of crowds in a train station. The sound effects aren't all that well done, the looping is painfully obvious, and the silent movie is still very much a slient movie. (I did appreciate the scene with Willor Lee Guilford changing from her dress into a skimpy nightgown and robe, even if I could have done without the strip-tease music that kicked at that time.)

In 1932, I'm sure the mostly rural black audiences for whom this film was made were awed by the sounds it feeatures. In 2007, however, "Ten Minutes to Live" is of interest only to fillm historians and historians of black nightclub acts the early 1930s.

In "The Faker", the interludes with actors thrown in between nightclub acts are really just an excuse to show us the nightclub acts, The filmmaker was plainly first and foremost interested in bringing music and dancing and singing (and the sounds of all these) to the patrons of movie-houses, some of whom might never make it to the glamorous Harlem nightclubs, but who could now enjoy all the sights and sounds of being there. The best portion of it is Mabel Garrett's song and dance act... but she never should have opened her mouth in an attempt to act. With the sound down, her scene with Chenault as he convinces her he's a famous movie producer is decent enough, but she can't deliver a line if her life depended on it. Chenault isn't much better, and they demonstrate why so many silent movie actors lost their careers with the advent of sound. (I hope Garrett did well as a singer, though. She was beautiful and sexy enough, and she had a great voice.) For movie lovers, "The Faker is a complete bust, but if you want to see what routines would appear at Harlem nightclubs in the 1920s and early 1930s, it;s worth seeing.

With "The Killer", we get a muddled storyline that's decently enough performed and filmed as far as silent movies go, but it's undermined by a hackneyed attempt to add sound to it. The badly acted sequences of Guilford in the nightclub with her date aren't terribly destructive... it's the flatly delivered, badly written lines that are delivered by characters off-screen as a mad stalker lurks atop a staircase, and the obvious looping of traffic sounds and badly staged crowd "chatter" that's going to bug viewers. The upshot is that what could have been the better half of this film is dragged down by a "gee-whiz" factor that has been left behind by history. If you want to see a well-done conversion of a silent movie to a talkie, check out Alfred Hitchcock's "Blackmail."

"Ten Minutes to Live" is not a film for the average viewer anymore. Film students should check it out, because it was the product of a pioneer in the filmmaking biz--Oscar Micheaux was the first black director to make a feature length film, a dedicated fighter for independent filmmakers, and a champion for portraying blacks on film as they really were--and because this is also one of the very earliest anthology films, but the rest of us can safely skip it.

Note: The copy I viewed was severely degraded, and I suspect that there aren't any out there in much better shape. One of the benefits of the DVD and digital storage in general is that films like this one get preserved. It may be a movie that time has left behind, but I think it's a valuable historical artifact, both for its documentation of the nightclub acts, and for its place in the evolution of America's race relations and the art of filmmaking. As a historical artifact, this film gets an Eight of Ten rating, but as a movie to entertain modern audiences, it gets a Three of Ten rating.)



  1. That banner looks so "official". Did that come from the Obama administration?

  2. Hehe. No, it was made a few years back by a company that was selling Black History Month merchandise.