Monday, September 26, 2016


John Walden left his home in Fayetteville twenty years ago, leaving behind his mother and baby sister—and his African-American identity—to pass for white, go to law school and become a successful lawyer in the big city.  Now he's returned to his family home (called the House Behind the Cedars by the townsfolk) with an agenda: to take his grown-up light-skinned sister Rena back to the city, have her pass for white, and marry her off to an appropriately well-off white man. But Rena's in love with local fellow Frank and isn't crazy about leaving. Frank thinks she should go with John for a while, if only to give Frank time to become successful as a building contractor. Six months later, Rena is installed in a nice house with African-American servants and has a marriage proposal from wealthy white man George Tryon, but ultimately she decides to give up her sham life, go back to Fayetteville, and marry Frank.

This early talkie from the acclaimed black director Oscar Micheaux exists only in a very worn and choppy print, at times making the plot machinations a bit unclear. But even excusing this, the movie is hard to sit through. Almost every scene consists of two or three people in a room talking, with breaks every so often for a completely unrelated musical number—one is sung at a fancy party, one by a maid at work, and the last one, which goes on for almost six minutes, features Rena's servants kicking up their heels at her return to her roots (as one woman says, laughing, "Once they love a spade, ain't nobody can take him away—and I bet he's a dark one!"). Frankly, this number is the highlight of the film which in general is poorly acted and directed. Lorenzo Tucker (pictured), known as the Black Valentino, is credible as John, as is Laura Bowman as his mother. In an interesting twist, the white George is played by light-skinned black actor Barrington Guy who never made another movie but was known as a dancer and nightclub performer. The rest of the cast feels amateurish—especially Lucille Lewis as Rena which makes it hard to whip up any sympathy for her character. Bizarrely, the reunion scene between Rena and her brother feels uneasily like a lover's reunion, for which I blame the direction. The background music is wildly melodramatic, and between the cuts, the poor dialogue and the static pace, the story feels like it's being summarized instead of acted out. Interesting from a historic perspective, but even if a complete non-choppy print was found, I'm not sure I'd bother to revisit it. [TCM]

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