Saturday, July 20, 2019

In short: Midnight Shadow (1939)

I’m not talking about so-called “Race” [sic] movies, films made in the times of the studio system by and for consumption of African Americans, terribly often, well actually never. In part, that’s because many of these films have been treated particularly badly when it comes to being archived in any form, in part, it’s because most of those I have managed to see just weren’t terribly good at all but writing sarcastic put-downs about these films is way too much like kicking someone who’s down for my tastes. That’s what Michael Bay movies are made for, right? And hey, if these filmmakers had had the money of a Bay movie instead of budgets that let white Poverty Row studios of the time look flush, not to speak of the troubles myriad social barriers against them making art or commerce at all must have caused them, they most probably would have been able to do more with what was given to them. This is not to say that there were no good movies made by and for African Americans at this time – trustworthy sources tell me there were - they are just incredibly difficult to dig up around here, even more so when a viewer’s tastes run to the dubious more than towards the worthy.

George Randol’s Midnight Shadow concerning the (evil) plans of a stage spiritualist and mentalist going by the moniker of Prince Alihabad (Laurence Criner), featuring a bit of seduction and theft, is unfortunately not a good film of its time and place. There’s a cornucopia of weaknesses on screen: the script is plodding despite a running time of under an hour, camera set-ups are static, the acting is stiff at best – some of the actors seem to have been dragged in front of the camera against their wills and seem to just literally be reading their lines – and there’s little sense of drama and excitement at all (the latter of which was of course also a problem that haunted the white Poverty Row Studios). There are some interesting time capsule elements here: despite its myriad flaws, this is after all still a film with an  all-black cast, so every social stratum here from comic relief to the bad guy, over doctors to police is portrayed by African Americans, and as a white guy from Germany born more than three decades after this was shot, I can only imagine how seeing something like this on the big screen must have felt to its intended audience.

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