Sam Robinson plays a ne’er-do-well who is on the run from the police and ends up in a Chinese laundry. Chaos obviously ensues and much laundry is destroyed in the process. A rare surviving comedy from the infamous Ebony Film Corporation.
We’re going to be paying a call on our old friend “context” today. The word is often used as a silencing tactic to avoid discussion of racist ingredients in older films but real context—looking at the time and place in which a film is made—is incredibly valuable. Our target today is the infamous Ebony Film Corporation, a company that rose with white financial backing but fell due to black protest.
Black characters had been featured in silent film from the beginning, often played by blackface performers. Every stereotype you can imagine was played out on the screen, from stealing watermelons to being afraid of ghosts. By the 1910s, black filmmakers were beginning to craft responses to these portrayals with the Lincoln film company in particular creating pictures that featured handsome and appealing heroes.
Ebony was a bit of a oddball in the mix because it was owned primarily by white businessmen but featured a black producer and a black cast. Its comedies were marketed to theaters of every kind but, as the marketing materials show, we have issues:
A Reckless Rover is a rare surviving comedy from this studio. It involves the adventures of comedian Sam Robinson as he tries to avoid being arrested when his landlady calls the police on him for failing to pay his rent. (Robinson has been described as both the younger brother and cousin of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, just to make things fun. I believe cousin is the more accurate description and that he was mixed up with Luther Pollard’s younger brother, who was also on the Ebony payroll. As the kerfuffle over The Captive demonstrates, many silent film myths are based in nothing more than poor reading comprehension.)
Robinson evades the Keystone Cop-style police and ends up in a laundry business owned by a Chinese man. (Ebony comedies may not have used blackface but yellowface was A-okay, it seems.) Robinson steals clothing, uses a customer’s stocking as a necktie and generally wrecks the joint before the police show up again.
As you can see, this is pretty standard slapstick stuff with some pretty unsavory racial elements in the mix. The actual physical comedy is adept and the players engage in all the accepted knockabout practices: double takes, hopping up and down, leaping in and out of windows, etc.
Luther J. Pollard was in charge of Ebony’s productions and the forty players on its payroll. (Pollard’s brother was Fritz Pollard, one of the first African-American NFL players and its first African-American coach. Fritz also served as a talent scout for Ebony.) Unlike other studios that featured black talent, Ebony took out full-page advertisements in mainstream trade journals and its films were booked in theaters that catered to white moviegoers. (Oscar Micheaux hoped to negotiate a similar arrangement but his politically charged dramas and refusal to avoid the topic of racism made this impossible. Harmless and bumbling were fine but fiery and heroic would never do. By the way, at the time of this writing, The Black Panther is the #1 movie in America.)
Pollard is a complex figure. While he operated the Ebony company under the direction of majority white owners, he was concerned about not indulging in the sort of stereotypes that were common in Hollywood portrayals of black characters. In a 1918 item from Moving Picture World, Pollard stated that Ebony comedies did not use dialect title cards as a rule, which was pretty unusual and certainly welcome.
In Migrating to the Movies, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart writes that Ebony comedies were both slapstick and modernist critique of African-American stereotypes. Whether or not that is true, white audiences certainly would not have read the comedies that way and, as the anti-Ebony campaign of The Chicago Defender proves, black critics were none too impressed either. Pollard may have toned down the stereotypes but they were still there and now they were more acceptable for middle class audiences.
The newspaper launched a campaign against the studio, encouraging theaters that catered to black clientele to refuse to book Ebony products. While the comedies were indeed shown in white theaters as well, the loss of the African-American audience struck a blow and Ebony folded in the early 1920s.
This is highly significant because it shows a minority group objecting to racial stereotypes, taking action and seeing that action result in real change. For comparison, Irish-Americans in Portland, Oregan demanded and received permission to censor the film Castles for Two (1917) in order to remove scenes of drunken Irish peasants that they deemed offensive. (I realize that the Irish were not in the same position as black Americans at this point, they were well on their way to mainstreaming, but it does show that ethnic and racial stereotypes were unwelcome in many corners.)
Anyone who spends any time reviewing classic film will sooner or later run into the context brigade. “You can’t judge a film by modern standards,” they sniff. “You’re condemning a movie just because it doesn’t reflect modern racial attitudes? How closed-minded of you! You’re denying the past! Why are modern people offended by everything?”
This type of commenter is so high on their own smugness that it’s difficult to break through but it’s clear that their own grasp of past attitudes is pretty narrow and flawed. We have established that black audiences (and other marginalized groups) were offended, did complain and, in some cases, did get results. In calling out the racist material in Ebony comedies, we are merely following an unbroken line of objections stretching back to the initial release of these shorts.
Unfortunately, the context brigade has a pretty large membership and the appeal is obvious. “We need to look at context” often means “I don’t want to feel uncomfortable or have to discuss race even when the film I am watching is steeped in it.” Well, too bad. I’m placing the real experiences of 1918 African-Americans—all too often ignored completely in the rush to hide behind the old “context” fig leaf—over the potential discomfort of some modern viewers. Deal with it. We will not indulge the fantasy of a la-la land where it was all gumdrops and rainbows and racist humor was just swell. Do you want to break it to them about the Tooth Fairy or shall I?
A Reckless Rover is an important piece of film history, existing in a halfway point between mainstream Hollywood and the emerging African-American movie industry. That being said, A Reckless Rover is the sort of mean-spirited, knockabout comedy that is decidedly not my cup of tea and the racial aspect is pretty stomach-turning. It’s recommended for its historical value but know what you’re getting yourself into.
Where can I see it?
A Reckless Rover is available on DVD and Bluray as part of the Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set. There is considerable nitrate decay in the film’s opening scene but it soon clears up. The film features a spunky piano score by Donald Sosin.
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