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On Thursday I attended a screening of the 1935 “lost” film “A Murder in Harlem”. ”Murder” is considered a “race” film, which were movies made in the early 10′s, 20′s, and 30′s for a black audience and eventually evolved into “Shaft” and the Blaxplotation Cinema of the 70′s, and Tyler Perry. Race films in those days were not huge money makers, and are generally considered the first wave of Independent Cinema considering they usually had to put up their own money, or find backing outside of a studio.You notice I also used the term “lost”, “lost” films are movies that were made in the early decades of cinema that all negatives were either thought lost, or destroyed. Many people, studios, and filmmakers of the time didn’t realize that people would enjoy their films as historical artifacts, as well as entertainment centuries later. So, a lot of movies were just thrown away or stored improperly and wasted away, after their intial theater runs. Now Martin Scorsese heads an organization dedicated to the preservation of film. They continue to find “lost” films all the time, Russians on the other hand have always preserved film and had to give us some early American film treasures we didn’t have prints for. (that’s another story that a google search can help you with)
“A Murder in Harlem” was found in a warehouse in Tyler Texas in 1983 along with many other “race” films. I once was told by a Locations Director on a film that “Tyler Texas is the most racist town in America!” So how a bunch of films created for an all black audience ended up being preserved there, I’m not sure. Although interesting, that is not the reason for this post. What was interesting to me was the story itself, how the narrative unfolded and what it means in the scheme of film history. You see a guy named Akira Kurosawa, you may have heard of him, made a film called “Rashomon” in 1950, you may have heard of it. If not, I’ll tell you that us film nerds love it, it took the world by storm, won the Golden Lion in Venice and pushed Japanese and Asian cinema into the spotlight. One thing “Rashomon” has always been given credit for “inventing” in film language is now called The Rashomon Effect.
In the film a rape and a murder occur, 4 different characters give 4 conflicting accounts of the story, the same scene is shown 4 times in the 4 different ways each had explained it as happening. It rocked the film world, and coined a psychology term that is still in use today by Doctors.
Now enter, “A Murder in Harlem” a film which was “lost” and that was made for black audiences in the 30′s (meaning not a lot of people saw it) and it tells its story in the exact same way. A white woman is murdered, the black nightman is accused of the murder. It goes to trial and the witnesses tell their story. Each time it flashes back to how THEY perceived it as happening, and each time it is different! The only difference between “Murder” and “Rashomon” is that Akira Kurosawa never tells you which account was correct, and “Murder” shows you what really happens finally revealing what the white woman went through. If you read the definition of the psychological term posted earlier, you will see that “A Murder in Harlem” did just that, only 15 years earlier! I’m using a lot of exclamation points! Because I couldn’t believe it then! and I’m still not really believing it now!
If some of the big wigs of film history/nerdery, like Scorsese, Tarantino, and Roger Ebert saw this film, it would re-write history. The problem with “A Murder in Harlem” is that it isn’t a very good movie. For 1935 it is shot like the earliest “talkie” films of the era. There is nothing about it that stands out, except for the way in which the narrative is told. Also the director, Oscar Micheaux, made about 39 other films and a few others were really, really good, so “A Murder in Harlem” is hardly on anyone’s must see list, regardless of the fact that it was lost and then found. Heck, even the wikipedia page for “Murder” slightly hints at the fact how the narrative is constructed, but it also shows you how little a following the films has. The wiki is like 3 sentences long. So that’s that. It looks like there are some ways the see the movie but no company has made a decent print, and it’s only available in a package of some of the lost race films. Although “A Murder in Harlem” has been found, I believe it’s legacy, is still lost.