Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The 2nd International Silent Film Festival: El negro que tenía el alma blanca (1927)

The 2nd International Silent Film Festival kicked off last night at the Shangri-La Plaza Cinema with the screening of The Black Man With White Soul (Benito Perojo, 1927; Spain). In it, Pedro (played by a white actor in blackface), a son of a former slave, leaves Cuba (where he was being mistreated for being black) to seek his fortune in Paris. While working as a bellboy at a dance club, his dancing prowess is discovered and then he goes to become a famous dancer of the Charleston in the city. He falls in love with his dancing partner, who could not stand the thought of marrying him because of his skin color.

The film is truly a product of its time. Had this film been released today, nothing short of Martin Luther King, Jr. rising from the grave might happen. Riots in L.A.! Condemnation from Spike Lee! A second career for Public Enemy! The film is replete with images, scenes, and inter titles that can only be possibly amusing in a Chris Rock sketch. Witness Pedro's face fade to that of a giant ape! Witness Pedro's poster as it gives his partner a nightmare (with matching horror film effects)! Witness Pedro in an African tribal get-up! In spite of his success, Pedro could not get the one thing he wants, that is the white girl's heart. The girl's father is sympathetic to Pedro, but not really because he understands what he is going through, but because he feels he owes him a lot for giving him and his daughter the good life (mansion, Rolls Royce...). I kept waiting for redemption for the main character, like waiting for the punchline to a joke that has gone on for too long. It never came. In the end, Pedro died of heartache, beside him the girl, who up to the end was wishing he wasn't black, but takes comfort in the idea that though he had black skin, he had a white soul (Jesus.) And then looking on is Pedro's trusty skinhead manservant (the girl's next love interest?) who looks like an SS officer in his uniform. And I don't think the film was being ironic.

Despite the unabashedly racist elements of this movie, it will be unfair to condemn it or judge it with our modern views since it was made in the the 20s. Actually, I'd say it's a very progressive movie for its time, because of its portrayal of a black man who was actually successful (but still not happy, natch), enjoying the acclaim of a society largely indifferent to their plight. It is also progressive due to the mere fact that it attempted to explore the theme of racism and discrimination from the point of view of a black man, in 1927 (meanwhile, D.W. Griffith was glorifying the Ku Klux Klan in "The Birth of A Nation").

For the first time ever in this yearly festival (which started a few years ago when it was still the German Silent Film Festival), a choir accompanied the screening, instead of a world music ensemble, an electronic group, or a rock band. The Novo Concertante Manila, a bemedalled choral group, did a respectable job performing a piece specially composed for the film, although when they also tried to do sound effects like clapping and chirping of birds, I thought it was unnecessary and distracting.

The 2nd International Silent Film Festival runs until September 8. See the schedule HERE.

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