- Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking by Barbara Tepa Lupack
Barbara Tepa Lupack’s Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking is an interesting study that melds the general developments of race filmmaking in its golden age (roughly 1916 to around 1924), with the biographical arc of one of its independent, white practitioners, Richard E. Norman. Lupack lays out a brief history of the form before handling Norman’s own career, providing a sometimes fascinating account of the micro-business struggles to bring these films in on the cheap. Lupack pegs Norman as a kind of “race entrepreneur” without saying so, and while treading some familiar ground, the focus on Norman’s mundane struggles with black casting, local shooting conditions, market share, and distribution provides a fruitful film business overview of the period.
The introduction and first chapter offer general histories of race film production and landmarks in black cultural experience, and Lupack is right to link Norman with competitors like the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. and the Micheaux Picture Corp. She’s also correct in assuming these films aimed to counter demeaning stereotypes by providing images of bourgeois success and moral integrity. For Lupack, race films are realistic depictions of black life, establishing new character types and situations, creating an essentially utopian space for an “all-black everything” (10). While certainly these films did present new racial visual registers, Lupack’s insistence on the overtly radical nature of these films is, however, often strained, and she automatically accepts their counter-hegemonic status as orthodox. By extension, she also tends to cast Norman as an unspoken radical crusader, even when there is no evidence for such claims, and this tendency to wish more than is evident bedevils the analysis throughout.
The rest of Lupack’s book follows a chronology of Norman’s life, and these chapters provide a fascinating account of small-time film production. It also shows that Norman’s essential strategy for filmmaking never really changed. He began making movies using local town talent to reflect municipal pride, where he was paid by the foot of shot film with a profit split of sixty-forty. From this relatively low-risk position, Norman moved to all-black shorts like The Wrecker (1915) and Sleepy Sam, the Sleuth (1916), both of which did well at box offices in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas. [End Page 265] It is, of course, difficult to evaluate Norman’s shift towards all-black productions, especially since most of his quoted correspondence recognized the idea of racial uplift not just as a necessary good, but as a sensible market niche. While this bifurcation is a constant in Norman’s career, Lupack consistently avoids examining the larger implications within the contradiction, and this critical potential is a real loss to the book.
By 1920, Norman moved operations to Jacksonville, Florida, producing a series of ambitious four-reel race features. His first was The Green-Eyed Monster (1920), which was essentially a retread of The Wrecker. The second was The Love Bug, which was a reworking of the subplot of the first feature. As Lupack shows, Norman was a thrifty recycler, using film footage repeatedly to minimize costs and overhead. Lupack’s analysis of these films, however, consists mostly of plot summary, and while she insists they embrace an obvious radical posture, it’s essentially impossible to tell what they might embody. What are we actually seeing in these films? What is the nature of the representative power at work here? While it is true the book is an account of Norman’s life, it’s also a study of his films, and Lupack provides no real interrogative framework for analyzing the images themselves.
Chapter 4 focuses on Norman’s black-cast westerns, The Bull-Dogger and The Crimson Skull, both of which were economically successful. Norman shot most of his footage in the all-black town of Boley, Oklahoma, and also managed to recruit Bill Pickett, the legendary rodeo and trick rider. While Lupack uses Norman’s business correspondence to build a fairly detailed picture...