Thursday, October 30, 2014

Cara Caddoo's "Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life"

Cara Caddoo is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life, and reported the following:
On page 99, a battle rages between two of Chicago’s most powerful black men: Reverend Elijah Fisher and Robert T. Motts, a kingpin of Chicago’s underworld. At stake is control of the three-block stretch of city streets on Chicago’s South Side that will soon be known as “The Stroll.” Motts has announced plans to transform his saloon on 27th Street into a “high-class theater.” To lend an air of legitimacy to his new venture, he’s even struck a deal with Ida B. Wells, who has agreed to host a high-society event at the theater. Fisher and fellow man of the cloth, Archibald Carey, are furious. They’re certain the theater is a guise for another of Motts’ dens of iniquity. The ministers have launched a crusade against the venture. It doesn’t help that Fisher’s church is located directly across the street from the site of Motts’ new theater.
It was in this venerable district, near the intersection of State and Twenty-Seventh streets, where Fisher and Robert T. Motts first clashed in 1905. At that time, the Olivet Baptist Church and the Motts Theatre had only recently ventured into the neighborhood, and their fate there was far from certain. (p. 99)
As the campaign against Motts continues, there will be fiery speeches, pointed insults, and one very memorable, impassioned oath. The allegiances of black Chicago will split. Within a decade, one of these men will mysteriously die—choking, it may seem, on his own words.

This conflict occurs midway through the book. In previous chapters, we’ve witnessed the rise of black American cinema. Hundreds of African Americans, starting in the 1890s, exhibited and produced motion pictures for black audiences. Although Fisher and Carey’s responses might seem to suggest otherwise, these black film pioneers were often ministers and church leaders. In fact, black churches were among the first places to show films for African American audiences.
Yet all of this changed with the rise of the colored theater. Suddenly ministers turned a suspicious eye on motion pictures, which they blamed for drawing away their congregants. Thus the skirmish between Fisher and Motts foreshadowed tensions that would eventually erupt across the nation. Black church leaders and colored theater proprietors went head-to-head over the motion pictures. But like all battles, the repercussions are not as simple as they seem. What appeared a loss at one moment might transform into a victory in another. As the chapter continues, we witness the rise some of the era’s most celebrated centers of black cultural life spring from the ashes of these struggles.
Learn more about Envisioning Freedom at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue