El-Kati explores legacy in film at Golden Thyme monthly series


September’s Old Black Movie Night features Within Our Gates on Friday, September 28 at Golden Thyme Coffee Café in St. Paul.

At 7:00 pm Friday, April 27, 2007, I sat in a cushioned chair in the meeting room of Golden Thyme Coffee Café, 921 Selby Avenue in Saint Paul, and watched a 1930’s black-and-white movie featuring a black man as the main character with a white sidekick. I was amazed at the racial character set up for that time era. I kept watching and was intrigued by the whole film. In fact I was watching, along with 10-15 others, the 1937 film Jericho, featuring Paul Robeson. I went back the following month to view another Paul Robeson film, Big Fella (1937). These free, monthly fourth Friday movie showings are a part of Communiversity Old Black Movie Night – 4th Friday at the Movies, the brainchild of esteemed historian and Professor Mahmoud El Kati, in collaboration with Golden Thyme Coffee Café owner Michael Wright and his wife Stephanie. Golden Thyme Coffee Café, with normal weekday hours from 6:30 am to 6:00 pm, graciously keeps the doors open free of charge to Communiversity and the larger community for the movie showings. The Café is also open to donations.

“Within Our Gates” was directed by famous African-American director Oscar Michaux. The film is pre-talkie, made in 1915, in response to “The Birth of a Nation,” the famously racist movie made by D.W. Griffith. According to Mahmoud El-Kati, the movie is a melodrama, dealing with how people are influenced by race.

The movies have been running for one year, at the only local black-owned and -operated coffee shop in the Twin Cities. Michael sees these events as giving reverence to the past, and giving back to the community. “It means black actors and actresses from the past have not been forgotten. It’s a viable outlet for us to learn about their lives in the movies and outside of the movies, while they experienced trials and tribulations of racism in that era. We are given the viable and documented history, rather than the embellished, in the heart of the black community.”

After each film there is reflection on what was seen, the film’s historical relevance, and general discussion. Professor El Kati said, “This is a film society for people who like the vintage African-American experience. The film showing draws certain people together, and it is a healthy, sober outlet with peaceful talking and non-political engagement. Built into it is informal education.”

The school system didn’t teach me about the great Paul Robeson, and his tremendous feats in acting, singing, football, law, or how he was falsely accused of being a Communist. I didn’t learn that at age 17 he received a scholarship to attend Rutgers University where he received 12 major letters in four years, and was the class valedictorian. He spoke 15 languages, fought racism at home, and fascism abroad. Robeson, a black nationalist and anti-colonialist, drew an audience in Senator Joe McCarthy, who headed the anti-Communist hearings in the United States Senate in the early 1950’s. This led to the 1950 revocation of Robeson’s passport, eliminating his performances overseas. At the time, work overseas was the bread and butter for many African-American entertainers. The information I acquired was fascinating. What other black history had been deleted from my history books? My sentiments were shared in discussion following the film showings.

“People can teach one another. The conversations stimulate thinking and inspire, no matter the age. Curiosity leads to interesting insights. History is always relevant and important, you carry it within you. Everything we do is produced by history. Everything true in this world is a derivative of history. If you expose yourself to history you will be inspired to think differently.” Prof. El Kati said people want to have a nice warm evening together that is not taxing or stressful, but a relief and a respite after work or school. And the movie showings offer an opportunity to gather with people you wouldn’t normally meet with, but you are also exposed to something different.

I met Sheretta Brown, a middle-aged mother of two, at the May movie showing. She was appreciative of the history and discussion. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn about our history, and discuss the movie shown. Professor El Kati is very dedicated and continues to work to make the community aware of our history.”

The August featured film was be “Cabin in the Sky”, an all-black movie filmed in 1943, featuring noted entertainers Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, and Louis Armstrong. The film is a musical about the forces of good versus evil.

For directions or questions call Golden Thyme Coffee Café at 651-645-1340.