Mahmoud El-Kati, Twin Cities historian and scholar, revered in African American communities as a griot, offers with St. Paul’s Golden Thyme Coffee Café a splendid film series, Fourth Friday at the Movies. The monthly gathering assembles folk to access long-obscured contributions to national and international cinema by black producers, directors, screenwriters, actors and technicians – as well as homage from industry professionals who don’t happen to be black.
Among offerings to date: Paul Robeson in Jericho, Saunders by the River and Big Fella (England’s adaptation of Harlem Renaissance novelist Claude McKay’s Banjo) and Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones. There’s time, before and after screenings, to just sit around and jaw, reflecting on a given flick and whatever else comes to mind. Mahmoud El-Kati spoke at length with Dwight Hobbes about Fourth Friday at the Movies.
THIS FRIDAY: That Rhythm, Those Blues, directed by George T. Nierenberg, October 26 at Golden Thyme Café, 921 Selby Avenue, St. Paul (651-645-1340) – Fourth Friday at the Movies
DWIGHT HOBBES: Whose brainstorm was it to have Fourth Friday at the Movies?
MAHMOUD EL-KATI: It’s germinated awhile. At Golden Thyme, that’s my favorite spot, and they happen to be proprietors as well as friends. So, this was not like I walked in one day with this idea and said, “Let’s have this film series.” It grew from a conversation between Michael Wright and myself, just trying to do good things for the community in the same vein that Golden Thyme sponsors the Jazz Festival, that kind of stuff. Right along those lines. It’s not my idea as such, okay? It’s collaboration. It evolved out of conversation.
DH: So, the two of you got to kickin’ it back and forth and somebody made a move to do something about it.
EL-KATI: Somethin’ like that. … We agreed it’s a good idea … in doing these films, first of all, to [sustain] a little bit of community around black films. To build a sense of what was going on prior to the 1960s, prior to “Blaxploitation”.
DH: Now, wait a minute. How you just gon’ come with that? There were exceptions. Not everything in those days was about being “superbad”. You have Across 110th Street, a fine detective movies. And Superfly, despite the goofy title was about an individual outwitting the system, including corrupt police and politicians.
EL-KATI: I won’t argue that. Still, we decided to begin at the beginning. When Edison was makin’ movies, you had black folks in them. When the movie industry was in New Jersey, that’s where it started, before certain forces moved it to Hollywood. By the 1920s, it became the institution as we know it, Hollywood. African Americans were in films almost since day one. As part of the ambiance, background and all that.
DH: Butlers, maids, slaves and such.
EL-KATI: Yeah, okay.
DH: Well, they wasn’t playin’ presidents.
EL-KATI: Up pops the collection of black filmmakers. It’s a remarkable story, because what parallels that is black movie theaters owned by black people. At one point, during the 1920s, there were roughly 300 spaces that were black owned. A classic one was the Douglas Theater in Macon, Georgia. It’s been refurbished. My mom saw Bessie Smith at one in Miami, a theater that was owned by a black woman.
DH: So, it was theaters where they showed movies and had performers.
DH: How’s Fourth Friday being received?
EL-KATI: Good. Growing response—we’ve had a lot of people in that little space. … In addition to showing the movies, there’s than educational piece underneath this. We want to educate ourselves on our role in the history of filmmaking. For instance, Spencer Williams, whom you and I have seen on television as Andy in Amos ‘N’ Andy, was a brilliant director of many black films, and occasionally acted in them. So he was a pioneer. What the world didn’t know, Williams had a huge name in the black community. One of the unintended benefits of segregation had to do with black celebrity, pillars of the community [that] the bigger world didn’t know. Like [producer/ director/ screenwriter] Oscar Micheaux. The end receipt is to do the education piece. What astounds is [that these films] covered a whole range of human emotions and experiences. Unlike today, they weren’t stereotyped. You had stories of religious life, street life, intellectual life, murder mysteries, sports. All of what you don’t see today that black people do. Love triangles. Cowboys. We showed a cowboy movie last year with Herb Jeffries. I’m now trying to find a particular film starring Ralph Cooper, who was very popular in gangster movies.
DH: Just how long has Fourth Fridays been going on?
EL-KATI: About two years.
DH: Are white folk allowed to attend?
EL-KATI: Of course. Why would you even bring something like that up?
DH: Well, it’s about black people connecting to their culture and history. Aside from it being illegal to discriminate, why have them there?
EL-KATI: Understanding is the best thing in the world. Ray Charles knew that. So they can understand. Those who are curious enough, I’m sure, will understand. Understand that they’ll get a rich experience. It’ll blow their minds to see the kind of movies black people mind. They’ll appreciate it.
DH: The socializing time before and after the screenings, what has that amounted to?
EL-KATI: People talk. They connect. I can’t say in any scientific way, but from conversations I’ve seen people have that they’re getting something out of it. That it’s beneficial. They say so themselves, that they enjoy it, that they’ve learned things, which I think is wonderful.
DH: Can’t argue with that.
EL-KATI: No, you can’t. It’s been and continues to be a positive experience. For everybody involved.