Year of Release: 7/15/1921
Black & White
Studio: Reol Productions Corp.
George Edward Brown
Nelson Holmes, an African American who has passed for White for twenty years, has advanced from office boy to the position of general manager at the Brazilian-American Coffee Syndicate. One day Nelson is visited by James Graves, a boyhood friend from the South who is looking for a job as a Spanish correspondent. Fearing that his secret will be discovered, Nelson urges Graves to pose as a Spaniard, but Graves refuses. Finally Nelson agrees to make Graves his private secretary if he will remain quiet about Nelson’s true race. Graves accepts, though he feels contempt for Nelson. Deeply affected by seeing Graves again, Nelson pays a visit to Graves’ sister Elinor, who was his childhood sweetheart. Elinor is cold to him, angered by his denial of his own people. When a representative of the Santos Company, a competitor who is trying to put the Brazilian-American Coffee Syndicate out of business, offers Nelson a bribe to destroy some contracts that could ruin the company, Nelson indignantly refuses. Their conversation is overheard by Beauregard Stuart, Nelson’s co-worker who was vexed that Nelson had received the promotion to general manager rather than him. That night, Graves overhears Stuart make a deal to get the contracts for the Santos representative. As Stuart is about to take the contracts from the company safe, Graves attacks him, and during their struggle, retrieves the contracts. After Graves runs off, Nelson returns to the office, and Stuart mistakes him for his attacker, then accuses him of the theft. The next morning, as Stuart is telling their boss, Lionel Weathering, that Nelson stole the contracts, Elinor arrives with the contracts and a letter from Graves, which proves Stuart’s guilt. Nelson, extremely grateful for Elinor and Graves’ loyalty, finally informs his boss that he has been passing for white. Weathering assures Nelson that it is the quality and not the color of a man that counts, and Nelson asks Elinor for her hand in marriage, once again proud to be black.
According to Early Race Filmmaking in America, the movie was based upon the serialized novel The Man Who Would Be White, by Aubrey Bowser. Bowser’s pedigree featured prominently in the studio’s advertising for the film which states, “Aubrey Bowser…of the colored race and a graduate of Harvard University.” George P. Johnson described the film as “Mixed cast of white and colored. Expensive picture, and very good in all departments. Probably best Negro picture made. However little high class.”
Reol’s advertising team appealed to racial pride to bring potential moviegoers to the theaters:
MOTHERS — FATHERS
DAUGHTERS – SONS:
If there is anything more binding between you and your Race than the color of your skin or the texture of your hair. Or those few drops of Negro blood that cannot be detected In either; if you are really interested in our aims, our Achievements and our stations in life, don’t let your work, Scruples, age or anything else keep you from seeing
“THE CALL OF HIS PEOPLE”
“THE MAN WHO WOULD BE WHITE”
Such advertising clearly touted the film as an example of black independent cinema, particularly since almost no mainstream films of this era considered the physiological aspects of race or the dreams and goals of the African-American population. In his summary of the film, J.A. Jackson of Billboard, a mainstream white industry publication, wrote that it reflects “the ever present anxiety that is associated with the practice that has become so prevalent.” This “anxiety” alluded to white fear of light-skinned African Americans passing for white.
Filmed at the Irvington-on-the-Hudson, NY estate of Black millionairess, A’Lelia Walker (daughter of Madam C. J. Walker). Sources: TMC; Early Race Filmmaking in America by Barbara Lupack (Editor); Daarac.org.