Cast: Evelyn Preer, Flo Clements, James D. Ruffin, Jack Chenault, William Smith, Charles D. Lucas
SUMMARY: Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) is an southern African-American woman who is visiting her cousin, Alma, in the North. Sylvia’s primary concern is the imminent return of her fiancée, Conrad, from WWI. However, Alma is also in love with Conrad, and decides to break up the relationship. When the cousins learn of Conrad’s return date, Alma arranges it so that Sylvia appears to be in a compromising situation with another man. Without waiting for an explanation, Conrad leaves the country. In addition to Conrad, Alma’s stepbrother Larry is also in love with Sylvia, and wants her to marry him. Unbeknownst to Sylvia, Larry is a career criminal; in a game of cards one night, he becomes angry and kills a man, then is forced to flee. With both Conrad and Larry gone, Sylvia heads back home to the South. There, she gets a job at a school called Piney Woods, which is run by a minister and his sister. The school serves a large number of local African-Americans, but because the state does not pay much for the education of each black child, they are in dire financial straits. Without help, the school will close in a matter of weeks. At this time, Sylvia decides to go back North, where she will try to raise enough money ($5000) to keep the school running. Sylvia visits a number of people, including a man named Dr. Vivian. Unfortunately, her good intentions do not translate into actual money, and Sylvia is nearly ready to return home when she saves a child from being hit by a car. Sylvia is injured in the process, and is taken to the hospital by the owner of the car, a wealthy older white woman. This woman, Mrs. Warwick, is interested in Sylvia’s cause, and eventually decides to personally donate $50,000 to the school. With the school saved, Sylvia goes back to Piney Woods.
Unfortunately, her return is short-lived, as Larry has popped up in town. When she refuses his advances again, he threatens to disclose her past to the minister; Sylvia beats him to the punch by leaving town and going back to Alma’s house. Dr. Vivian has also fallen in love with her, and when he hears that she is back in town, he starts looking for her. His search eventually leads him to Alma, who has a long talk with the doctor. She tells him that it was she who drove Conrad away, then reveals Sylvia’s backstory: Sylvia was adopted at a young age by a poor black family named Landry. Through an unknown benefactor, Sylvia went to school, and was eventually able to keep track of the family’s money. This did not sit well with the family’s landlord, Gridlestone, who had been cheating Mr. Landry; when Landry arrives to make his next payment, the two men get into an argument, and a gun is pulled. Watching the struggle from outside are two men: Efrem, Gridlestone’s gossipy servant, and a poor white man who has been offended by Gridlestone. During the fight between Gridlestone and Landry, this man shoots Gridlestone through the window: as he is on the other side of the building, Efrem assumes that Landry shot Gridlestone, as he is left holding the small handgun (Landry himself assumes he shot Gridlestone accidentally). Efrem spreads the word around, and the Landrys flee to the swamp. After several weeks, the Landry parents are captured and lynched; Sylvia’s younger brother manages to escape even though he is wounded by a bullet. Sylvia had been staying with friends, but Gridlestone’s brother finds her in her old house after the lynching. He attacks her, but when he sees a scar on her chest, realizes that she is his daughter, the product of his relationship with a black woman: it is he that paid for her education. After Alma finishes her story, Sylvia returns to the house to find Dr. Vivian waiting for her. Rather than despise the country that has done so much to her, he encourages her to take pride in it, and in the contributions that African-Americans have made. He then proposes to Sylvia, and she accepts.
MY TAKE: This is not a stunning movie, but it’s easy to understand why it’s on the list: it’s the oldest surviving film by an African-American director, and it provides a nastily accurate look at racism, both in the North and the South. Most people see it as a response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which had been released five years earlier, and which paints the KKK as the saviors of white womanhood, while blacks are shown as crazed animals. This movie is a terrific answer to that, as it has a serious moral message mixed with humor and romance. With the exception of those in the flashback, every man in the movie proposes to Sylvia: Conrad, Larry, the minister, and finally Dr. Vivian. By the time the minister professed his love, it was starting to get ridiculous — and then Sylvia looks away and rolls her eyes, as if acknowledging the same thing. Though many of the white people have some really stupid racist ideas, one of them, the one who donates all the money to the school, does not believe them, which gives a ray of hope (she also does some eye rolling at the precisely right moment to be funny). The woman she’s taking to is giving her a whole spiel about the uselessness of educating blacks, which is hard to listen to; obviously, the lynching scenes are hard to watch, too. This scene was routinely cut by censors after the movie was released, as was the scene where Gridlestone’s brother attacks Sylvia: they were seen as too provocative, especially considering the Chicago race riots of 1919. It’s understandable, as it’s still unsettling almost 100 years later. While the story is not gripping, it’s fairly interesting (though there are a ton of male characters to keep track of), and is one of those films whose importance goes beyond entertainment value.
RATING: Watch it for its historical and moral value.