Black Filmmaking in the 1920s: The Colored Players Film Corporation’s “The Scar of Shame” 

By the year 1920, approximately 300,000 Black folks migrated to the North (Isabel Wilkerson talks about their experiences at length in her book The Warmth of Other Suns).  Many sought to escape racial terrorism, and the negative impact of natural disasters on farming in the South while others like the veterans of World War I simply continued to expand their horizons after having been exposed to life’s possibilities outside of second-class citizenship. 

Many of those folks landed in Harlem and contributed to the Harlem Renaissance.  Spurred by such Black nationalists and pan-Africanists as W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, Black folks embraced the ideas of Black pride, self-awareness, expression, culture, art and upward mobility through education. 

As I studied this era and the writings that came from Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, I recognized how this idea of Black empowerment through self-discovery and introspection inspired conversation on the state of Black America independent of its dealings with white people. What did we think of ourselves? What was happening in our interpersonal relationships? What boundaries and burdens had we imposed on ourselves in our efforts to be free of what had been imposed upon us?

With this in mind, I watched The Scar of Shame (1927).  This fourth film produced by The Colored Players Film Corporation told the story of beautiful, low-class Louise Howard (Lucia Lynn Moses), step-daughter to abusive, alcoholic Spike Howard. One day while scrubbing laundry on a washboard and daydreaming of a richer existence, Louise is attacked by her drunken stepfather. Aspiring music composer Alvin Hillyard (Harry Henderson) hears the ruckus from his nearby room and comes to Louise’s rescue. He carries her away to safety at the boarding house in which he is staying and urges her to not return to her stepfather.

FUN FACT: The Colored Players Film Corporation was founded by Sherman H. "Uncle Dud" Dudley, a Black veteran of vaudeville and David Starkman, an Austrian immigrant. Both wanted to create a Black Hollywood free of traditional Black stereotypes.

Meanwhile, Spike’s enabler and liquor sponsor Eddie Blake (Norman Johnstone) believes Louise should be with her stepdaddy as Eddie is interested in exploiting Louise’s good looks to help fund the nightclub and gambling hall he’d like to open. He goes to Louise’s new home at the boarding house and tries to convince her to go back to her kin, but Alvin tells Eddie to go to hell instead. Upon a second attempt by Eddie and Spike to kidnap Louise from the boarding house, Alvin decides to marry Louise to protect her. 

Louise, of course, accepts Alvin’s proposal because Alvin is fine, talented, educated, drives a kick-ass car and plays a mean piano. Just as it seems that Louise’s dreams of a more comfortable lifestyle are becoming true, Alvin receives a telegram about his dear mother being sick as hell and near death. Without a second thought, Louise prepares for their travel to see Alvin’s sick momma, but Alvin shuts Louise’s travel plans down. You see, he ain’t told his momma that he married Louise because Louise is what his Momma would consider “hood.” Specifically, Lousie is not a member of their Black elite social class so Alvin’s Momma would definitely not approve of their nuptials. 

Louise is understandably pissed. After Alvin skates off in his drop top, Louise destroys their wedding photo, tears up their wedding certificate and starts packing her ish. Meanwhile, Eddie and Spike are waiting and watching the whole time prepared to scoop up Louise because they are the ones who sent the telegram about Alvin’s sick momma in the first place. (The momma was not sick but Eddie and Spike knew Alvin would leave Louise alone and susceptible to their influence upon hearing such news.) 

Image courtesy of guideposts.org.

By the time Alvin realizes he’s been duped and returns to Louise at their crib, he peeps the destroyed marriage paraphernalia and Eddie and Louise plotting to move forward with the money-making scheme Eddie had always intended. Alvin is like “oh hell naw” and pulls out his gun to dead all of it. Apparently, however, he practiced playing piano more than he did shooting because he ends up shooting Louise in the neck instead of killing Eddie. Louise does not die but does acquire a “scar of shame” which permanently mars her exquisite beauty.

Alvin ends up in prison while Louise starts sporting a neckerchief and working with Eddie. A few years later Alvin escapes prison, assumes a false identity, starts a music school and begins giving lessons to the daughter of a wealthy Black attorney. The daughter, of course, falls in love with him and together they make plans to get married. Little does Alvin know that his fiancé’s wealthy attorney daddy is also a business consultant for Eddie’s and Louise’s spot Club Lido. 

While on an errand to deliver an important message to the wealthy attorney daddy, Alvin runs into Louise and Louise is all like, “Baby, come back! I’m livin’ large now and I still got mad love for you. Come and get right with me, Big Sexy!” But Alvin refuses Louise again and Louise commits suicide.

This movie was intense in its study of Black classicism and its repeated suggestion that a lack of education was the cause of every single woe Louise experienced. All through the movie, different characters kept saying it. But what did Louise’s lack of education have to do with her drunk stepdaddy beating her? Or her elitist-ass, Captain Save ‘Em husband shooting her in the neck? I’m still trying to figure that out. What I really enjoyed was the colloquialisms.

Spike Howard was forever getting drunk on “jump-steady.”

Eddie urged Spike to eat so he wouldn’t develop “miss-meal cramps.”

Eddie referred to Alvin and his uppercrust set as “simps” and “dicty saps.”

Today, I’m going to try to work all of these phrases naturally into conversation. Until tomorrow.

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