Tuesday, August 8, 2023

The NFR Project: 'The Flying Ace' (1926)


The Flying Ace

Dir: Richard E. Norman

Scr: Richard E. Norman

Pho: Unknown

Ed: Unknown

Premiere: 1926

65 min.

In the early 20th century (not to mention today), Black people could not catch a break – neither legally, socially, nor culturally. Racial prejudice was the norm. The Jim Crow laws, which kept American society essentially segregated, were in full effect. On the mainstream stage and screen, Black people were portrayed as foolish, mentally challenged, or dangerous. Black artists played the “Chitlin’ Circuit” of Black-only nightclubs and theaters, under the control of the Theatre Owners Booking Association (also known as TOBA – Tough on Black Asses).

There were exceptions, such as the great Black independent filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. He and others made what were then called “race” films – movies intended solely for Black audiences. In Black movie houses, the same range of films played – adventures, romance, drama, even Westerns – but they were enacted and shot by Black artists.

Such was the case with the Norman Studios of Jacksonville, Florida. This white-owned film company made “race” films, and owner Richard Norman was dedicated to improving race relations, as well as making a profit. Norman wrote and directed the film, and a question develops – how truly can a white creator capture a Black experience?

But there is no evidence given of a colloquial Black culture that requires special representation and understanding. This film would play the same whether it was inhabited by Black or white actors – the script is strictly color-blind. The resulting effect is that we see a movie completely devoid of racial stereotyping, as it contains not a single white character. Simply put, there is no one there whose self-esteem needs bolstering by degrading someone of a different color.

The story revolves around a stolen railroad payroll, and the efforts of a resolute detective (formerly a WWI flyer, therefore the movie’s title) to recover it, as well as win the affections of the film’s heroine. The usual machinations take place, ending with the baddie kidnapping the girl and flying away with her, prompting the hero to chase and effect a death-defying mid-air rescue.

Such imaginative folderol was a staple of the films of the time. The big difference here is that, with this film, Black audiences got to experience a modicum of cultural respect.

 The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Black Pirate.



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