Showcasing Black actors in foreign cinema

When Floyd Webb was 20 years old, he left his hometown of Chicago to go live abroad. It was 1974 and also the spark of a decades-long journey of traveling to over 50 countries. And as he did so, there was one constant: movies.

Webb went to the movies every place he went, he explains, and through that travel, the vast number of films with Black actors came into view.

“I had access to film programs, like at the [National] Film Theatre, on the South Bank in London, and they would have films in the afternoon,” Webb says. “I worked in that area and I used to walk over there to watch films. And suddenly . . . I started discovering Black actors who turned up in foreign films.”

And for Webb, this discovery was huge because growing up, he didn’t see many Black actors. It’s why Sidney Poitier—as one of the most famous actors of all time—became a beacon of light for Black film. The first Black man to win a competitive Oscar, Poitier rejected roles that were stereotypical and paved the way for other Black actors. But of course, sadly, there were not many Black actors in his position.

“When Sidney Poitier came along, he was changing [the] game—he was that powerful, self-realized character with agency, but there were very few films like that,” Webb says. “He was coming out of the American neorealism period immediately after World War II.”

As Black actors in the U.S. continued to struggle for roles, the presence of Black actors had exploded across the globe since the end of World War I. Yet, today, the richness of this history is not always something the average Chicago moviegoer can experience. But a new international film series is aiming to change that.

Webb is the curator of the Black Actors in Foreign Cinema screening series, co-presented by nonprofit media arts organization Chicago Filmmakers and his company, the Blacknuss Network, which has an alternative streaming service to watch Black films. This series is meant to give audiences a taste of some of the many international films featuring Black actors that were out even long before Webb first left for abroad. 

Black Actors in Foreign Cinema
6/11, 7/23, 8/20, and 9/17 at 7 PM; Chicago Filmmakers Firehouse Cinema, 1326 W. Hollywood; single screening $10; chicagofilmmakers.org/upcoming-screenings-and-events

The foundation of this work goes back to Webb’s work as the creator of the Blacklight Film Festival.

“I founded a film festival back in 1982, basically, to highlight and showcase new alternatives and radical works that were coming out,” Webb says. “Because there was a movement in the late 70s, early 80s, we got a sudden boom in Black independent film production. But it was not only here, it was like all over the world.”

On June 11, the first film in the series, Kiku and Isamu, screened at Chicago Filmmakers in Edgewater. The 1959 Japanese film stars two orphans—the children of a Japanese prostitute and Black GI—as they search for answers about race. After the showing, Emiko Takahashi, who played Kiku in the film, joined the audience virtually from Japan for a discussion.

Kiku and Isamu. Courtesy Chicago Filmmakers

“I was wondering after I saw the film, I said, ‘Whatever happened to her? Did she stay in Japan? Was her life pretty much like this young girl’s in the film?’ And she answered all those questions for us,” Webb says.

Without Pity, a 1948 film from Italy, is the next film in the series, and it will screen on July 23. Set at the end of World War II, it’s the story of a Black sergeant stationed in northern Italy who works to save his girlfriend. The film, which was briefly available in the U.S., was later banned in the U.S. and in Germany because it includes an interracial romance. But in Italy, it was a box office hit.

Without Pity. Courtesy Chicago Filmmakers

The role of protagonist was perfect for John Kitzmiller, who was, himself, a Black soldier. He was also stationed in Italy and rose to the rank of captain.

“He stayed in Europe after the war because his family had died while he was in the war, and he decided not to come back,” Webb says. “Carlo Ponti, an Italian director, saw him in a bar one night and heard his voice and said, ‘Wow, he can use it in the movies.’ And he did.”

The series’ third film, The Proud Valley, stars one of the most famous actors of his time: Paul Robeson. In the 1940 film from Wales, Robeson plays a Black sailor who deserts his ship and finds a job in a mining community.

The Proud Valley. Courtesy Chicago Filmmakers

“It’s Paul Robeson supporting . . . his core beliefs,” Webb says. “He was totally supportive of working people and I think it’s really interesting when you see actors who live what they believe, they find the roles that are reflective of the things that they believe.”

Last up in the series is Daïnah la Métisse, which will be shown on September 17. This 1932 French short is set on an ocean liner and is a mysterious story of flirting, race and class dynamics, and a missing wife.

Daïnah la Métisse. Courtesy Chicago Filmmakers

“This combination of desire and Renoir Charleston film, and this actor and this actress, the story of a Black magician, performing on a boat . . . with his kind of curious wayward wife—it’s really special,” Webb explains. “Black-and-white images are just so beautiful and so absurd. There’s a lot of surrealism in this film.”

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