An Interview with Barbara Tepa Lupack

Barbara Tepa Lupack, an author and editor with dozens of titles to her name, recently corresponded with Folio Weekly in conjunction with this week’s cover story, “On Location,” about trailblazing cinematographer Richard E. Norman, whose black silent films of the 1920s were decades ahead of their time. Though today only one of his films survives, Norman’s impact on the genre and on filmmaking in general is undeniable. As a white man making movies in the early years of the 20th century, an era when Jacksonville was known as ‘The Winter Film Capital of the World,’ Norman rejected the use of stereotypical black characters outright, instead filling his movies with diverse, complex and aspirational figures.

Folio Weekly: How long did it take to research and write this book?
Barbara Tepa Lupack: In the spring of 2013, I was awarded the Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington. I spent two weeks onsite-at the Lilly and at the Black Film Center/Archive-researching the Norman Collection, which had been donated to IU, in a series of bequests over several years, by Capt. Richard Norman (Richard E. Norman’s son). At the time, the collection was split between the Lilly and the BFC/A. It has since been relocated, in its entirety, to the BFC/A, which-thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities-is now in the process of digitizing many of the materials in the collection. (You can access the information online that has already been digitized. Though, so far, it’s mostly business records, it is interesting nonetheless and worth at least a quick look.)

I returned home to New York and, over the course of the next six to eight months, undertook and completed the writing of the book, which was published the following year by Indiana University Press.

How prominently does Norman Studios figure in your other books and your lectures?
In the 1990s, I wrote/edited a series of books on literary adaptation, which were published by the Popular Press (Bowling Green State University). In writing about [Harriet Beecher] Stowe and the various adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (for the first volume in that series), I became increasingly interested in black representation and in black film.

It was not until I began research for my book on Literary Adaptations in Black American Cinema: From Micheaux to Morrison (published in 2001 by University of Rochester Press) that I first learned about race films. In 2009, when the University of Rochester approached me about a revised and expanded edition of that book (later published in 2010), I revisited some of the filmmakers I had merely touched upon in the original volume. One of those filmmakers was Norman. Little did I know at the time what a vital role he had played in race filmmaking in particular and in American cinema in general.

As New York State Public Scholar (2015-’18), I have lectured widely on “Racial Representation in American Film,” “Race Films,” “Mammy to Madea” and “Norman and Early Race Filmmaking.” I have spoken at libraries, museums, colleges and historical societies-and audiences are always amazed to learn Norman’s story (a story heretofore unknown to them [and, unfortunately, even to many film historians]).

How many books have you written altogether, and where does this one fit in the chronology?
Counting the books that I have authored and the ones that I have edited, the answer would be 30. My earliest books were literary criticism (for instance, Insanity as Redemption in Contemporary American Fiction: Inmates Running the Asylum, published by University Press of Florida in 1995). By the mid-1990s, I had moved into film studies, and by 2000, I became especially interested in race film and silent films. (I have also written and published extensively on King Arthur and the Arthurian legends in popular culture [Arthurian Literature By Women (Garland); Adapting the Arthurian Legends for Children (Palgrave Macmillan at St. Martin’s Press); The Girl’s King Arthur (Scriptorium Press); King Arthur in America; and Illustrating Camelot (both published in Cambridge, U.K., by Boydell & Brewer)], since I am fascinated by the way that different cultures appropriate traditional/national legends and recreate and redefine the mythologies [in the case of the U.S., Americanizing and democratizing the British monarchical Arthurian legends].

Since completing the Norman book (published in 2014), I have edited Early Race Filmmaking in America (published by Routledge [and for which I contributed the essay on Norman]); written a translation of two plays, Ivar Kreuger and Jeanne de la Motte (published by University of Chicago Press/Intellect Books); and completed a new book (forthcoming in 2018), Theodore and Leopold Wharton: Silent Serial Sensations, about the Wharton Brothers, white silent filmmakers who were prolific filmmakers and established their studio in Ithaca, New York.

My new book-in-progress is about race representation in American film. It examines 10 films (one film from each decade of the 20th century) and examines how each reflected and/or defined its decade.

Were you able to spend much time in Jacksonville while working on the book? When was the last time you were here?
Although I have visited Jacksonville several times in years past (the last time, probably 20 years ago), I have never visited the Norman Studios; nor did I conduct any of my research there.

My most recent trip to Florida was two years ago, to Orlando, to a conference on “Flickering Landscapes: Florida” (Florida on film/Florida filmmaking) hosted by University of Central Florida, at which I gave an extended lecture and presentation on Norman and the NSSFM. To my surprise and delight, Gloria Norman (Capt. Norman’s daughter) and her husband traveled from their home to attend the conference. And, after my lecture, as a (completely unexpected) thank you, she presented me with a lovely piece of her artwork, a gift that I still treasure.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to enjoy the support and encouragement of the Norman family, especially the late Capt. Norman, who was instrumental in keeping his father’s legacy alive.

Are you still in regular contact with those involved with Norman Studios? Are you keeping up with their current efforts?
We are indeed in regular contact. I work closely with Rita Reagan (a remarkable woman with an amazing vision for the museum/studio) and the NSSFM, assist in their various efforts (grant-writing, application for national registry, consulting with “Antiques Roadshow” for the Norman segment [when AR filmed in Jacksonville], etc.). I am also directing one of the NSSFM’s newest efforts-a resource center on race films and filmmaking. Since there is no physical center yet, the “Resources for the Study and Understanding of Early Race Filmmaking” maintains only an online/web presence; it consists of a series of digital exhibitions (the first of which, on “Norman and His Contemporaries,” should be mounted shortly). More exhibits, essays, bibliographies and photographs will be added as the “Resources” feature expands (and once the kinks in the platform have been resolved).

As far as the ongoing efforts to further preserve and refurbish the building are concerned, how would you describe its importance-not just to the city, but to the nation as a whole? What’s the best way to make the case to those potential donors who may seem skeptical?
The Norman Studios Silent Film Museum is a national treasure-albeit one that is unknown to most people and generally underappreciated, even by those who are aware of its existence. Not only is it one of the few remaining silent film studios in the country; it is the only surviving race film company studio. As such, it holds a unique place in American cinema, sociopolitical and race history, and its preservation is vital.

The NSSFM, moreover, provides a singular portrait of early American filmmaking (and especially the landmark race filmmaking of the era). The pictures that Norman produced there-pictures that eschewed demeaning racial depictions and portrayed aspiring, uplifting characters who were ambitious and enterprising professionals (bank presidents, superintendents, advertising directors, engineers, doctors, captains, detectives, pilots, ranchers, lawmen and educators)-constituted a kind of separate, or underground, cinema that responded to the pejorative stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes so prevalent in the cinema, literature and culture of the time. In attempting to reach the black audience that was virtually ignored by the major motion picture studios, Norman surmounted problems with small budgets and poor distribution channels and succeeded in producing and releasing films that went beyond mere stereotypical representation of blacks on the screen to depict blacks as a presence in American life and to highlight black achievement.

The best way to attract donors, especially skeptical potential donors, is to impress upon them the singular role that Norman and the NSSFM played-and continues to play-in American cinema, popular and race culture. Publicity and promotion of the NSSFM is paramount, of course, in introducing the studio to the public. But I would argue that, to reach donors, a different kind of targeted promotion would be advisable-an effective, persuasive, personalized promotion that allows donors to see for themselves (through viewings and presentations of film clips, photographs and primary materials) just what Norman accomplished-and therefore appreciate his achievement within the context of other race (and non-race) filmmakers and his invaluable contribution to social/race history. While that would mean a lot of in-person appearances before local/regional/state groups as well as at major agencies, funding organizations, film and other societies, it could help to secure not just one-time donors, but patrons who could pledge ongoing support.

How many black silent films were made, altogether? How many of them still exist?
It’s very difficult to answer that question, because most race filmmakers were small independents and because there was no accurate catalogue or documentation of early race film production. (Race films, for example, were rarely, if ever, reviewed or even noted in the trade periodicals, such as Moving Picture World or Motion Picture News.) Very few black silent films have survived. For example, none of William Foster’s films or the films of the pioneering Johnson Brothers are extant; apart from only a few brief fragments, only Norman’s The Flying Ace survives; and two of Micheaux’s silent films were only (relatively) recently discovered in foreign archives.

Unlike mainstream film producers, who were able to strike multiple prints (often in the hundreds) of their pictures (which were then widely distributed through distributors or exchanges), race film producers could rarely afford to make more than a handful of positives. Consequently, at any given time, they were lucky to have two or three viable prints that they could rent or circulate for exhibition. (Race filmmakers had virtually no national or even local distribution prospects, and they usually had to roadshow their films themselves. And that kind of roadshowing often caused serious, even irreparable damage to the prints.) So the existence of any extant race film is a cause for celebration.

Cinema historians have speculated that, of the surviving silent films, race films likely constitute no more than 10 to 15 percent. (Many historians would argue that the actual number of extant films is even lower than that.) One thing is certain: Even the few surviving silent race films confirm the remarkable achievement of Norman and his contemporaries (particularly Noble and George Johnson and Oscar Micheaux) and reveal how their filmmaking made an invaluable contribution to silent American cinema.

Which of the Norman Studios films is your favorite, as far as the story and whatnot?
My favorite would have to be The Flying Ace, because of its singular place in race film history and in American popular culture. Not only did it feature some of the finest black performers of the day (the husband-and-wife team of Lawrence Criner and Kathryn Boyd, both from the famed Lafayette Players; as well as George Colvin, Boise de Legge, Lyons Daniels, Sam Jordan and Steve “Peg” Reynolds, who performed amazing stunts-riding a bicycle and shooting a gun-through his wooden leg), it lived up to its billing as “A Smashing Airplane Detective Mystery Done in a Smashing Way [and] The First Colored Picture with Real Flying in it, Real Stunts, Loops, Parachute Jumps, Changing Planes, Flying Upside Down, Fights on Land as Well as in the Air.” Admittedly, the flying wasn’t “real,” but the thrills certainly were!

Even more important, the film was aspirational, in keeping with contemporary race uplift philosophy. (The film was, in fact, more aspirational than factual since, at the time, blacks were prohibited from serving in the U.S. Air Force, and their roles in other branches of the service were restricted as well.) But by transcending the racist reality of his day and depicting “Capt. Stokes” as a celebrated wartime “ace” pilot, Norman offered his audiences a character with whom they could identify and an uplifting theme they could embrace.

At the same time, I think that each of Norman’s films managed to tap into the zeitgeist-incorporating and highlighting new technologies (The Green-Eyed Monster, The Flying Ace); depicting the contributions of black cowboys (Crimson Skull and Bull Dogger) and scientists (Zircon) and the ambitions of black ranchers and oil men (Black Gold). His willingness to portray the “New Negro Woman” through capable, ambitious, enterprising and educated heroines was ground-breaking. Each one of Norman’s films was therefore innovative and pioneering-which makes it even more unfortunate that, apart from the occasional fragment, none (other than The Flying Ace) survives.