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June 13 2020
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The pioneering director Oscar Micheaux (right) in a promo photo from the early 1920s.

“Times is very, very ticklish,” says a black minister in The Darktown Revue, the short 1931 “race film”—a caustic satire of black class differences—directed by the pioneering African-American moviemaker Oscar Micheaux.

In a scene worthy of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, Amon Davis, the comedian who plays the minister, dramatically recites the alphabet in the form of a sermon accompanied by the sedate Donald Heywood choir. The same singers start the film trilling “Watermelon Time,” a dig at the frequent racist references to the fruit as a symbol of comparative post-emancipation plenitude, as in the 1905 one-reeler “The Watermelon Patch,” in which a group of black Americans steal some watermelons and are chased by skeletons symbolizing the Ku Klux Klan.

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