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Reviving and Reviewing the “Race Film”

Borderline

Dir. Kenneth MacPherson, 1930, 63 min

Co-presented by Wolf Humanities Center and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in collaboration with Lightbox Film Center at International House Philadelphia.

This series revisits so-called “race films”: works of independent African American cinema produced from the 1910s to the 1940s. The afterlives of these  flms are manifest in their recurring religious themes, the vexed politics of their preservation and restoration, and their creative in influence on later  filmmakers.


Borderline
Two couples’ lives become violently intertwined in this avant-garde feature depicting racism in a Swiss village. Paul Robeson stars alongside his wife, Eslanda Robeson, and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).

"Borderline stars the poet H.D. (real name Hilda Doolittle) and [director] Macpherson's wife, writer Winifred Bryher, both on the editorial board of Close Up, as well as the black American actor, singer and political activist Paul Robeson and his wife, Eslanda Robeson. The narrative is relatively simple, depicting an inter-racial love triangle, but Borderline's attempts to portray the extreme psychological states of its characters render it a quite complex film.

The film concentrates on the inner states of its protagonists, using a technique that H.D. referred to as 'clatter-montage', in which rapid montage combinations create an effect close to superimposition. This method was inspired by the editing methods used by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, yet the film's attempt to probe psychological states was more directly inspired by the German filmmaker G.W.Pabst.

As well as its explicit themes of racial prejudice, Borderline also contains an implicit homoerotic subtext. Although there are no overt references to homosexuality, the topic is alluded to in some of the performances. Marginal characters, such as the manageress and barmaid at the inn, have an air of sexual ambivalence, while the (male) pianist is seen gazing longingly at a picture of Pete on his piano. This homoerotic view of Pete is reinforced by the way in which the camera frequently lingers over Robeson's semi-naked body. It is also worth noting that H.D. was lesbian, and is thought to have had an affair with Bryher." - Jamie Sexton, BFI ScreenOnline