A little Black History

February is celebrated in the US as Black History Month. We got all the way into the first week of March before someone reminded me that it had come and gone, and then I realized I’d actually made a small February contribution without even thinking about the occasion or making the connection.

jimmy_mordecai

Jimmy Mordecai

One Sunday a few months ago, I watched two short movies on television: First, a creaky but fascinating fable from 1930, Murray Roth’s “Yamekraw.” Shot in a weird, abstracted style obviously influenced by German Expressionist films of the 1920s, “Yamekraw” is a story, told in music and dance, of a poor but happy rural Black couple who get an itch to move to the big city; predictably, the move brings nothing but sorrow.

Then, within a couple of hours, I happened to see Dudley Murphy’s 1929 two-reeler, “St. Louis Blues.” The centerpiece of the film is Bessie Smith’s performance of the classic W.C. Handy tune — it’s her only known film appearance, which is all most people remember about it. But it has a plot — Bessie has a two-timing lover, a stereotyped pimp who lives off her modest income and treats her very shabbily.

Each of these film relics is fascinating in its own way, and just by chance, I noticed they have something in common: In each, the male lead is played by a lithe, charismatic actor named Jimmy Mordecai.

Heard of him? I never had. I was struck by the coincidence, so I looked him up — or tried to. I found virtually nothing online about him, other than a few very scant references from books about Black characterizations in Hollywood films, and about dancers. I was able to piece it together that the man was one of the most popular tap dancers of the 1920s and early 30s, a creature of the Harlem Renaissance, and he obviously had some semblance of a film career. To me, that’s a substantial legacy. But he was, for all intents and purposes, forgotten. He didn’t even have a Wikipedia page, which in this day and age is true obscurity.

Well. He does now.

I’d brooded about the seeming injustice of this, and ultimately I couldn’t help myself — I had to resurrect Jimmy Mordecai before he was completely lost to the ages. After all, even film isn’t forever. Thousands of early Hollywood features have disappeared — no prints exist anywhere.

So I took whatever fragments I could scrape up from the hive mind of Google, and strung together a brief Wikipedia entry on the unsung artist Jimmy Mordecai. My romantic nature being what it is, it feels a little like rescuing the man from Purgatory. I think he deserves it.

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