Race Women and Uplift: The Colored Players Film Corporation

by Ken Fox

By the early 1920s, numerous independent companies had entered the race film industry, albeit with mixed results. Some, like Ebony, merely perpetuated the degrading stereotypes, while others, despite their ambition, failed to produce even a single film before going out of business. One of the best and most successful of the silent race film companies, though, was the Colored Players Film Corporation of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, co-founded by White entrepreneur and theater owner David Starkman and popular Black stage performer and Vaudevillian Sherman H. Dudley. Although Dudley was the titular president of the company, it was actually Starkman who was in charge of its operation, management, and finances; and it was money from White backers that funded the films that the company produced.

Ten Nights in a Bar-Room (1926)

Figures of race pride and power, women in race films such as The Scar of Shame were the embodiment of uplift and ambition.

The Colored Players Film Corporation distinguished itself from other race film companies in several ways, including its expensive sets and its cadre of prominent Black actors such as Lawrence Chenault, Harry Henderson, and Shingzie Howard. Of the four pictures that the company produced, two are extant. Ten Nights in a Barroom (1926) was a Black version of the familiar temperance novel Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, And What I Saw There (1854) by Timothy Shay Arthur, later adapted as a stage melodrama by William W. Pratt and as several White film versions, including a 1921 feature directed by Oscar Apfel. The Colored Players’ Black-cast film version, though, was particularly poignant, especially in the plea it made to avoid “urban” vices that led to ruin.

The Scar of Shame (1929)

The second extant film (the company’s final film) was The Scar of Shame (1929), the story of an ill-fated marriage between the middle-class and well-educated composer Alvin Hillyard (Harry Henderson) and Louise Howard (Lucia Lynn Moses), a young woman employed in Mrs. Green’s “select” boarding house, where Hillyard lives. The film, which revealed the caste divisions that existed even among Black Americans, was quite sophisticated for its time. Using interesting intercutting of scenes to contrast the women in Alvin’s life (his wealthy mother, his wife Louise, and the proper Alice whom he meets and falls in love with after leaving Louise) and recurring symbols and leitmotifs that defined and identified the main characters, it offered a powerful commentary on race relations and on racial uplift. It is now considered to be one of the finest films of it its day, Black or White.


About the Presenter

  • Ken Fox

    Ken Fox

    Ken Fox is the Head of Library and Archives at the Richard and Ronay Menschel Library at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. Formerly the associate editor of The Motion Picture Guide and a film reviewer for TV Guide, he is a graduate of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, and holds a master's degree in Information Science from the State University of New York at Albany.


Discussion Questions
  • The Scar of Shame, one of two extant films produced by the Colored Players, explored caste divisions that divide the Black community. Are caste questions and internal divisions in the Black community still a concern? How do contemporary Black filmmakers address such issues? How is their perspective different from that of mainstream Hollywood filmmakers?

  • In The Scar of Shame: is Alvin a victim of Louise’s intrigues? Or is Louise a victim of Alvin’s social prejudices? Is the film’s resolution a satisfactory one? Was Louise’s death inevitable?

  • What do the various symbols (like Louise’s baby doll) and motifs (like music) in The Scar of Shame reveal about the characters, particularly the female characters?

  • Ten Nights in a Bar Room was a cautionary tale intended to warn viewers against vices such as alcoholism in the Prohibition era. Are there still “lessons” to be learned by contemporary audiences almost a century after the film was produced?

  • Like many of the early race films, The Scar of Shame promoted the notion of racial uplift and achievement. At the same time, it also raised compelling questions about the notion of environment as destiny. How does the film address those competing notions? And how does it use its female characters — Louise, Alice, Mrs. Green, Mrs. Hillyard — to comment on or address those questions/issues?

Suggestions for Further Reading
  • Cripps, Thomas. Black Film as Genre. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

  • —–. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

  • Field, Allyson Nadia. Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.

  • Gaines, Jane. Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era. Chicago: Chicago Press, 2001.

  • Gaines, Kevin K. Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

  • Musser, Charles. “Colored Players Film Corporation: An Alternative to Micheaux.” In Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era. Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. 178-187.

  • Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent. New York: Random House, 2020.

  • —–. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York: Random House, 2010.