The Scar of Shame
The Scar of Shame (1927) is particularly intriguing among black-cast films because of its obvious ambition. Not satisfied to be merely a Hollywood-derivative drama with black actors, it endeavors to explore the delicate and often painful divisions that existed within African-American society of the day (a rift that was termed the "twoness" of black culture by educator and activist W.E.B. DuBois).
Lucia Lynn Moses stars as Louise, a young woman who is protected from an abusive stepfather (Norman Johnstone) by Alvin, an ambitious young composer (Harry Henderson). Although Louise is obviously beneath his social station, Alvin secretly marries her. With the help of a street hoodlum named Spike (William E. Pettus), the stepfather hatches a plan to regain control of his daughter. Louise comes to believe Alvin is ashamed of her, so she welcomes the life of vice, wealth and disgrace they propose. Alvin confronts them, shots are fired, and Louise receives a wound in her neck, a powerful symbol of her moral corruption.
The essential crisis of The Scar of Shame is the struggle to rise above the downward pull of the "street," and this conflict is represented quite effectively in the film's well-orchestrated (at times overwrought) dramatics. Just as Louise was unable to escape the influence of her stepfather, Alvin finds his promising future endangered by the secret romance of his past, suggesting that every level of black society faces obstacles beyond the obvious black/white struggle.
As was often the case with black-cast films, financing was provided by white investors (the productions of Oscar Micheaux stand as notable exceptions). The Scar of Shame was a product of the Colored Players Company, an enterprise founded by David Starkman, who also served as the film's screenwriter. The director, Frank Peregini, and cinematographer, Al Ligouri, were also white.
Established in Philadelphia in 1926 with a $100,000 investment, the CPC produced only three films before it was absorbed by another company. Tragically, neither of the other two films, A Prince of His Race (1926) and Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1921), survive today. In order to appear in the film, Moses, a dancer at Harlem's legendary Cotton Club, was required to commute (between performances) to the CHC studios in Philadelphia.
As screenwriter, Starkman may have organized the narrative plot of the film -- which was a direct descendent of the exaggerated Victorian melodrama -- but the more subtle themes of class separation were no doubt developed in cooperation with his African-American collaborators more attuned to the issues of caste within black society.
The film argues that environment, education and ambition are the determining factors in a person's life, but the film subverts its own message with the suggestion that position within the race is, to a degree, determined by the darkness of skin (Alvin and Louise are fair, while the stepfather and Spike are dark-complexioned). This correlation of light and dark with good and evil was a convention of the melodramatic stage, and was also employed in a number of black-cast films of the day.
Regardless of this flaw, The Scar of Shame remains an invaluable document of African-American history, for its forthright exploration of identity and ambition within the black middle class. Perhaps because the filmmakers and stars knew the The Scar of Shame would be viewed almost exclusively by black audiences, they felt free to explore the issues of racial identity that were beyond the awareness of white viewers, issues which would not be approached by the mainstream cinema until decades later.
Director: Frank Peregini
Producer: David Starkman
Screenplay: David Starkman
Cinematography: Al Liguori
Principal Cast: Harry Henderson (Alvin Hillyard), Norman Johnstone (Eddie Blake), Ann Kennedy (Mrs. Lucretia Green), Lucia Lynn Moses (Louise Howard), William Pettus (Spike Howard), Lawrence Chenault (Ralph Hathaway), Pearl McCormack (Alice Hathaway)
by Bret Wood