Moss, Carlton 1909–1997
Carlton Moss 1909–1997
Filmmaker, playwright, director
“The whole thrust of the Negro Theater Movement was to concentrate on our own culture and stop trying to imitate or get the approval of white people,” Carlton Moss once said of the movement he helped to pioneer. Over the course of his 60-year career, Moss did more than merely focus on African American culture. His work as a writer and director for film and stage contributed to the demolition of negative stereotypes—an ongoing project, since such stereotypes remain common—that have pervaded black imagery in theater, film, and television throughout U.S. history. Through his work as a teacher, Moss has increased the likelihood that the process of eliminating those stereotypes will someday be complete.
Carlton Moss was born in 1909 in Newark, New Jersey. He spent his childhood in North Carolina. From there, he moved on to Baltimore, Maryland, where he attended Morgan State College. At Morgan State, Moss was bitten by the theater bug, and he began to focus on both acting and writing for the stage. While still at Morgan State, Moss organized a theater troupe called “Toward a Black Theater.” The troupe, composed of actors from his own as well as other black colleges, performed at many of the black campuses that had produced its membership. Moss earned his bachelor’s degree from Morgan State in the late 1920s.
At the urging of his teacher and mentor, playwright Randolph Edmonds, Moss moved to New York to pursue a career in acting and writing for theater and radio. In New York, he quickly became involved in the creative scene that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. In 1931, the Harlem Players produced one of his scripts. Over the next couple of years, Moss wrote dozens of radio plays for NBC, including shows with such titles as Care less Love, Folks from Dixie, and Noah. He also created, wrote, and acted in a radio talk show series called Community Forum, which was aired over station WEVD. During this period, Moss worked with the prestigious Lafayette Theatre, serving as a key assistant to director John Houseman. There they produced, among other works, Orson Welles’ Haiti-based adaptation of Macbeth.
In 1933 Moss acted in the film The Phantom of Kenwood, directed by the pioneering black Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. The following year, Moss became drama director of the Harlem YMCA, as part of a New Deal program sponsored by the federal government. When the Works Projects Administration (WPA) was created in 1935, Moss was named one of the chief black consultants to its Federal Theater program. During his five years with the Federal Theater, Moss wrote and directed an original show for the Philadelphia Negro Unit. He eventually became one of the directors of the Harlem Unit, when its original white directors—John Houseman and Orson Welles—were replaced with African Americans.
Born February 14, 1909, in Newark, NJ; died August 10, 1997, in Los Angeles, CA; Education: Morgan State College, BA, c 1929; attended Columbia Univ.
Career: Founded theater company, “Toward a Black Theater,” c. 1928; wrote many scripts for NBC radio, 1931-32; created and wrote radio talk show Community Forum, c. 1932; acted in the film The Phantom of Kenwood by director Oscar Micheaux; Harlem YMCA, drama director, 1934; WPA Federal Theater, director of Harlem Unit, 1935-39; served in War Dept, Information and Education Division during World War II; made documentary The Negro Soldier, 1943; Artesian Productions, co-founder and independent filmmaker, c. 1950-1997; Fisk University, film instructor, 1960s; University of California at Irvine, film instructor, 1970-94.
Awards: Schomburg Collection Honor Roll for Race Relations, 1943; Chicago Intl. Film Festal, first prize for Teeth Are For Life; Edinburgh Film Festival, first-place for Healthy Teeth, Happy Smile; Golden Eagle Award, for What About Tomorrow:
During World War II Moss worked for the Information and Education Division of the War Department, where he wrote and directed stage shows and documentary films for the armed forces. As part of an effort to foster patriotism in the African American community in the face of ongoing oppression, segregation, and hostility, Moss mounted a revue called A Salute to the Negro Soldier in 1942 at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The following year, he directed the film The Negro Soldier, a documentary highlighting the heroic role played by African Americans in the country’s various war efforts over the years. In an era which saw African Americans almost always portrayed on film as buffoons, mammies, and other stereotypes, The Negro Soldier was hailed as a groundbreaking attempt to show blacks as real people contributing mightily to their nation’s well-being. It was considered among the most important government films on racial issues ever made. For his efforts, Moss was placed on the Schomburg Collection’s Honor Roll for Race Relations in 1943.
After the success of The Negro Soldier, Moss took his crew to Europe to film Teamwork, a documentary about the work of an African American quartermaster unit known as “The Redball Express.” Teamwork was released by 20th Century Fox after the end of the war, and served as the basis for The Redball Express, a 1952 film starring Sidney Poitier. After the war, Moss moved to Hollywood in the hopes of establishing himself in the commercial film industry. He made advertisements for Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign. In 1950 Moss co-authored a biography of singer Lena Home. He was unable, however, to gain popularity in the big leagues of the motion picture industry. Moss became a research assistant for E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, with whom he worked on and off for the next 30 years. Moss and animator William Hurtz formed their own independent film company, Artisan Productions, which specialized in short educational films, many of them biographies of important African Americans. Artisan’s films included The House on Cedar Hill and Gift of the Black Folk.
For the next two decades, Moss was primarily a maker of industrial films. He made his living working on projects with such titles as Teeth Are For Life, which won first prize at the Chicago International Film Festival; Healthy Teeth, Happy Smile, a winner at the Edinburgh Film Festival; and What About Tomorrow, which captured a Golden Eagle Award. He also made industrials for Ford Motor Company and other major corporations, and for a time returned to government filmmaking with a series of job training films for a federal program called The Jobs Corps.
While he was never able to penetrate the racial barriers that existed in mainstream Hollywood, Moss contributed to the development of a generation of black filmmakers through his work in education. In the 1960s, Moss coordinated the film program at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, one of the first black schools to offer such training. Through Fisk, Moss produced a series of documentaries that included Laurence Dunbar and Two Centuries of Black American Art. He also made films about Frederick Douglass, Denmark Vesey, and W.E.B. DuBois during this period. Another well-received Moss documentary was All the World’s a Stage, a film about the drama school at Julliard, which was headed by his old associate John Houseman.
From 1970 to 1994, Moss taught film at the University of California at Irvine. While teaching there, he authored several articles on black art, music, theater, and film for Freedomways and other journals. He remained a sharp observer of Hollywood issues, particularly those relating to race, and often complained about the lack of serious black programming on television. Moss died on August 10, 1997, at the age of 89. While the arts may never rid themselves of stereotypes entirely, the work of Carlton Moss has played a major role in bringing the problem of negative portrayal of African Americans on stage and screen to the attention of the viewing public.
In Person, by Lena Home as told to Helen Arstein and Carlton Moss, Greenberg, 1950.
“The Negro in American Films,” Freedomways, Spring 1963.
“The Great White Hope,” Freedomways, Spring 1969.
The Negro Soldier, 1943.
Team Work, 1944.
Frederick Douglass: The House on Cedar Hill, 1953.
George Washington Carver, 1959.
Black Genesis: The Art of Tribal Africa, 1970.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1973.
The Afro-American Artist, 1976.
Two Centuries of Black American Art, 1976.
The Gift of the Black Folk, 1977.
All the World’s a Stage, 1979.
Drawings from Life: Charles White, 1980.
Forever Free, 1983.
“Careless Love,” (half-hour series) WAEF, Baltimore, 1931.
Folks from Dixie, NBC, 1932-33.
Noah, NBC, 1932-33.
Sacrifice, produced by Harlem Players, 1931.
Prelude in Swing, WPA Federal Theater Project, 1939.
Salute to Negro Troops, Apollo Theatre, 1942.
DGA Magazine, September-October 1997.
Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1997.
New York Times, August 15, 1997.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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