Carlton Moss, Film maker

CARLTON MOSS (Feb. 1909-August, 1997)

One of the persons I contacted after Frances died was Carlton Moss. She mentioned him during our discussion about the film Salt of the Earth.  She described him as a brilliant, well-respected black writer and film maker who created his own documentaries for which he was given a budget.  He was asked to work on the Salt of the Earth project but refused. According to Frances, “Carlton knew that he worked best alone…so rather than dissipate his energy needlessly bickering, he had the wisdom to know to what he should give his priorities.”

I called Mr. Moss and he agreed to an interview to talk about his relationship with Frances.  We met at the iHop restaurant on Sunset Blvd. in West L.A. I arrived a few minutes early having no idea who he was nor how to identify him.  As I was the only AA among the patrons, when he walked in, I spotted him immediately.  A slight man in his 80’s, he saw me, came over and sat down. He wore a dark blue shirt and pants, non-descript, a black beret and sunglasses. He greeted me warmly. We talked for a while as he contrasted his approach to dealing with Hollywood to Frances who was a fighter. Just before the interview ended, he suddenly realized he was wearing sunglasses. Smiling, he apologized, and though I offered to pay for our meal, he refused and picked up the check. I watched him walk out to his car, wishing I’d gotten to know this gentle, soft spoken man better.  He died some time after our talk.   

Carlton Moss was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1909 and died in 1997 at the age of 88.  Along with being a film maker, he was a cultural scholar and social critic.  He grew up in North Carolina and graduated from Morgan State College in Baltimore with a B.A. degree.  While there, he recruited actors from other Black colleges to form an acting troupe called “Towards a Black Theater.”  He later moved to Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance becoming involved in the creative scene.  He worked with the prestigious Lafayette Theater as chief assistant director to John Houseman. He wrote three radio series for NBC and became a fixture at the Federal Theater of the Work Projects.  

Moss spent most of his career turning out obscure industrial movies, training films, and documentaries to be used in school such as “Happy Teeth, Happy Smile.” He made industrial films to survive which gave him credentials. Though he was excluded from Hollywood, he worked constantly on his own. His films focused on Black achievement.  They had a powerful influence on Black movie roles.  One documentary, “The Negro Soldier” (1943) attempted to counteracted the negative stereotypes created by D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.” 

Recently I watched “The Negro Soldier” for the first time on Turner Classic Movies in honor of Veterans’ Day. In his introduction, Ben Mankiewicz described the documentary as the military’s response to rampant racism in the Armed Services. The War Department decided to make a film depicting the Negro Soldier and his/her contributions and sacrifices to the country from the Revolutionary war to the 1940’s. Carlton Moss was hired to write the script. His goal was to depict the positive experiences of Blacks in the military rather than the negative stereotypes prevalent in the society. 

When he was hired in 1949 to help Elia Kazan on the movie Pinky, he quit as he felt it was demeaning to Blacks. He was a good friend of Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter, novelist who wrote many award-winning scripts including Spartacus and Roman Holiday.

Away from Hollywood, Moss taught as a guest lecturer at Fisk University in Nashville.  From 1970-1994, he was a professor at U.C. Irvine teaching film. He was a sharp critic of Black exploitation films.  He recognized the trend towards desegregation doomed the once flourishing Black film industry.  Moss is remembered as having made an important contribution to African American film making. He died on Aug. 15,1997 at age 88 in Los Angeles.

Filmography

  • The Negro Soldier (1943)
    Teamwork
     (1944)
  • Frederick Douglass: The House on Cedar Hill (1953)
  • George Washington Carver (1959)
  • Black Genesis: The Art of Tribal Africa (1970)
  • Portraits in Black: Paul Lawrence Dunbar: America’s First Black Poet (1972)
  • The Afro-American Artist (1976)
  • Portraits in Black: Two Centuries of Black American Art (1976)
  • Portraits in Black: The Gift of the Black Folk (1978)
  • All the World’s A Stage (1979)
  • Drawings from Life: Charles White (1980)
  • Forever Free (1983)

 Carlton Moss.  IMDb; Encyclopædia Britannica’s Guide to Black History ; Thomas Jr., Robert McG  (August 15, 1997). “Carlton Moss, 88, Who Filmed The Black Experience, Dies”. The New York TimesWong, Herman. “Black Film Maker Still Battling Stereotypes.”  Los Angeles Times, May 1986

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