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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; Encyclop√¶dia 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

Dr. Maya Angelou in Hollywood, California (Photo by Eric Neitzel/WireImage)

In 1993, my friend Frances E. Williams introduced me to Maya Angelou when Dr. Angelou was on a book tour. She was speaking at the Aquarius Book Store, the oldest African American bookstore in L.A. owned by Alfred and Bernice Ligon. She was there to promote her book, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for my Journey Now.   Whenever Dr. Angelou came to L.A., she made sure her book tours always included a stop at the Aquarius Bookstore not only because she was a friend of the Ligons, but also because it was one of the only black-owned bookstores in the community. Also she would spend time with Frances at her home near Exposition.

Frances and Maya Angelou’s friendship went back years. In 1965 Angelou lived in one of Frances’s duplex apartments on 5th and Exposition. Actress Beah Richards lived in the other. Frances lived in the rear house on the property. “We called it ‘the Compound,”said Frances in her biography*. She had met both Maya Angelou and Beah Richards years earlier.

One day, when I came up to work on her biography, Frances asked me to take her to the Aquarius bookstore to see her friend. I loaded her into my car and when we arrived at the Aquarius, lines were around the corner, the community always turned out to see Dr. Angelou. Spotting Frances, a community activist, whose relationship with Maya Angelou, the Ligons and the bookstore was well-known, security pushed others aside, helped her from my car and whisked her inside. I drove several blocks away to find a parking space; then I walked back. Knowing that I was with Frances, I was ushered in ahead of those waiting and seated beside my friend near the front of the stage. After Dr. Angelou’s talk, Frances introduced me to her and encouraged me to ask her if she’d write the introduction to Frances’s biography. Dr. Angelou graciously accepted my request.

Before the biography was finished, however, Frances died. I tried to contact Dr. Angelou in Winston Salem, N.C. And one day, her secretary called me to say Dr. Angelou could speak to me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take the call. I made several attempts, but something would always get in the way. During the years that followed, every time I’d hear about Maya Angelou coming to Southern California, I thought about going to see her, not to ask her to write the introduction to the book, it was already published; but just to make contact, to remind her that we’d met and possibly to get an interview with her to tell me more about her relationship with Frances. But alas, I never followed through. Now it is too late. As I listen to the tributes being paid to Dr. Angelou, I think about that missed opportunity.

I’d seen her at Los Angeles City College years earlier. She spoke on the connection between African boys living in Africa and African American boys in the U.S. It was a wonderful and insightful talk. Little did I know that I would later meet this awesome woman. She was a beautiful, gracious lady whose life touched many. Because of Frances, I felt I knew her personally. Her life and work stands as an inspiration to all.

*From Meet it, Greet it, and Defeat it! The Biography of Frances E. Williams, Actress/Activist, by Anna Christian.

Frances and Maya Angelou’s friendship went back years. In 1965 Angelou lived in one of Frances’s duplex apartments on 5th and Exposition. Actress Beah Richards lived in the other. Frances lived in the rear house on the property. “We called it ‘the Compound,”said Frances in her biography*. She had met both Maya Angelou and Beah Richards years earlier.

One day, when I came up to work on her biography, Frances asked me to take her to the Aquarius bookstore to see her friend. I loaded her into my car and when we arrived at the Aquarius, lines were around the corner, the community always turned out to see Dr. Angelou. Spotting Frances, a community activist, whose relationship with Maya Angelou, the Ligons and the bookstore was well-known, security pushed others aside, helped her from my car and whisked her inside. I drove several blocks away to find a parking space; then I walked back. Knowing that I was with Frances, I was ushered in ahead of those waiting and seated beside my friend near the front of the stage. After Dr. Angelou’s talk, Frances introduced me to her and encouraged me to ask her if she’d write the introduction to Frances’s biography. Dr. Angelou graciously accepted my request.

Before the biography was finished, however, Frances died. I tried to contact Dr. Angelou in Winston Salem, N.C. And one day, her secretary called me to say Dr. Angelou could speak to me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take the call. I made several attempts, but something would always get in the way. During the years that followed, every time I’d hear about Maya Angelou coming to Southern California, I thought about going to see her, not to ask her to write the introduction to the book, it was already published; but just to make contact, to remind her that we’d met and possibly to get an interview with her to tell me more about her relationship with Frances. But alas, I never followed through. Now it is too late. As I listen to the tributes being paid to Dr. Angelou, I think about that missed opportunity.

I’d seen her at Los Angeles City College years earlier. She spoke on the connection between African boys living in Africa and African American boys in the U.S. It was a wonderful and insightful talk. Little did I know that I would later meet this awesome woman. She was a beautiful, gracious lady whose life touched many. Because of Frances, I felt I knew her personally. Her life and work stands as an inspiration to all.

*From Meet it, Greet it, and Defeat it! The Biography of Frances E. Williams, Actress/Activist, by Anna Christian.