Sunday, July 16, 2017

Son of Ingagi (United States, 1940)

Son of Ingagi is one of approximately five hundred “Race” films made in the United States between 1915 and 1950. For those who don’t know, these were films with all African American casts that were made for primarily African American audiences. They were typically made outside the Hollywood studio system by small independent production companies—in the case of Son of Ingagi, by Alfred N. Sack’s Sacks Amusement Enterprises.

As the products of a segregated America, the Race Films, quite ironically, present us with a vision of America that can be seen nowhere else in the commercial cinema of the time. This is an America where blacks are doctors, lawyers, police detectives, scientists and a wide array of other urban professions. There is not a white face in sight, nor is any white presence even implied, and so the black actors are free from having to react to the oh-so-important doings of Caucasians and can instead relate to each other as equal inhabitants of an all-black milieu.

Of course, the presence of so many African American faces in front of the camera didn’t guaranty the presence of any behind it. Like most Race Films, Son of Ingagi was directed by a white man. Richard C. Khan directed a number of all-black pictures over the course of his 27+ year career, with a predilection for Westerns (Two Gun Man From Harlem, Harlem Rides the Range) and also a few straight-up exploitation films, like the lesbian expose The Third Sex, aka Children of Loneliness (“Every normal person should see this, an amazing motion picture!”) The writer of the film, however, was a black man, actor Spencer Williams, who wrote himself a part in the film as Detective Nelson. Though it has to be said that Williams’ portrayal of the detective draws somewhat on the jittery, bug-eyed shtick of the then-popular black comic actor Mantan Moreland.

Son of Ingagi has earned its place in the cult cinema canon by being one of the only—and, by some accounts, the only—race film in the horror/sci-fi genre. Its title might lead you to think that it is a sequel, but that title is only meant to forge a vague association with Ingagi, a popular exploitation film from 1930. Ingagi sounds as if it was a forerunner of the Mondo genre; a fake documentary that used its putative jungle setting as an excuse for lots of footage of topless native women (this at a time when National Geographic was the closest thing to pornography that a randy young lad could get his hand on.)

What Son of Ingagi and Ingagi do have in common is that both prominently feature an ape man as their central boogey man. In Son of Ingagi , that ape man is N’Gina (Zack Williams), a creature brought back from Africa by Dr. Helen Jackson (Laura Bowman), an elderly scientist bent on creating a wonder drug that will be “the greatest discovery in medicine since Louis Pasteur!” Jackson has trained N’Gina to respond to a Chinese gong, and uses him to get rid of her conniving brother when he threatens to report her hidden fortune to the feds. Unfortunately, when N’Gina accidentally drinks her potion, he becomes violent and kills her.

Enter Bob and Eleanor Lindsay (Alfred Grant and Daisy Buford), a newlywed couple who, despite Bob’s position as a foundry worker, are presented as the portrait of middle class rectitude and marital bliss. We meet them at an impromptu wedding reception where they are serenaded by the vocal group The Toppers, who also appear in the same years’ Mystery in Swing. Like the rest of their town’s residents, Bob and Eleanor simply regard Dr. Jackson as a cranky old hermit. That is, until an emotional Dr. Jackson reveals to them that she had a relationship with Eleanor’s father when they were both missionaries in Africa. If you are blind to the veiled implications of all this revelation , all will become clear when, upon Jackson’s death, Eleanor finds herself the surprised heir to her considerable fortune, as well as her creepy old house avec basement-dwelling ape man.

Once Bob and Eleanor move in, the rest of Son of Ingagi plays out like a classic “old dark house” tale, with various shady individuals—including Bob and Eleanor’s crooked lawyer, Bradshaw (Earle Morris)—trying to get their hands on the hidden treasure while N’Gina slips in and out of the house by way of a series of secret passages. Throughout, Zack Williams’ mournful expressions and stooped demeanor tell us clearly that we are meant to regard N’Gina with a degree of pathos, like Karloff’s Frankenstein. And when N’Gina abducts Eleanor and spirits her away to his basement cell, his tragic arc is nearly complete. As you’d expect from any classic monster movie, there will be fire and lots of screaming, as well as a chance for young Bob to emerge as the square jawed hero of the story, rising from the ashes with the damsel in distress draped across his arms.

What is immediately apparent about Son of Ingagi is that it was made on an almost impossibly low budget. Its flimsy looking, miniscule sets call attention to the stiff, theatrical manner of its staging and make some of its action scenes awkward. In addition, its monster make-up has been the target of derision by some, though I think it benefits the film by making so much of the actor’s face visible. I’d also venture that none of the actors here have anything to be ashamed of (especially Bowman and Williams) although their performances do conform to the highly stylized manner of acting that was the standard of the day.

These problems aside, it’s impossible to dismiss the impact of seeing a film like Son of Ingagi for the first time. If there was a racial version of the Bechdel Test, this film would pass it with flying, um, colors. Unlike the blaxploitation films of the 70s, which would usually include at least one crooked white cop or venal white slumlord, Son of Ingagi presents an enclosed world of blackness, where all forces, be they good, evil, comedic, or indifferent, wear an African American face. Admittedly, I may be idealizing it a bit, but I doubt that I’m the only one who feels that all of us, regardless of race, could benefit from seeing a few less white faces on our TV and movie screens these days.


neither-neither said...

Wow, this is the first I've ever heard of the race films of that era. I will definitely have to check them out!

Mr. Cavin said...

Hear, hear. I can't wait to track this down. I just watched Eleven P.M. a few days ago, and recommend it heartily.

vito said...

This film is currently streaming for free on Amazon Prime Video.