Laughing Gas. 1907. USA. Directed by Edwin S. Porter. With Bertha Regustus. 16mm. Silent. 9 min.
An extraordinarily unfettered, rollicking portrayal of a domestic servant’s infectious, uncontrollable laughter during a nitrous oxide–infused trip to the dentist.
Gone Are the Days! 1963. USA. Directed by Nicholas Webster. Screenplay by Ossie Davis. With Ruby Dee, Davis, Beah Richards, Hilda Haynes, Godfrey Cambridge, Alan Alda. 16mm. 99 min.
“Accept in full the sweetness of your blackness” is one of many subversive lines spoken in this adaptation of Ossie Davis’s play Purlie Victorious, a spry, edgy satire set on a plantation in the segregated South. Reverend Purlie (Davis) enlists the impressionable Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Ruby Dee) to help him win back a church-turned-bar from a Confederate landowner who, through insurmountable debts, keeps inhabitants under his thumb. Dee’s comedic gifts infuse her knowing portrayal of Lutiebelle, a wide-eyed maid who becomes increasingly resistant to the inequity surrounding her. Davis and Dee’s political efforts in this film initially went underappreciated; though it was released in the same year as the March on Washington (which the couple emceed), it received mixed reviews and was a box office flop. But its clever brazenness was ahead of its time, anticipating the irreverent critiques of racism found in the work of directors like Spike Lee, who cast Dee and Davis—lifelong partners in marriage, art, and activism—in the integral roles of Mother Sister and Da Mayor in his 1989 classic Do the Right Thing. That film’s urgent call to consciousness is similarly felt in the civil rights–era Gone Are the Days!, especially when Purlie invites his audience to “have faith in the futureness of our cause.”