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Against the Grain: Black Film Pioneers: Part VII: Rex Ingram

Return to Against the Grain Archive
Added: 10/21/2013

NOTE: When available, the images in the article below link to a larger version of the image. Some of these images were supplied by the author, some come from the the Hershenson/Allen Archive, and some come from eMoviePoster.com's Auction History.

"Ingram's name will be forever linked with what many would consider his most famous role, as "De Lawd," in THE GREEN PASTURES. Although that sobriquet may today seen condescending to many, it should be viewed in the context of its time. This came about because another Hollywood notable with the very same name, director Rex (THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE) Ingram, was just a few years older than this actor, so to avoid confusion THIS Rex Ingram was rechristened Rex "De Lawd" Ingram.

THE GREEN PASTURES
, which was released first as a novel and then a Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by white writer Marc Connelly, ostensibly depicts the African-American version of several Biblical stories. The concept has been considered demeaning by many civil rights activists although Ingram's performance was singled out in a role with which he would always be identified. (He also played two other roles in the film, Adam and Hezdral.)

Despite humble beginnings, Ingram graduated from Northwestern Medical School in 1919, the university's first African-American Phi Beta Kappa. While in California to begin his medical career, (after serving on a windjammer), he was approached about appearing in the first Tarzan movie with Elmo Lincoln.

He continued to play small parts in silent films including DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, KING OF KINGS, SALOME, and THE BIG PARADE. His resonant voice and impressive demeanor won him stronger roles on both stage and screen beginning in the 1930s.



He followed with the role of Jim in MGM'S THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1939), and followed that with his most colorful role, the scene-stealing genie in Alexander Korda's THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940) with Sabu.

After playing Ronald Colman's servant/friend in George Stevens' THE TALK OF THE TOWN, he then enacted his most impressive role, Tambul, the Sudanese soldier in SAHARA, whose knowledge of the landscape allows a rag-tag group of Allied soldiers to stand off an armored German column.

It was very unusual during the Hollywood version of the war to see a black soldier fighting alongside whites, especially since Ingram's character outranks Bogart's. There is a particularly memorable scene between Ingram and Bruce Bennett in the well in which both men acknowledge how much they have to learn from each other each other.



Ingram became the first actor to portray both God and the Devil when he played Lucifer, Jr. in the 1943 version of CABIN IN THE SKY. Ingram gained further distinction by becoming one of the first African-American board members of the Screen Actors Guild.

However, after appearing in two Film Noirs, MOONRISE and DARK WATERS, and reprising his genie role in A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, the actor became embroiled in a personal scandal that caused him to serve time in jail. Although he would live for 20 more years, the roles he was offered were inferior to his earlier work. Bill Cosby reportedly helped him to get parts and, in fact, his last role was on THE COSBY SHOW. He died in 1969.

(Left: Ironically this inconsequential B film, HELL ON DEVIL'S ISLAND, is one of the few American one-sheet posters to prominently feature the actor.; Right: A foreign poster for A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS)



Ever the pioneer, Ingram became the first African-American actor to be a regular on a U.S. soap opera. His powerful and dignified presence graced many films."
-Gabe Taverney


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