Let My People Live. [Original 16mm film for 1938 WPA Tuskegee Institute Movie]
““The widespread outbreak of TB-related illness and death in overcrowded Black urban neighborhoods was a major concern…” (MOMA)
Original 16mm public health film starring an all-Black cast and directed at young African American audiences to encourage tuberculosis testing and treatment. In this drama, a mother in an African-American family dies after relying on superstitious folk remedies to treat her TB. In comparison, her children, Mary and George, trust modern science and medicine (listen to the doctor’s advice, get x-rays, etc.) and overcome the disease. At film’s end, convalescing in a sanatorium, Mary listens to a radio broadcast with pride as her brother is graduated by the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Let My People Live (1938) was shot on location at Tuskegee and featured music by the Institute’s Choir. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), the National Urban League, the Tuskegee Institute and the Veterans Administration sponsored the movie which was viewed at the 1939–1940 World’s Fair in New York.
This example of the original 16mm film includes expertly-transferred digital assets in various file formats, including a 1080p .mp4 file. Ours is superior to those digitized by the National Archives Catalog (NARA) and the National Library of Medicine (NLM).
The greatest improvement is in sound quality. (The NARA and NLM soundtracks are muddy and have too much bass.) The dialogue sounds better.
The sound quality of the spirituals sung by the Tuskegee Institute Choir is vastly better. Their singing (e.g., “I Know the Lord Has Laid His Hands on Me”) is a vital component to the film’s plot: the movie assures African American audiences that their organized religion (and by extension their music) is a “vital mainstay in this particular community, but warns of the dangers of the previous generation’s superstitions and its fear of medicine.” (NARA) The Choir’s music bookends the film’s opening and closing sequences. And the title of the film, Let My People Live, is itself a nod to “Let my people go” from the spiritual “Go Down, Moses.” (David Serlin)
The color tone of our example is more faithful to the original film than the NARA and NLM examples. In comparison, our film is cleaner and clearer; it has not been artificially-softened throughout. For example, there are greater details of the actors’ facial expressions.
Other improvements in film quality are not dramatic, but they may interest the film historian or researcher. At 5:20, a portrait of Booker T. Washington is not explicitly obvious, but it is discernible. At 8:56 a Coca-Cola fountain sign is visible. In the NARA and NLM examples these details are indiscernible.
Director Edgar Ulmer would later gain prominence for his 1945 film noir, Detour. Actor Rex Ingram, who played the main role of Dr. Jordan was a Northwestern University medical school graduate. Other members of the cast were Peggy Howard, Merritt Smith, Erostine Coles, Robert Anderson, Christine Johnson and William L. Dawson.
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Description: Let My People Live. [Original 16mm film for 1938 WPA Tuskegee Institute Movie]
New York: National Tuberculosis Association, . Approximately 13 minutes. Original 16mm film on single reel with digital assets in numerous file formats on USB stick and CD.
MOMA: “The widespread outbreak of TB-related illness and death in overcrowded Black urban neighborhoods was a major concern, and Jacob Lawrence depicted the grim fate of one victim in Panel 55 of his Migration Series.” Ref. Serlin, Imagining Illness. Public Health and Visual Culture (Univ, of Minnesota, 2010).