Gang Smashers (1938)
Gang Smashers was produced by Million Dollar Productions, a white independent production company founded in 1937 by Harry M. Popkin (1906–1991) and his brother Leo Popkin (1914–), who also directed the film. It was known for producing stylish black B films, modeled on the films starring James Cagney (1899–1986) and Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957), which were popular in the 1930s. Million Dollar Productions stopped producing black films of its own in 1939.
The film starred the sensuous Nina Mae McKinney (1912–1967). Her performance as a sexy and seductive black woman in her debut film, Hallelujah (1929), transformed America's perception of black actresses, traditionally cast as servants. Although McKinney performances were well received, white audiences were not ready to accept all-black casts. As a result, McKinney left for Europe where she performed as a cabaret dancer and was commonly referred to as the “Black Garbo.” When she returned to the U.S. she starred in all black productions, such as Gang Smashers, which, according to Richard Corliss of Time Magazine, “gave African-American audiences a chance to see themselves, on the big screen, in roles other than predators, cartoons, buffoons, and domestic servants."
Gang Smashers was written by Ralph Cooper (1910–1992). Cooper joined Million Dollar Productions in 1937, but quit two years later, because he was tired of playing gangster roles. Cooper wrote, produced and starred in a number of films for the production company, which defied the black stereotypes common to previous films. Cooper produced one of the first black television shows, “Harlem Nights,” and was the first Emcee and producer for Amateur Night at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.