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There's the Rub Paperback – May 22, 2013
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This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
Joseph M. Humbert's fresh and absorbing new historical novel, "There's the Rub," explores the distinctions between white and black filmmaking of the time, side-by-side with the larger conflicts between white and black life in America. He handles his topic with a light and engaging touch, but always with an underlying sense of historical gravitas. This is the story that Joseph Humbert tells in "There's the Rub," a thoughtful, moving, and stellar first novel.
By Douglas Hergert, Rossmoor News
"There's the Rub" is an interesting story about life in the entertainment industry when motion pictures were new and racism was pervasive. Through the story of the Johnson family, author Joseph M. Humbert aptly depicts a time that was both exciting and hopeful, but also relentlessly unjust. Readers will appreciate the skillful way the author has blended his fictional characters into a backdrop of historical fact, introducing a cast of real-life figures.
By Catherine Thureson, ForeWord Clarion Reviews
An intriguing novel about the birth of the motion picture industry, as seen through the eyes of a young man striving to strike it big. The novel's historical setting comes to life with detailed references to 1910s Hollywood. Although the novel sometimes moves a bit too quickly to do justice to the intensity of its plot, its rich detail and the mystery of Jimmy's mother's disappearance, make for an engrossing read.
From the Author
I have a big interest in history, especially, American history. I am enjoying the attention the Civil War is getting now, being the 150th anniversary. This neatly dovetails with the beginning of the novel.
I also love the movies. While in college, friends and I made several 8 mm student films. This sparked an interest in writing for the movies. Over the years, I have written or co-written several screenplays as well as a one-man play on J Robert Oppenheimer.
This novel combined these two passions. When I first heard of black filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux (the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame here in Oakland where I live presented the Oscar Micheaux Awards), I imagined what a confrontation of him with D. W. Griffith on the set of "Intolerance" might be like. But research showed that Micheaux made his first movie three years after Griffith's failed masterpiece. And furthermore, Micheaux worked out of Chicago, not Hollywood. Then I discovered that black actor Noble Johnson started the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in the same year that Griffith was making "Intolerance."
This led to the discovery of Negro actress, Madame Sul-te-wan, an absolutely fascinating character who worked for Griffith in "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance." Flying in the face of Griffith's reputation as an unrepentant racist, what could explain what appears to have been true affection - even, as some reported, love - between he and Madame? Madame once remarked that if Griffith and her father were drowning in a lake, she'd step on her father to save Griffith.
Anyway, I created a character, Jimmy Johnson, with the same firebrand passion as Micheaux who would interact with Noble, Madame, and Griffith. I originally wrote this story as a screenplay but was convinced by a novelist friend of mine to expand it into a novel.
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movie making, producer D.W. Griffith released
his three-hour film Birth of a Nation. It was an instant
hit, with eventual box office receipts of $50 million. But
the movie also met with intense criticism for its prejudiced
depictions of racial relations in the United States, and its
affirmative views of slavery and the Ku Klux Klan. In major
American cities, rioting often followed showings. Other cities
banned the film.
In response to criticism, Griffith set about to create a
new film, Intolerance, which he released in 1916. The movie
included four historical narratives of prejudice, ranging
chronologically from ancient Babylon to modern times. Its
elaborate Hollywood sets and enormous cast of extras were
legendary. With a run-time of well over three hours, this
new film was a critical success but a commercial failure.
At about the same time, an African-American actor
named Noble Johnson was forming a mostly-black produc97
tion group in Los Angeles, called the Lincoln Motion Picture
Company. Johnson's goal was to produce uplifting family
movies about black life in America. His 1916 picture The
Realization of a Negro's Ambition, now lost to history, had an
all-black cast. His work was largely ignored by mainstream
Hollywood, and Johnson soon would return to his acting
Joseph M. Humbert's fresh and absorbing new historical
novel, There's the Rub, takes place in the context of
these early Hollywood productions. His story explores the
distinctions between white and black filmmaking of the
time, side-by-side with the larger conflicts between white
and black life in America. He handles his topic with a light
and engaging touch, but always with an underlying sense of
As the novel unfolds, Humbert's main character,
26-year-old Jimmy Johnson - the grandson of slaves - has
two obsessions: first, to resolve the mystery of his missing
mother, whom he last saw two decades before when he was
five years old; and second, to scrap his way into the film
business and create his own movies to counter the outrageous
premises of D.W. Griffith's recently released Birth of
a Nation. Jimmy is smart, resourceful, independent, funny
- and always a quick study; he is the charismatic center of
After introducing us to Jimmy, Humbert takes us back
in time to Jimmy's paternal grandparents, James and Lethe,
newly emancipated from slavery, and newly blessed with a
son, Reed. Throughout Humbert's saga of the Johnson family
- from post-Civil War to the second decade of the 20th
century - a historically recurring image emerges: African-
Americans struggling to find their best possible lives, eked
out from the limited options of a hostile environment.
James and Lethe quickly experience the reality of
post-Civil War race relations. When a race riot erupts in
their Memphis neighborhood, they have to flee their home
and hide with their baby. On returning home after the riot
has been quelled, they find their possessions looted.
James earns a living as a barber. As their son Reed grows
into young manhood, he demonstrates a talent for dance.
James and Lethe reluctantly give him their blessing when
Reed decides to follow his new friend Edgar Perry into the
1880s vaudeville circuit. Together Edgar and Reed develop a
successful two-man act - "Perry and Johnson and their Feets
of Magic" - which they take to faraway places like Chicago,
New York, and Washington, D.C.
A young woman enters their lives, Miriam, the youngest
member of a family vaudeville trio. Both men fall in love
with her, but Reed wins her heart. Reed and Miriam marry
and quickly produce two sons, Jimmy and Russell. The boys
show an early talent for dance, and Reed successfully forms
a new vaudeville act - The Family Johnson. They are constantly
on the road.
Miriam becomes dissatisfied with this itinerant life for
her two small boys. Mysterious and sinister circumstances
result in her departure from the family. Reed raises his two
boys in the vaudeville business for over a decade. But young
Jimmy has different ambitions. When he reaches early manhood,
Jimmy rebels and sets off alone to new adventures.
The Johnson family saga makes up the first fifth the
novel. Subsequent chapters tell Jimmy Johnson's breathtaking
story as he makes his way west, eventually to California,
in search for a life of his own. In Hollywood, he crosses paths
with historical luminaries in the movie business, including
black producer Nobel Johnson, international celebrity D.W.
Griffith, and an audacious African American actress named
Will Jimmy succeed in cinema? Will he resolve his
recurring nightmare about the disappearance of his mother?
Will he etch out a life of achievement and dignity in an
early-20th-century environment of prejudice, chauvinism,
and bigotry? This is the story that Joseph Humbert tells in
There's the Rub, a thoughtful, moving, and stellar first novel.