"It has nothing to do with conspiracy theories and it's not really rocket science," Chuck D told Davey D about a year ago:
It is just the way that it is. If you got somebody that controls the information, therefore, they can manipulate and sway the people anyway they want them to. Whether they want to sell them a pair a pants or a shirt, or music, or a way of life and culture. The culture has been bought, sold and packaged and delivered. As a people, we aren't even at the packaging table.
Chuck D has made a career of putting his money where his mouth is. In probably the most famous instance, he went head-to-head with his own label back in 1998 when Def Jam insisted he take down the music he'd posted for free downloading at the Public Enemy site. With a lawsuit he couldn't afford hanging over his head, he had no choice but to relent, but he sure didn't relent quietly. He used the site to blast the record company, accusing it of "running scared from the technology that evens out the creative field and makes artists harder to pimp."
Since then, he's taken matters into his own hands, founding, with Lathan Hodge, a producer with a background at CBS and BET, Rapstation.com, a site where musicians can take their music directly to their listeners - and then speaking about it to the House Committee on Small Business: "I choose artistry over industry any day of the week," he began three years ago, explaining to the congressfolk how the majors had ripped him off. Conclusion: "I am doing better in the digital system selling 10 copies, even if 100 people or 1,000 or 1,000,000 people get my music for free."
If all this talk about music sounds like an odd way into a piece on a film festival, consider a couple of things: First, the big battle between some musicians and most listeners on the one side and some other musicians and the record companies on the other that came to a ferocious head about when Napster founder Shawn Fanning made the cover of Time has long since spilled over into the movie industry. In Digitize or Die (a clip can be viewed here), Chuck D lets on that filmmakers will be the next artists served by Rapstation.com.
Second, this act of taking back control over one's own work, and just as importantly, over one's own culture as well as one's own image within a broader cultural context has been the prime, determining factor in shaping the history of African-American cinema. A quick scan of the landmarks of that history, a brief connecting of the dots illustrates the point, and we begin where most histories of American cinema begin, with a racist film by a white filmmaker.
A Separate Cinema
We can argue endlessly about whether DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation ought to be praised for its groundbreaking achievements in the evolution of a new cinematic language or condemned for its blatant racism (and, as I've argued before, I say, both, simultaneously), but for everything else it accomplished, it also so alarmed a handful of separate groups of black businessmen that they sprang to action to create films and film production companies to counter the message of what was then, in 1915, America's box office smash.
There had, of course, been films made by both black and white filmmakers before Birth. In fact, five years before, William Foster, an African-American press agent in Chicago, made The Pullman Porter, the first film with a black cast. Foster created the Foster Photoplay Company and went on making shorts with actual African-Americans in them rather than whites in blackface, as was sickeningly common in those days. In Celluloid Mavericks, Greg Merritt celebrates the pioneer: "Foster forged a path towards self-empowerment. In just a few years, race pictures would grow into an important independent industry, though it would be more than half a century before the first African-American directed a studio feature."
What Griffith unwittingly inspired, though, was a wave of black people taking the means of film production and distribution into their own hands. Emmet J. Scott, formerly Booker T. Washington's secretary, rounded up the finances to make the film that eventually became the three-hour-plus The Birth of a Race. In New Jersey, the founding of the Frederick Douglass Film Company can be directly attributed to Griffith's Birth of a Nation and actor Noble B. Johnson and his brother, George, launched the Lincoln Motion Picture Company "to picture the Negro as he is in his every day, a human being with human inclination, and one of talent and intellect."
With the 20s came the Harlem Renaissance, a surge in the popularity of jazz and, despite (or, maybe, because of) the fact that movie theaters were still segregated, hundreds of new cinemas for African-Americans - around 700 by 1928 - and the earliest examples of black cinema currently available on DVD. AKrizman, in his extraordinarily helpful review of the "African American Cinema I and II" volume of the Origins of Film Collection, argues that Frank Peregini's Scar of Shame is the best film of the bunch, but also notes of Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates that it "will always have a place in movie history for being the earliest surviving feature directed by a black man. Unfortunately, it has nothing else going for it. Its production values and acting are amateur even by 1920 standards."
And right there is the dilemma inherent in the work of Oscar Micheaux. This grandson of slaves was a one-man movie assembly line, writing the novels his films would be based on and peddling these self-produced, self-directed works from town to town, theater to theater. And yet, by all accounts, they were awful. As J. Hoberman wrote in Film Comment in 1980 ("Bad Movies"), "Edward Wood may be the Worst, but Oscar Micheaux is the Baddest - with all that that implies."
The Depression pretty much did in the "race movies" as an industry for nearly a decade, but the studios began to take an interest in the market they'd been neglecting. Blacks were cast in stereotypical roles in musicals like Fox's Hearts in Dixie and MGM's Hallelujah, but there was one actor who shook things up with his second movie role (his first being in a forgettable Micheaux film): Paul Robeson. Emperor Jones (1933) in particular, about a man who escapes a chain gang to a Caribbean island he eventually takes over, would be held up for decades as a model screen portrayal of an African-American who, even if only for a while, takes control of his own destiny.
But for the most part, throughout the 30s and well into the 40s, blacks were confined to demeaning clichés all but defined by Hattie McDaniel's "Mammy" in Gone With the Wind. The number of movie theaters for black audiences was back up to just over 600 again by 1946, but as Merritt writes:
By the late forties, most independent race pictures (virtually all of which were produced, directed and distributed by whites) fit into one of two categories: (1) broad, lightweight comedies wherein performers like Mantan Moreland and Stepin Fetchit stand on a sparse set and crack tired jokes, and (2) musical revues where the slimmest of plots are mere excuses for lively musical numbers from legends like Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
Still, by the mid-50s, independent black cinema was dead, killed off by rising production costs, television, and most of all, as Merrit points out, integration. Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, and soon enough, Sidney Poitier would become household names, but they were starring in studio productions. Time, then, to consider the testy relationship between African-Americans and Hollywood.