Black Cinema

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by David Hudson

Note: This is a revised and revamped version of "SFBFF: Experience and Empowerment."

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Beginnings: 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 flourishing of African-American literature and the arts, as well as 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. It's from this period that we can find the earliest examples of black cinema currently available on DVD. AKrizman, in his extraordinarily helpful review of the "African American Cinema" 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 many would agree with AKrizman. For J. Hoberman, the singularity of Micheaux's work is a double-edged sword, and in Film Comment ("Bad Movies," 1980), he wrote that "Edward Wood may be the Worst, but Oscar Micheaux is the Baddest - with all that that implies." Micheaux does have his defenders. Armond White, writing in Africana.com, reminds us that we have to keep in mind the social context of his films:

Such films as Body and Soul, Birthright and Within Our Gates were made with the audience's political needs - and its emotional appetite - foremost in Micheaux's consciousness.... Although Micheaux was from the Midwest, he pursued the interests of Southern blacks. His movies were informed by the social perspectives that developed in the black American south and then spread northward during the Great Migration.

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 major movie role (his first, as it happens, was in Micheaux's Body and Soul): 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 (1939). 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.

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