BLACK AMERICAN CINEMA:
1915 - 1982 by
Lenn Keller

The filmmaking industry in America has produced little of what could be called realistic and or socially progressive narrative film -- cinema which combines art, technique, and social responsibility. From film’s inception in the late 1890s to the present, only a few well known Hollywood directors such as Stanley Kramer, John Huston, Elia Kazan, along with a few others have produced what could be considered socially progressive films. Hollywood is instead notorious for slickly produced movies of various genres that have mostly served to compromise historical fact and inculcate racist, classist, sexist and homophobic attitudes by the creation and perpetuation of degrading stereotypes.

With the exception of films made by independent black filmmakers beginning in 1915 through the present, there exist few examples of realistic or honest portrayals of the black experience in American cinema. Statistics show that through the years since it’s inception, the Hollywood film industry has virtually excluded blacks from all aspects of the filmmaking process. Despite this barrier, American cinema has seen the development of what could be called a black film aesthetic – films made from the perspective of African Americans. It is a contribution which is due almost entirely to the black independent filmmaker. Due to an apparent inherent racism, the studio system has with few exceptions proved itself incapable of transcending cliches and stereotypes about black Americans and other marginalized groups including Native Americans, the disabled, women, lesbians and gays, and other people of color.

From the earliest days of film as popular entertainment in the early 1900s, through the late 1960s (and later in some regions of the country), cinemas and theaters in most parts of the United States were racially segregated. The practice of segregation and institutional racism, though based in political and economic justifications, has also traditionally been based in the belief of white racial superiority, and the need to prevent miscegenation. The deleterious ramifications of institutional racism has been experienced directly or indirectly by all Americans, and the resulting psychological harm to all Americans (in particular blacks and other people of color) cannot be overlooked or denied. Charles Silberman in his classic book from the sixties, Crisis In Black and White, had this to say about the effects that racism and segregation have had on the psyche of American blacks. "Negroes are taught to despise themselves almost from the first moments of consciousness, even without any direct experience with discrimination, they learn in earliest childhood of the stigma attached to color in the United States." 1 So, it is significant to note in this regard that American cinematic tradition has played a key role both in the creation and perpetuation of racial stereotypes on the screen.

Black stereotypes were formally introduced into the entertainment world around 1820 when a white actor, Thomas Rice invented the comic negro type, Jim Crow, who became the classic minstrel southern negro caricature, and Zip Coon, Jim Crow's northern city counterpart. In 1844, the first staged white minstrel show opened in New York, and meeting with wide acceptance, minstrelsy became for many years a lucrative and popular form of entertainment.

In particular, during the 1850's, as the issue of black slave freedom was reaching a peak, minstrelsy served effectively to assuage white consciences by presenting romantic images of happy, contented black slaves. Robert Toll writes in his book Blacking Up about this era of the minstrels. "In drawing these images, white Americans rejected the humanizing content of folklore and the complexity of human diversity for the comforting facade of romanticized, folksy caricatures. They thrust aside wily black tricksters and anti-slavery protesters for loyal, grinning darkies who loved their white folks and were contented and indeed fulfilled by working all day and singing and dancing all night." 2 The stereotypes created during the minstrel era were easily transferred from stage to screen in Los Angeles during the early days of filmmaking, and were called "peep shows."

Many of these early silent comedy films supposedly depicted how blacks thought and lived. The popular favorites of the time had titles like, How Rastus Got His Turkey, Rastus Dreams of Zululand, Coon-Town Suffragettes, and For Mama's Sake, the story of a devoted slave who wishes to be sold to help pay the gambling debts of his master.3 Many other films of this type were made during American cinema's early development, and blacks still reeling psychologically and economically from the ravages of slavery were in no position no counteract those images.

1903 was another landmark day for stereotypical images in American cinema. Mechanic turned movie director, Edwin S. Porter, ushered in the now well renowned black character, Uncle Tom with the film, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Porter's Tom became the first black character in American cinema, and paradoxically was played by a white actor in blackface, a tradition carried over from the minstrel days. Another pioneer in the exploitation and creation of these celluloid stereotypes was Thomas Alva Edison, the alleged inventor of the light bulb. Edison, during experiments with the new "motion picture" camera, photographed blacks as "interesting side effects." Later in 1904 he presented a film entitled, Ten Pickaninnies, and in 1905 the Wooing and Wedding of a Coon, introducing yet another black screen caricature, the coon, which evolved into one of the most blatantly degrading stereotypes.4 The next ten years saw the introduction of several more black caricatures and although black writers of the time protested, they had no power to stop the trend.

In 1915, a year heralded as one of the most important in motion picture history, D.W. Griffith's film, The Birth of A Nation, premiered in Los Angeles, becoming one of the most controversial films in cinematic history. It was widely acclaimed in the south and became one of the highest grossing pictures of all times. Still acclaimed as a classical masterpiece of cinematic technique, it was the longest film made up to that time, running almost three hours. Griffith was innovative in his use of classical editing technique -- cutting to continuity, parallel editing and many varied camera shots and angles.

According to film critic, Bosley Crowther, Sergei Eisenstein, the famed Soviet film director and revolutionary propagandist, "studied this film as an incomparable model of cinema technique while preparing for his classic Potemkin. He found in Griffith's style the origins of the basic method of cinema cutting or editing to which he gave the name, "montage." And he later wrote that, for Eisenstein and others of the young Soviet directors of the 1920s, Griffith's film was a revelation.5

The year following The Birth of A Nation, blacks began to form film production companies of their own and the next twenty years would prove to be the most significant in the history and development of a black asesthetic in American cinema.

The first two black film production companies were started by Emmet J. Scott in 1915 and two brothers, George and Noble Johnson in 1916. Scott’s first venture, a film entitled, Lincoln’s Dream, was financed by matching funds from the NAACP and Universal Pictures. Thomas Cripps, in his book Slow Fade to Black, writes, "…Carl Laemmle of Universal, the prospective, "angel," backed off. When the NAACP was paralyzed by a resulting internal debate, Scott was forced to take up negotiations with a small and greedy Chicago firm. The film resulting from this merger was entitled, Birth of A Race, (1919) and suffered for many reasons, among them writes Cripps, "…the absence of a strong black voice in defense of a film concept, scattered and often deferred shooting schedules and locations ranging from Chicago to Tampa, and a theme and plot that shifted its emphasis from a biblical to a pacifist idea, conditioned by the coming of World War I." 6 After an impressive opening night in Chicago and a few additional bookings, the film dropped from sight. Unable to cultivate more investors, Scott gave up filmmaking. Around this same time, George and Noble Johnson decided to form a production company with the purpose of making films from a black point of view. They enlisted the services of an unemployed white cameraman, Harry Gant and in 1916, backed by black investors from Los Angeles, formed the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Omaha, Nebraska. The films resulting from this enterprise were to become the first in the development of both a black film genre as well as a black film aesthetic. Between 1916 and 1922, the company averaged one film per year, producing, directing and distributing their films to all black audiences. These feature films became known as "race movies." Characteristic of the new and growing urban middle class of the 1920’s, these films embraced the Horatio Algier success myth, which was reflected in their stories of heroes from the black middle-class, to provide inspiration to blacks hoping to obtain the ever illusive American dream. The theme of obtaining success, despite the obstacles imposed by racial prejudice was predominant in their films, The Realization of A Negro’s Ambition, (1917), The Trooper of Troop K, (1920) and By Right of Birth, (1921). The middle 1920’s saw the arrival of other black companies such as the Ebony Film Company, The Douglas Films Company of Jersey City, Robert Levy’s Reol Company, and others, but many of these were white owned or financed, with black producers, directors and distributing networks.

One independent black filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux, was one of the few who remained free of white influence. During a time when most of the "race movies" were depicting blacks as middle-class paragons of virtue and uprightness, Micheaux dared to depict the sometimes cruel ironies of black experience and speak directly to black political concerns of a highly controversial nature. Madubuko Diakite, author of Film, Culture and the Black Filmmaker, writes of Micheaux’s singularity. "His film, Within Our Gates (1920) was the first film by a black filmmaker to deal with the lynching of a black man in the southern part of the United States. …it was censored in several cities in the south.

Another Micheaux film, The Gunsaulus Mystery (1921) was an eight reel story of a murder case in which a black building attendant is falsely accused of murdering a white girl. The actual murderer, a white man is finally brought to justice and the black man freed."7 Throughout his prolific career spanning the years 1918 – 1948, Micheaux produced some forty-five films, which dealt with a wide range of social and political themes that other black filmmakers of the time would not approach. Micheaux’s film technique was often criticized and compared to standards being set in Hollywood studios and it was totally overlooked by those critics that what he was developing was a different kind of aesthetic, one that could encompass his perception as a black filmmaker of the black American experience.

By the late 1920’s, there had definitely evolved what could be called a black film genre –- the development of codes through the repetition of imagery that became readily identifiable with the black experience and depicted through techniques and devices which could convey for example, a segregated point of view and the usage of familiar symbols and myths directly related to black identity. But Micheaux along with another independent black filmmaker, Spencer Williams and other producers of "race movies" were engaged in fierce competition with the movies Hollywood was beginning to make that featured black actors or that dealt with black themes. Hollywood had begun to be interested in the new commercial potential of the black film-going market and by 1925, Hollywood maintained a corps of regular black actors, which include names like Steppin’ Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel. Compared with Hollywood’s studios, the small black companies were financially handicapped, as well as ill-equipped and poorly. Thomas Cripps had this to say about the predicament of the independent black filmmakers. "The marketing efforts of both the Birth of A Race Company and the Lincoln Motion Picture Company revealed the hazards of distributing movies outside established Hollywood channels. Hollywood had become an oligopoly that controlled almost all aspects of American filmmaking. All independent companies, whether ‘B’ producers on Hollywood’s poverty row, Yiddish movie makers in Manhattan or "race movie" makers, suffered from both a lack of capital and outlets for sufficient distribution.

Their finished films generally ran only in small second-run "grind" houses which owed no scheduling obligations to the large theater chains that were the backbone of Hollywood profits." 8 These factors along with the advent of the talkies in the 1930’s and Hollywood’s exploitation of blacks in musicals, resulted in a gradual squeezing out of the independent black filmmakers.

By the mid 1930’s, Hollywood was the largest producer of films featuring black actors. Black audiences and actors were being lured to the slicker Hollywood productions and only a few independents like Oscar Micheaux were able to survive. David O. Selznick’s classic film, Gone With The Wind (1939), although met with mixed response from blacks, typified this trend. Still, the late 1930’s saw a slight revival in the "race movies," as blacks were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Hollywood’s superficial, although somewhat less degrading, but still stereotypical black screen portrayals. Thomas Cripps writes about how the 1930’s depression hit blacks especially hard, and how the few independent black film producers remaining were finally driven into bankruptcy or complete dependence on white financing. "…independent filmmakers re-awakened interest in black genre by simply recreating Hollywood genres, i.e., gangster movies infused with black cops, crooks, judges, and jailers. Where the first generation of black filmmakers had examined black social issues, the new crop, including many whites, focused on tried and proven Hollywood genre formulas recast in black form, with an admixture of racial awareness. Thus, on the eve of World War II, more than ever black film would be identified by its content more than technique." 9 But by the early 1940’s, independent black filmmakers were basically non-existent, "race movies" no longer seemed relevant to the contemporary liberal war effort. Blacks began to see "race movies" as uncomfortable reminders of past oppression. It was a time of hope and through the persevering efforts of the NAACP, some social gains for blacks were brought about, and overall the pre-war years were infused with a sense of optimistic integrationism.

Blacks were very hopeful that positive changes would come about in Hollywood and in 1942, the NAACP called a national convention there to make demands for improved quality and quantity of black roles and to expend opportunities in the industry’s crafts.

Many of the early 1940’s films reflected the new optimistic liberal trend, where black film images, when they appeared, began to show elements of humanity, dignity and courage. By this time, black genre films survived only in documentary form. A young black filmmaker, Carlton Moss, produced a training film for the war department entitled, The Negro Soldier, which was a well-constructed documentation of blacks in American military history. It was praised by black journalists and later went into commercial release.

Throughout the war years the gap between the social ideals and the social realities of the day were inadvertently being exposed. Of the films coming out of Hollywood during the 1950’s, many of them had themes that emphasized individual black achievements and situations that could be depicted in a way that concealed the realities of being experience. There were only a few films made outside of Hollywood during this time. Richard Wright produced a film of his novel, Native Son in Argentina. But throughout the fifties and early sixties, most of the films featuring black actors or themes were produced in Hollywood.

The next phase of black genre film came during the sixties, a time of radical social change for blacks and other marginalized groups and American society in general and the issue of racial equality. Along with the civil rights movement gaining momentum, the rapid technological and cultural change around race relations began to reflect itself even in Hollywood films made during the sixties in films, many of which Sidney Poitier starred in, such as Lillies of the Field (1963) for which he won an Oscar, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967), In The Heat of the Night (1967), To Sir with Love (1967) like Michael Roemer’s Nothing But A Man, The Spook Who Sat By The Door, No Way Out, The Defiant Ones and the Dutchman.

Still Hollywood’s film industry was undergoing an economic slump and the rash of "blaxploitation" films of the late sixties and early seventies served to revive the ailing film industry with movies like Super Fly (1969) and Shaft (1971). Gordon Parks, photographer and filmmaker, and Melvin Van Peebles were the the first black filmmakers to make Hollywood backed films, Parks with The Learning Tree, and Van Peebles’ The Watermelon Man. As an expatriate living in France, Van Peebles’ film, Story of A Three Day Pass, (1967) was produced and acclaimed in France and later distributed in the United States through the San Francisco Film Festival in 1967. Madubuko Diakite, had this to say about Van Peebles’ film. "It received considerable attention in Hollywood, and Van Peebles became the first black filmmaker who was awarded a contract to do three films by a major Hollywood studio. The goal sought by scores of long forgotten black filmmakers had finally been achieved and it looked as though the color bar behind Hollywoods’s cameras had finally been crossed by the black filmmaker. The public and veteran actors (both black and white) and producers had long awaited such a gesture from Hollywood. His accomplishment of drawing black audiences away from their television sets and out to a movie inspired other Hollywood producers to open the doors to other black filmmakers. Within a few years dozens of black films made their appearance." Van Peebles directed one feature film for Hollywood, a comedy starring black actor, Godfrey Cambridge, entitled Watermelon Man and then went on to writing, producing, directing and distributing his controversial film, Sweet, Sweetback’s Baadasss Song (1971).

Even though the late sixties and seventies were a mixed bag of "blaxploitation films, there was also a gradual shift to films of a more political nature, reflected in films such as The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973), Putney Swope, directed by Arnold Johnson. Many of the new black genre films added new elements such as an "aesthetique du cool," seen in movies like Shaft (1971), but they suffered from characterizations that were two-dimensional in their depiction of the "angry black." The characterizations of black women still lacked humanity and authenticity with few exceptions like the role of Rebecca, played by Cicely Tyson in the film Sounder. Up until the mid 1980s, with rare exceptions black American filmmakers had still yet to break into Hollywood, and film still suffered from an inability to break free of the traditionally established cliches and stereotypes to truly depict the "black experience," with authenticity, vitality and dignity.