Films featuring Black performers and images have evolved from those which reflected the notions of Whites to those which fully explore African-American issues and themes. Early movies created during the beginning of the 20th century typically portrayed African-Americans in insulting stereotypes or utilized Whites in blackface instead of Black actors. Blackface involved White actors covering their faces with black make-up and drawing on exaggerated lips to complete the parody. This technique originated in the minstrel shows of the mid-19th century in which African-Americans were portrayed as stupid, lazy, clownish, superstitious, and frivolous. These shows degraded the African-American community and made fun of Blacks by making them look foolish, utilizing stereotypical characters such as Coons, Mammies, Sambos, and Uncle Toms. Such stereotyping and disparaging representations were used to disassociate Blacks and Whites, an established practice in America since the days of slavery.
With the invention of moving pictures, the minstrel tradition of demeaning Blacks for the entertainment of White audiences carried over into the new medium. Black characters were rarely presented in film and when they were they were typically portrayed as the same stereotypical caricatures, never as serious or fully developed individuals.
One such movie, was The Birth of A Nation, a 1915 silent film directed by David Wark “D. W.” Griffith. By 1915 Griffith was an established director who developed a repertoire of techniques including crosscutting, intercutting, expressive lighting, camera movement, and the close-up. He grew up hearing stories of the Old South’s power and grandeur and in 1914 began working on his film masterpiece which would later be praised for its technical innovations, epic narrative and imagination, drawing huge crowds around the country and becoming Hollywood’s first true blockbuster. An adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s novel “The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan” BOAN chronicled the rising racial, economic, political and geographic tensions leading up to and through the Civil War, emancipation, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the tumultuous southern reconstruction period in American History.
In spite of its innovation as a movie megahit, it was condemned as racist by leaders in the African-American community as well as by White liberals. This film took racial stereotypes to a whole new level. It showed blacks as inferior, maniacal, unintelligent, and brutal, raping and disrespecting good White folk, and generally running amok. The film’s Confederate hero’s response to these insufferable injustices by the newly freed and unruly slaves, was to start the Ku Klux Klan, a righteous organization, portrayed as saviors of the South, who ride in at the end and save the Whites from the savage Negroes.
Upon its release, BOAN sparked national protest, drawing the ire of the newly formed NAACP and was the catalyst for riots in several major cities in which it was screened. Even at this early stage in motion picture history, African-Americans saw the potential of film as a set of images and messages that could influence the opinions and behavior of a large number of people as well as the way in which the experiences of African-Americans could be distorted and exaggerated. Yet, despite its racist, exploitative message, its historical inaccuracy, and its’ rejection by entire regions of the country, the 190-minute silent epic was the most profitable film in history for a number of years and well into the “talkie” film era. BOAN gave birth to the lurid and degrading stereotypes that were to endure in African-American movie images for years to come.In an effort to counterbalance such negative portrayals, African-American entrepreneurs ventured into filmmaking. In addition, a handful of independent “Colored” film companies were emerging. These companies were owned by Whites but catered to film audiences in the nearly 400 Black movie theaters, most of which were in the South. But a major problem in producing these films was financing.
One Black producer who was able to get his films made with a minimum of capital, was one-time homesteader, novelist, salesman and overall wheeler-dealer, Oscar Micheaux who, in 1918 formed The Micheaux Film and Book Company. Another early Black cinema pioneer was Noble Johnson, the Hollywood character actor who, along with his brother George, established The Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Los Angeles in 1916. But actor, writer and vaudeville agent, William Foster (also known as July Jones), is widely considered the first African-American to establish a Black film production company to feature films with all African-American casts, when in 1910 he founded The Foster Photoplay Company out of Chicago. The companies established by these innovators were at the forefront in producing “Race Films,” movies that featured all-Black or predominantly Black casts and were marketed to African-American audiences.
Lincoln Picture’s, The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916) and Micheaux’s, The Homesteader (1919), were among the first feature films to present themes in concert with the effort by African-Americans to combat the negative portrayal of their community. Ideologies of racial advancement were based on the predication that Blacks were human beings as well as Americans deserving of equality and social justice. These beliefs emphasized education and morality and were actualized in films through plots that emphasized temperance, religion and social advancement through education.
During the 1920s through the mid-1930’s there was an abundance of Black-owned film studios operating throughout the U.S. Although the films were produced on limited budgets, the popularity of race movies gave birth to a counter cinema with its own stars, a highly organized and tightly run distribution system, and a multitude of exhibition venues including Black owned movie houses like the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., and the Madame C. J. Walker Theater in Indianapolis. In addition to such theaters, the films were also shown at Black churches and schools, segregated theaters or at midnight and matinee showings in White theaters.
Unfortunately many of the Black independent film companies did not survive the Great Depression nor the invention of expensive sound technology. In the 1930’s and 40’s few of the films made for Black audiences were made by Blacks. Many of the production companies were now owned by White businessmen with White technicians behind the cameras. These companies included the Norman Film Manufacturing Company, Ebony Pictures and The Colored Players Film Corporation. One of the few exceptions was Micheaux, who maintained control of his production company, long after many Black owned companies went bankrupt and disappeared. In spite of this, there were still a multitude of Black producers, directors, screenwriters, actors and actresses who worked on films which were not meant for mainstream movie audiences and as such they had influence on how African-American life was portrayed. During the early period of Race films, the movies focused on themes relative to the Black community such as passing, lynching, religion and criminal behavior. Eventually, the focus of the films changed and plots combined Race and Hollywood styles in which gangster movies, westerns, horrors and musicals portrayed Black concerns.
Race films, both those produced by Black companies as well as White, continued to remain popular with Black audiences through the mid-50s, as they provided stories which reflected experiences that movie goers could relate to and portrayed characters that contradicted White America’s notions of the place of African-Americans in society. It is estimated that more than 500 race movies were produced and distributed between 1910 and 1948, although fewer than 100 of these exist today due to the use of highly flammable and delicate nitrate film stock and the failure to utilize proper storage methods which led to the loss of many early films.
The significance of these productions to contemporary audiences lies in the fact that they provide a glimpse of how Blacks saw themselves and their world during the era in which they were made. They should not be condemned for their lack of artistic value, due to limited budgets and production quality, but appreciated for their reflections of Black culture by highlighting African-American vernacular, dance, music, fashion, and glamour. It can be said that without the early Black independent film movement, there would be few Black themed films today.
See Black Cinema Databank – Independent Race Films for a complete listing.