The Black Horror Genre

Movies are a powerful tool for manipulating facts, information and images that often affect people’s perceptions, beliefs and mental attitudes toward the subject presented. Throughout the history of motion pictures, horror films, like many other movie genres have revealed, through representations, perceptions of Blacks and Black cultural themes, as well as have contributed to and reflected sociopolitical issues. Early portrayals of African-Americans in films could be considered a low level form of horror because on-screen presentations of Blacks, although not intended to terrify or frighten in the classic sense, did promote stereotypical caricatures which cautioned Whites against a particular race of people that they should be afraid of.

HollaThe horror film genre, as defined by Isabel Christina Pinedo in Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasure of Horror Film Viewing, is composed of the following elements: (1) it disrupts the everyday world; (2) it transgresses and violates boundaries, (3) it upsets the validity of rationality; (4) it resists narrative closure and (5) it works to evoke fear. Another hallmark of the genre is its complexity. Horror films can provide the most spirited, daring, emotional, fantastic and imaginative narratives but can also feature plots depicting shocking, abhorrent, and unspeakable violence. Physical and emotional violence are often central to the horror film and the genre’s reliance on violence as a key narrative device cannot be overlooked.

The horror film is fascinating because it embraces the unthinkable, while also challenging our ideals of good and evil, depravity and innocence, the divine and the profane. It is one of the most provocative forms of entertainment in its scrutiny of our humanity and our social world.

The Black horror genre is comprised of two categories: Blacks in horror films and Black horror films.

I am Legend“Blacks in horror” films present Blacks and Blackness in the context of horror, even if the film is not wholly or substantially focused on either one. Such films have historically and typically been produced by major studios for mainstream consumption. Many of these films tend to provoke a consensus of what defines horror films – the disruption of the audience’s notions of rational, fear-free, everyday life. These films have also contributed to debates regarding not only Blackness, but also its proximity to interpretations of what is horrifying and where it is embodied. Examples include Night of the Living Dead (1968), Vampira (1974), The People Under the Stairs (1991), I Am Legend (2007).

Street Tales of Terror“Black Horror” films on the other hand are often “race” films. That is they have an added narrative focus that calls attention to racial identity – Black culture, history, ideologies, experiences, politics, language, humor, aesthetics, style, music and the like. Blacks may appear in all manner of horror films, but the films themselves may not be Black per se, in their relation to filmmaker, audience, or the experiences they present. Black horror films have one or more of the following elements: a Black producer, writer, and/or director; an all-Black or predominantly Black cast; hails a Black audience; draws on notions of African-American culture – such as Black vernacular, music, style, urban locations and other aesthetics.  Films like Son of Ingagi (1940), J.D.’s Revenge (1976), Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), Street Tales of Terror (2004) are included in this category.

Together, “Blacks in horror” films and “Black horror” films offer an opportunity for an examination of how race, racial identities and race relationships are constructed and depicted.

What is not included in the Black horror genre are films that do not provide significant insight into the legacy of Blackness’ relationship to the horrifying. Films where Black characters are incidental or token and where a commentary on Blackness – except to say that it has fleeting relevance – is absent. Such films are those in which Blacks are relegated to the status of victims, sidekicks or largely undeveloped characters.

The history of the Black horror genre begins with silent films. Early films, most featuring White actors in blackface, could be interpreted as horror with their depiction of violent physical and psychological attacks against Blacks. These films reflected the sensibilities of the time and presented destructive and biased views of racial hierarchy and White supremacy. The 1915 film The Birth of a Nation offered one of the most insidious and long-lasting stereotypes of Blacks as unintelligent, vicious beasts. It is believed that the film was used as a recruiting tool for the Ku Klux Klan and as such the societal impact of “on-screen” horror provided inspiration for countless “real-life” horrors. Birth of a Nation 4While many Whites were trying to escape the fictitious on-screen dangers of the ferocious Black masses rising up against them, outside the movie theater, Blacks were actually dying from the factual horrors of being lynched, shot, dragged, raped, beaten, castrated and burned by White supremacy groups like the KKK and other enthused racists who bought into that film’s hate inciting message. It is one thing to be vicariously thrilled or horrified by some gruesome act happening to someone else on the movie screen knowing that the actor eventually washes off the fake blood and goes home, and another to actually experience the horrific and gruesome event in real life with no director to yell “cut.”

Eventually horror films made the transition to portraying Blacks as a symbol of evil by “exoticizing” and distorting African and Haitian folkways and religions, such as the character of the wicked voodoo practitioner in films such as I Walked with a Zombie (1943) or as partially clothed “natives” in films like King Kong (1933) and White Pongo (1945). I Walked with A ZombieThis in turn gave way to an era of characterizing Blacks as comic relief, as a people to be dismissively laughed at and ridiculed. This perception of Blacks as portrayed in mainstream films, is perhaps the most damaging contribution to White society’s image of African-Americans, as there were no contrasting positive images to provide balance. Hollywood films of that time relegated Blacks to subservient characters such as butlers, maids and chauffeurs or they appeared on the screen simply to entertain as stereotypical coons and buffoons. The famous actor Willie “Sleep ‘n’ Eat” Best flapped his lips in a series of spooky Hollywood films while other established funnymen such as Eddie Anderson and Mantan Moreland also became well known for their ability to bug their eyes and shake at the knees in times of panic and fear.

Mantan Moreland

For a much broader spectrum of on-screen images and to counteract Hollywood’s representation of Blacks, films which starred Black actors and featured Black stories, known as “all-Black cast” or “race” movies, began to appear in earnest. Race films were first introduced as early as 1916 by Black filmmakers in response to the negative and racist depictions presented in The Birth of a Nation. With the increase in the production of race films, whether Black produced or otherwise, came the introduction and promotion of a variety of diverse images, presenting complex, multidimensional characters, as well as a broad range of narratives, including fright-films. Among the approximately forty movies made by pioneering filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux, at least three were silent fright-films which more loosely resemble the horror genre of today. Another Black filmmaker who contributed to the genre, was popular actor Spencer Williams, Jr. who wrote and directed a string of movies in the 1940’s that included the horror tale Son of Ingagi (1940). In all-Black cast films, each character, the good and the bad, were all representative of a complete darker hued world that actually reflected real life, but was seldom seen on the silver screen.

In the 1950s when the race film era began to die out, African-Americans were once again virtually ignored by Hollywood. The 1950s and ‘60s saw Hollywood shift its attention from menacing creatures and supernatural evils to technological calamities. The Atomic Age brought terrifying themes of how science and technology can go horribly awry when left unchecked. As Americans found laboratories, space travel and technological advances to be the stuff of nightmares, Hollywood deemed intellectual and inventive achievement out of reach for Blacks and as a result, the appearance of Black characters in horror films were virtually non-existent.

Ben - Night of the Living DeadHowever, in 1968 Blacks returned to the genre courtesy of George Romero’s cult-classic, Night of the Living Dead, a zombie movie the likes of which had not been seen before and which has been copied thousands of times since. In addition to its’ being credited as revolutionizing the zombie subgenre in horror, at the time is was released it directly and overtly addressed America’s social problems and racial climate. To the shock and pleasant surprise of Black audiences, the film featured a complex Black male in a starring role. The character of Ben, played by Duane Jones, was not only allowed to survive through a night of terror in which the dead returned to life to eat the living, but also competently took charge of a horrific situation in a film in which the rest of the cast was composed of White actors. Although in the end, the picture did not stray from the established trend of the demise of the Black character, for the time, Ben was a rare and controversial commodity.

The 1970’s ushered in a new generation of movies which reflected racial pride and social awareness. The Blaxploitation era not only gave movie goers gritty urban street dramas like Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972), but it also saw the birth of several Black themed interpretations of classic horror tales such as Blacula (1972), Blackenstein (1973) and Dr. Black & Mr. Hyde (1976). Horror films produced during this time frequently advanced the notion of Black empowerment through violent revolution while simultaneously presenting anti-establishment narratives. As this period of on-screen afro-enlightenment faded, the doors of mainstream horror slowly began to open.


The next decade saw a marked decline of the Black Power-inspired film themes seen in the 1970s. In the ‘80s, Blacks were often featured as secondary characters in “buddy” or supporting relationships with Whites. Such portrayals were also found in “Blacks in horror” films. These characters often displayed a value system of loyalty that was generally disproportionate and unilateral (i.e. the Dick Hallorann character in The Shining). In addition, many films during this period moved White monsters and prey to locales often viewed as inaccessible to Blacks. These included suburban or rural settings such as Elm Street (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Haddonfield, Illinois (Halloween) and Camp Crystal Lake (Friday the 13th).

Djimon Honsou, Deep Rising


Lastly, this period is also considered by many as the pinnacle of Hollywood’s “kill a negro” or “kill a nigga” phase. Not only were the vast majority of Black characters in horror movies killed off, they were most often among the first to die.


The 1980s was a time when there were very few independent Black films being produced in the genre. But in the ‘90s things began to change dramatically with a force that had not been seen since the Blaxploitation era. Several horror films were being made by African-Americans including Def by Temptation (1990), Tales from the Crypt: Demon Night (1995), Embalmer (1996), and Beloved (1998). The 1990’s hailed the return of “Black horror” movies defined by the reintroduction and recognition of fully realized characters and themes, representing a new generation of race films. Black horror films in the 1990s also offered a reversal of racial majority/minority roles. In these films, there is often a self-consciousness in the narrative that makes it clear that the disruption and reversal of type is purposeful – part retribution, part redemption (i.e. Tales from the Hood). Films of this era additionally presented the battle of good and evil as being played out within the confines of predominantly Black, lower and/or working-class urban communities.

BonesThe new millennium saw an onslaught of “Black horror” films inspired by hip-hop culture and many featured hip-hop artists in leading roles. These films continue to present an allegiance to the ‘hood as seen in the 1990s. However in the 2000s, an explicit rationale for such a geographical focus is the historical and aesthetic credibility such places promise and are often set, to a hip-hop beat. There is an abundance of “Black horror” films during this period, some of which evidence great imagination and creativity and others great mediocrity, due to the proliferation of underground and low-budget films produced for the expanding straight-to-video market.

In the years that have followed, more and more Blacks have appeared in horror films, whether they are the first to die or not. The popular and financially lucrative horror film franchise Scary Movie introduced by the Wayans brothers has added to the broad range of the genre. The straight-to-video market has a mass of Black horror titles to choose from with varying degrees of fear, quality and production budgets. With advancing technology that makes film production more affordable to the masses and internet screening outlets such as You Tube and Video-on-Demand, many more Black people will die horrible deaths in horror films to come, but many will also triumph over evil and survive to see another day.

A Haunted House 2

See Black Cinema Databank – Black Horror Filmography for a complete listing. (Note: this listing does not include Blacks in horror titles).

This post is based on the book: Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present by Robin R. Means Coleman.  Photo Source(s):, Zombicon, Scene Stealer, The Weekly Ansible, IGN, IMDB,, Screen Rant, Calvacade of Shock,



The Brute (wikimedia commons)“To make a woman love you, KNOCK HER DOWN” – Bull Magee

Year of Release: 1920
Genre: Drama
Rating: N/A
Runtime: Not Available
Black & White
Studio: Micheaux Film Corporation
Producer & Director: Oscar Micheaux

Evelyn Preer (Mildred Carrison)
A.B. DeComathiere (Bull Magee)
Sam Langford (Tug Wilson)
Susie Sutton (Aunt Clara)
Lawrence Chenault (Herbert Lanyon)
Laura Bowman (Mrs. Carrison)
Mattie Edwards (A Guest in ‘The Hole’)
Alice Gorgas (Margaret Pendleton)
Virgil Williams (Referee)
Marty Cutler (Sidney Kirkwood)
Foy Clements (Irene Lanyon)
Louis Schooler (Klondike)


Herbert Lanyon and Mildred Carrison are engaged. When Herbert is presumed dead in a shipwreck, Mildred is forced by her gold digging Aunt Clara to marry gambler and crime boss, Bull Magee. Mildred is unhappy married to Bull who mistreats her. When Herbert is found alive, a repentant Aunt Clara and Herbert free Mildred from Magee, and the lovers are able to marry.

A subplot involves boxer “Tug” Wilson (played by boxing champion Sam Langford), who is ordered by his manager, Bull Magee, to throw a major fight at the film’s climax.


It is reported on Wikipedia that the original version of the film included a scene where the boxer defeats a white rival, but Micheaux was forced by the censors to remove the scene, though Black Cinema Connection has been unable to confirm this information.

This film is considered lost.

Source(s): TCM, Wikipedia; Quote: Zazzle Oscar Micheaux vintage movie ad card; Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Homesteader

The Homesteader

Year of Release:  1919
Genre:  Drama
Rating: N/A
Runtime:  Unknown
Black & White
Studio:  Micheaux Book and Film Company
Producer:  Oscar Micheaux
Director:  Oscar Micheaux; Jerry Mills

Charles D. Lucas (Jean Baptiste)
Evelyn Preer (Orlean)
Iris Hall (Agnes Stewart)
Vernon S. Duncan (McCarthy)
Inez Smith (Ethel)
Trevy Woods (Glavis/Ethel’s husband)

Synopsis:    In South Dakota, Agnes Stewart, a Scottish girl takes refuge in an isolated house during a blizzard. Hearing cries outside, she rescues Jean Baptiste, a Black homesteader who was in danger of freezing to death. Baptiste falls in love with Agnes, who does not know that she is not White.  Baptiste despairs of overcoming the social barriers that prevent their union  He returns east and marries Orlean, the daughter of McCarthy, a vain and greedy minister.  Baptiste is persecuted by McCarthy and by Ethel (McCarthy’s other daughter), who, like her father, possesses “all the evil a woman is capable of.”  When Orlean goes insane and commits suicide, Baptiste returns to South Dakota, finds Agnes and discovers that she is really Black. The two are able to be together and find happiness at last.


Oscar Micheaux’s first film.

Some information in the plot synopsis comes from a 1927 interview with Evelyn Preer.

Micheaux’s 1948 film The Betrayal is sometimes described as a loose remake of The Homesteader.

Source(s): TCM; Wikipedia; Photo:  By Micheaux Book & Film Company via Wikimedia Commons.

The Symbol of the Unconquered

a/k/a The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Ku Klux Klan
a/k/a The Wilderness Trail

Year of Release:  1920
Genre:  Drama
Rating:  N/A
Runtime:   54 mins. (TCM print)
Black & White
Studio:  Micheaux Film Corporation
Producer:  Oscar Micheaux
Director:  Oscar Micheaux

Iris Hall (Eve Mason)
Walker Thompson (Hugh Van Allen)
Lawrence Chenault (Jefferson Driscoll)
Mattie Wilkes (Mother Driscoll)
Louis Déan (August Barr)
Leigh Whipper (Tugi an Indian Fakir)
E.G. Tatum (Abraham)
George Catlin (Dick Mason)
Jim Burris
James Burrough


Eve arrives in townEve Mason, a light-skinned Black woman, leaves Selma, Alabama for the northwest town of Oristown to claim the land and small house she inherited upon the death of her grandfather.  A fatigued Eve arrives at the Driscoll Hotel, which is owned by Jefferson Driscoll, another very light-skinned Black who wants to pass for White.  Driscoll hates the Negro race because his darker skinned mother once interfered with his wooing a White woman.  In spite of her light skin, Driscoll realizes Eve is Black as “her eyes betray her origins” and refuses to give her a room, instead he leads her to the barn where he has allowed Abraham, another potential guest who Driscoll refused to rent a room to because of the color of his skin.  During the night Eve is frightened by Abraham and flees the barn into the pouring rain.  The next day she meets kindly Hugh Van Allen, a young, Black prospector who has recently arrived in Oristown.  Hugh gives Eve a lift

It turns out Van Allen is her neighbor and he offers Eve a lift to her place outside of town.   A White couple, Mary and August Barr, are also neighbors of Van Allen and Eve.  August Barr is a former clergyman turned swindler and “a man of dubious financial schemes.”  Barr is in cahoots with his brother-in-law and an Indian fakir named Tugi to get back documents stolen by “half-breed Indian,” Philip Clark and which were then taken by an old Black prospector, believed to be Dick Mason, Eve’s grandfather.  The three determine that the documents are in Mason’s old cabin, where Eve is now living.

Someone is watching EveThat night Eve sees a terrible face looking in on her and cries out in fear.  Van Allen hears her and rushes to the rescue, but the intruder has gone.  Meanwhile Driscoll has sold his hotel and gets involved with horse thieves, Philip Clark and old Bill Stanton.  When he tries to pass off two stolen nags as thoroughbreds to Van Allen, the two get into a fight at the local bar and Van Allen beats up Driscoll to the amusement of the bar patrons.  Humiliated, Driscoll vows revenge.Hugh and Driscoll fight

Eve with Van Allen’s assistance, works hard to make the most of her modest homestead.  Mary Barr, August’s unhappy wife, and Eve soon become friends.  In town, Driscoll intercepts a letter meant for Van Allen which states that his land sits on an oil field.  Driscoll, in league with Barr and Tugi, men plot to get Van Allen’s valuable land.  They decide to get old Bill Stanton involved, as he knows how to make people do things they don’t want to do.

Warnings from the Black CrossThey post notes signed by The Knights of the Black Cross on Van Allen’s tent, threatening his life if he won’t sell his land.  Van Allen ignores the notes, leaves for town to buy furniture and won’t be back for 48 hours. In his absence, the last note is posted, giving him 48 hours to sell.

The Black Cross gatherThe group, led by Bill Stanton, plan a midnight attack and Stanton tells the others, “in one hour we will have driven him mad and burned him in his lair.”  Barr’s wife Mary, upset by the planned massacre, goes to warn Eve, who rides to town for help, just as Van Allen returns, unaware of the impending attack.

At this point footage is missing from the print.  Title cards state “the biggest moments of the photoplay are when the night riders are annihilated, a colored man with bricks being a big factor.”

Two years pass and Van Allen, having escaped death by a miracle, has become an oil king as his land was found to contain abundant oil fields.  One day Eve appears at his office to deliver a letter from the Committee for the Defense of the Colored Race, informing Van Allen that he “may give Eve his contribution without fear as she has rendered a great service to the cause of the Black race; despite her white skin, she is born of black parents”.  Bewildered, Van Allen had always believed that Eve was White and had never declared his love for fear of being scornfully rejected.  Eve believes she has fallenHe becomes emotional and Eve, misinterpreting his mood, believes she has now fallen in his esteem.

Eventually they resolve the misunderstanding and live happily ever after.

Eve is wrong


Opening title card states:  The Symbol of the Unconquered has been restored by the Museum of Modern Art – Department of Film and Video and Turner Classic Movies in cooperation with The Oscar Micheaux Society.

Micheaux’s fourth feature length film and one of his earliest surviving works.

Shot in Fort Lee, NJ under the working title The Wilderness Trail.

Sources:  Turner Class Movies; IMDB; YouTube.

Within Our Gates

Within Our Gates
Year of Release:  1920
Genre:  Drama
Rating:  N/A
Runtime:   79 mins.
Black & White
Studio:  Micheaux Film Co.
Producer:  Oscar Micheaux
Director:  Oscar Micheaux
Evelyn Preer (Sylvia Landry)
Flo Clements (Alma Prichard)
James D. Ruffin (Conrad Drebert)
Jack Chenault (Larry Prichard)
William Smith (Philip Gentry, a detective)
Charles D. Lucas (Dr. V. Vivian)
Bernice Ladd (Mrs. Geraldine Stratton)
William Starks (Jasper Landry)
Ralph Johnson (Philip Griddlestone)
E. G. Tatum (Efrem)
Grant Edwards (Emil)


Sylvia Landry, a young black woman from the South, visits her Northern cousin,
divorcee Alma Prichard.
Within Our Gates  - Sylvia and Alma

Sylvia’s fiancé, Conrad Drebert, writes to her from Brazil, where he is working, to tell her that he will send a telegram with the date of his arrival.  When the telegram arrives, Alma, who is in love with Conrad, intercepts and destroys it.  When Conrad arrives, Alma sets up Sylvia to be seen with another man.
Within Our Gates - Conrad tries to kill Sylvia
Enraged, Conrad tries to strangle her, but she is saved by Alma. Conrad storms out and breaks their engagement, much to Alma’s satisfaction.  Saddened by the breakup, Sylvia leaves town and takes a job at a school for poor black children in the southern town of Piney Woods, that is run by Reverend Wilson Jacobs and his sister Constance. When money troubles hit the establishment, however, Sylvia decides to go to Boston to find a rich benefactor. One day, depressed that she has not met any rich people to take an interest in the school’s plight, Sylvia saves a little boy from being struck by the car of rich philanthropist Elena Warwick, and is herself injured. Mrs. Warwick visits her in the hospital and Sylvia tells her that the school must find $5,000 in the next ten days or it will close.
Within Our Gates  - Mrs. Warwick offers trhe school money
Mrs. Warwick is set to give the school the money until she speaks with her friend, Mrs. Geraldine Stratton, who convinces the naïve Mrs. Warwick that educating blacks is a mistake, and that they are more suited to being field hands and lumberjacks. She suggests giving the money to Old Ned, a black preacher whose fiery sermons encourage blacks to remain “pure” and untainted by education, culture and politics.
Within Our Gates - Blacks don't want an education
When Sylvia returns to collect the school’s money from Mrs. Warwick, she is refused,
but later, Mrs. Warwick changes her mind and sends the school fifty-thousand
dollars.thousand dollars. Sylvia returns to Piney Woods, where Jacobs proposes. Sylvia refuses the offer, however, as she has fallen in love with Doctor V. Vivian, a young Boston man deeply committed to improving blacks’ social conditions.
Within Our Gates - Sylvia and Dr. V. Vivian
Meanwhile, Larry, Alma’s stepbrother, a notorious gangster, flees police after killing another gambler in a card game. He escapes to Piney Woods and plans to swindle the poor blacks in the region by selling them stolen goods. Larry eventually encounters Sylvia, with whom he was once in love, and tells her that he will reveal her past to the school’s administrators if she does not steal the school’s money for him.
Within Our Gates - Larry threatens Sylvia
Distraught, Sylvia returns to Boston. Larry, meanwhile, has also gone back North and is shot while trying to rob a bank. When Dr. Vivian goes to the Prichards’ to tend Larry’s wounds, he meets Alma, who tells him about Sylvia’s past.

Flashback: Sylvia was adopted by the Landrys, a family of poor black southerners.  When she was a young girl, the Landrys sent Sylvia to school, and the educated girl eventually discovered that her father’s landlord and employer, Philip Griddlestone, owed him $625.00. Armed with his daughter’s calculations, Mr. Landry goes to see Griddlestone, who rudely dismisses him. At that moment, a white laborer whom Griddlestone had earlier swindled, enters the room and shoots Griddlestone.  Efrem, Griddlestone’s gossipy, meddlesome servant, screams through the town’s streets that Mr. Landry murdered his employer. A lynch mob is formed and the Landrys run away, taking refuge in the swamps. The manhunt continues for a week, and, frustrated that the Landrys had eluded them, the mob attacks and kills the traitorous Efrem, who had been gloating about how much the whites loved him.  Mr. and Mrs. Landry and their young son Emil are captured.  The parents are hanged and burned at the stake, but Emil escapes.  Meanwhile, the real killer is accidentally shot by the mob.  Griddlestone’s brother, Armand, follows Sylvia back to the home of her parents’ friends. Armand attacks Sylvia and tries to rape her, but sees a scar on her breast and suddenly realizes that Sylvia is his own daughter from his union with a black woman.  Armand then pays for the girl’s education but never tells Sylvia that he is her father.

Within Our Gates - Armand attacks Sylvia

In the present, Dr. Vivian finds a distraught Sylvia and tells her that they must remember that their people fought in Cuba, Mexico and France for the freedom of their great country. Confident that once married Sylvia will be an excellent wife and a confirmed patriot, Dr. Vivian is not disappointed.

Within Our Gates - the end

Within Our Gates was Oscar Micheaux’s earliest surviving directorial effort.

Within Our Gates stirred up considerable controversy during its original release because it contained scenes of lynching and racial conflict.  At first the film, which eventually had its premiere in Chicago, was rejected by the Chicago Board of Movie Censors who were afraid the movie could possibly inspire a race riot. However, a second screening of the film by the press, Chicago politicians, and prominent members of the Black community convinced the Censors to grant the film a permit since it addressed horrendous conditions that needed reform.  Not everyone agreed with this assessment, however, and some of the most vigorous protestors against the film were black activists.  By June 1920, the film was edited down, with much of its controversial material removed.

Sources:  Turner Classic Movies

History of Black Cinema

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.

Birth of a Nation PosterOne 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.

White actor in Blackface.

White actor in Blackface.

Birth of a Nation 1

After the war, “illiterate” blacks gain control of the legislature and courts.

Birth of a Nation 3

Flora runs in fright, and jumps off a cliff rather than be raped by a black soldier.

Birth of a Nation 4

After Flora’s death, the black soldier, Gus, is captured and hanged by the Klan.

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.