blacks in american films

Blacks in American Film
The thread of African American history is spun from two sources: the struggle to define a place in the wider American life and the effort to maintain an authentic black presence in the larger American culture. This duality has meaning in the realm of filmmaking because the tools of cinema, film and cameras, cost more than the paper and pencil tools of writers. It is the cost of doing business that affects, indeed, threatens the black presence on the screen. The costly collaborative nature of filmmaking has blurred the definition of a “black” movie. Is it black if it is merely angled toward blacks, or must it be made by blacks, or both? Critics disagree, although a few traits of black films seem characteristic.

They might be either pastoral, speaking nostalgically about a rural past, such as Spencer Williams’s pious The Blood of Jesus (1940), or hip and urbane, in a current jive idiom, such as Oscar Micheaux’s Swing (1938) or Bessie Smith’s St. Louis Blues (1929). Some black movies have provided a voice of advocacy, such as the Colored Players’ The Scar of Shame (1927), in which an old lecher mourns the heroine whose passing reminds him that “our people have much to learn.” Others have celebrated small victories, such as Michael Roemer’s Nothing but a Man (1963), with a lead actor who will fix flat tires for a living but knows that he will never take on the stereotypical role of “picking other people’s cotton.” This theme is echoed in Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), in which a cabal of black heroes joyously mounts an all-but-hopeless black insurrection.

Often a black movie provides an anatomy of black cultural life, a glossary of style, patois, and politics, such as Michael Shultz’s Car Wash (1976). Sometimes a so-called crossover movie finds an audience on both sides of the racial divide by drawing on a black cultural trait that speaks to black and white audiences. King Vidor’s Hallelujah! (1929), for example, used the metaphor of a railroad train going to hell much as Eloyse Gist, the black evangelist, had done in her own Hell Bound Train, each conveying the same sense of pious urgency entwined with an almost erotic sensibility. In much the same way, Spike Lee, in his Do the Right Thing (1989), drew a crossover audience into a dramatic debate over what, indeed, the right political thing was. Sometimes a black-angled movie succeeds as a crossover because it successfully mingles cultures. For example, Marcel Camus’s Orfeo Negro (1959) retold the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in the annual Afro-Brazilian Carnival. In Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1973) the reggae singer Jimmy Cliff plays a victim of a sleazy recording-industry boss. Driven to a life of outlawry, Cliff adopts a fantasy life of revenge in the mode of an American cowboy (not unlike Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver). And in almost any Paul Robeson or Josephine Baker film of the 1930s, the theme involves a poignant outreach across racial cultures.

In any case, African American movies, whether so-called race movies made for black audiences or crossovers for a wider reach, arise from “the particular cultural conditions” (as the historian Gerald Mast wrote) of black life and history that surely “influence, if not dictate” the imagery and voice of black film. Therefore, the black critic James Snead has argued that a black cinema must “coin unconventional associations for black skin within the reigning film language” to replace well-known stereotypical images.


African American images first appeared on the screen in 1898, only months after the first theatrical projection of moving images. At first benign in their effect, the first films showed black soldiers embarking for the Spanish-American War of 1898 and West Indians at their daily tasks. In 1903 a 14-minute Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared. Thereafter, as editing for narrative effect improved, black figures fell more in line with the racial stereotypes of the day, appearing as chicken thieves, venal preachers, and the like. They only rarely turned up in marginally authentic roles in films such as The Fights of Nations (1907), which at least depicted black culture, albeit in a warped form. As the 50th anniversary of the Civil War approached in 1910, the collective nostalgia for the war inspired maudlin tales of fraternity. Black slaves, once the focus of the combat, were reduced to sentimental figures who often sided with their Southern masters against their Northern liberators. The most renowned and artistically the most compelling of the genre was D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).

The first steps toward a specifically black cinema arose out of these rituals of white chauvinism. Bill Foster, an African American whose work has been lost, made such films as The Railroad Porter, probably a light comedy set in a particularly black milieu in 1912. The Birth of a Race (1918), two years in the making and perhaps three hours in length, began as a response to Griffith’s film. But its succession of producers and backers, including Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee circle, Universal Pictures, and Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck, lost touch with the original concept. Nonetheless, it inspired George P. Johnson and his brother, Noble, to found the Lincoln Motion Picture Company to carry forward the quest for a black
cinema, only to fail because of a nationwide influenza epidemic that shuttered theaters.

After World War I, the American movie industry gradually moved to California-to Hollywood. The ensuing so-called Jazz Age offered little new to African Americans. Few movies offered blacks parts with any authenticity. Such parts included the grizzled hobo in Jim Tully’s tale of the lowly, Beggars of Life (1928); the seaman boldly played by the boxer George Godfrey in James Cruze’s Old Ironsides (1926); the faithful renderings of blacks in Showboat (1927) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927); and those in early sound films such as Dudley Murphy’s St. Louis Blues (1929). However, blacks generally played out conventional roles as chorus girls, convicts, racetrack grooms, boxing trainers, and flippant servants.

The sameness of the images surely led to the first boom of so-called race movies that were made by black, and often white, producers specifically for black audiences. George and Noble Johnson made as many as four such films that were black versions of already defined Hollywood genres-success stories, adventures, and the like-all of them since lost. In Philadelphia the Colored Players crafted a canon, most of which survived in the late 1990s, that included a Paul Laurence Dunbar story, a black Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926), and their masterpiece, The Scar of Shame (1927), a melodrama about caste and class in black circles.

Of all African American filmmakers of the era, Oscar Micheaux dominated his age. A sometime Pullman porter, homesteader, and novelist who sold his books door to door, he was also a legendary entrepreneur who both broke with and built on Hollywood genres. More than any other known figure, Micheaux took
up themes that Hollywood left untouched: lynching, black success myths, and color-based caste. For years there was scant access to his work: there was only Body and Soul (1924), starring the black athlete, singer, and activist, Paul Robeson. But his recently rediscovered films of equal stature, among them Within Our Gates (1920) and The Symbol of the Unconquered (1921), have allowed fuller study.


The coming of sound film at the onset of the Great Depression momentarily daunted black filmmakers. On the one hand, Hollywood for the first time could exploit black musical traditions, while, on the other, makers of race movies lacked the capital to invest in sound filmmaking or wiring old ghetto theaters. Fortified by sound, white filmmakers acted with unaccustomed boldness. Al Jolson’s “talkie” The Jazz Singer (1927) linked the oppression of blacks with that of white immigrants. Several short films attained equal social meaning, among them The St. Louis Blues (1929); Duke Ellington’s The Black and Tan Fantasy (1930) and his allegorical Symphony in Black (1934); and Jimmy Mordecai’s fable of the black migration from Southern farms to Northern cities, Yamacraw. MGM’s Hallelujah! (1929) and Fox’s Hearts in Dixie (1929) similarly focused on the tensions of this migration and devoted rare attention to the details of black life. Dudley Murphy’s film version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones was graced with a charming prologue by the black activist and poet James Weldon Johnson that would have eluded O’Neill. This film closed the brief era of socially engaged films by bringing Paul Robeson to the screen in the title role. Taken together, these films hinted at the “unconventional associations” that Snead called for.

However, corporate Hollywood returned to its profit-driven caution. Marc Connelly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical drama of 1929, The Green Pastures, for example, took half a decade to reach the screen in truncated form. Thereafter, black Americans, as usual, waited for small favors, such as
Robeson’s “Joe” in a 1936 remake of Showboat, Clarence Muse’s rebellious slave in So Red the Rose (1935), Clarence Brook’s Haitian doctor in John Ford’s Arrowsmith (1931), and ten years of Hattie McDaniel’s flip servants from Alice Adams (1933) to Gone With the Wind (1939). Other nods at the
reality of black life included John M. Stahl’s social drama based on Fannie Hurst’s novel of the practice known as passing (for white), Imitation of Life (1934), and a sprinkling of black proletarians among the outcasts of depression-ridden America.

Once again, black makers of so-called race movies strained to fill the void, this time in competition with a cadre of white producers. Micheaux recovered from a bankruptcy, remade his autobiography as The Exile (1931), broke into talkies with The Girl from Chicago (1932) and Swing (1938), and survived the
depression. George Randol, a sometime Broadway actor, joined him, as did William Alexander, who would make black newsreels during World War II, and other blacks. A few interracial firms swelled their ranks. In Texas, Alfred Sack and Spencer Williams turned out the evocative The Blood of Jesus
(1940), while Muse joined with B-moviemaker Harry Fraser to make a film biography of the boxer Henry Armstrong (played poignantly by himself).

Perhaps because of these white newcomers, so-called race movies achieved a synthesis of black and Hollywood styles in which gangster movies, westerns, and musicals promoted black concerns. At the height of this movement, from 1937 to 1940, gangster movies linked poverty with the incidence of crime and included celebrations of black aspiration. Ralph Cooper’s Am I Guilty (1940), for example, obliged a black physician to choose between patching up a crook or ministering to the sick, a version of similar dilemmas in other films of the genre. Some, like Bert and Jack Goldberg’s Paradise in Harlem (1940), focused on Harlem’s communal spirit, in this case revealed in a jazz version of Othello mounted as a fund-raiser to fight urban crime. Similar themes appeared in a 1939-1940 cycle of all-black westerns and a series of Louis Jordan musicals, including one, Beware (1946), in which he saves a black college from closure.


With the onset of World War II, at a moment when American propaganda embraced brotherhood, tolerance, and equality as war aims, makers of race movies slipped from view-victims of short rations of raw film stock. Yet black activists and their government together pressed filmmakers to address wartime racial injustice. The black railway porter’s union, led by A. Philip Randolph’s, threatened a march on Washington unless the government granted equality of opportunity in war industry; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held its annual convention in Los Angeles, partly to lobby Hollywood directly for better roles; and the black Pittsburgh Courier campaigned on its front pages for a “Double V”: a simultaneous victory over foreign fascism and domestic racism.

In response, federal agencies made several movies of advocacy. First among them in quality and breadth of distribution to both army and civilian theaters was the United States War Department’s The Negro Soldier (1944), written by Carlton Moss, who also starred in the film. Late in the war, the government commissioned or inspired short civilian films on the theme of equitable race relations, among them Don’t Be a Sucker, It Happened in Springfield, and The House I Live In (which won an Oscar in 1947 as the best
short film). The studios joined the ranks-partly at the urging of the U.S. Office of War Information-and racially integrated the military years before the armed forces themselves would do so. Among works with an integrated cast were MGM’s Bataan (1943), Twentieth Century Fox’s Crash Dive (1943), and
Columbia’s Sahara (1943). Movies set in civilian life, among them Since You Went Away (1944) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1943), made similar gestures.

Documentaries strove for a similar liberal voice. Gjon Mili’s Jammin’ the Blues (1944) (a Life magazine “movie of the week”) so evoked the mood of a black jazz club that seasoned newspaper reporters thought it had been done with a hidden camera. Janice Loeb and Helen Levitt’s The Quiet One (1947) caught the dedication that social workers gave to the plight of black juveniles. And the United Auto Workers sponsored an animated cartoon, The Brotherhood of Man (1947), that took up the fate of racism in postwar America.

In the spring of 1949 at least three movies addressed racial issues: MGM’s movie version of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust made racism an issue of conscience rather than politics; Louis DeRochemont’s Lost Boundaries came from a Reader’s Digest report on passing for white in a Vermont village; and, boldly for the times, Darryl Zanuck asked Jane White, daughter of Walter White of the NAACP, to do an uncredited but sweeping job of script doctoring on Pinky, yet another story on passing.

Thereafter, in the 20 years following Sidney Poitier’s debut in Zanuck’s No Way Out (1950)-an era that might well be dubbed “the age of Sidney Poitier”-scores of films emerged from Hollywood, each with an obligatory scene, sequence, or subplot involving a small, often painfully obvious victory over racism. Indeed, Poitier won an Oscar for his Christ-like savior of a group of nuns in Lilies of the Field (1963) and starred in the culmination of the genre, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968). As if warning of the ominous price to pay for not following the liberal path to racial harmony, Harry Belafonte’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) closed with a scene in which two prejudiced bank robbers, one black and one white, blow themselves to bits rather than team up to pull off a job. By the 1950s such movies played a sort of backbeat to the actual Civil Rights Movement.


During the 1960s, with the full flowering of the Civil Rights Movement, such films began to take on a harsher, more politically demanding edge. At first from abroad, later from sources outside the major studios, they challenged the simplistic optimism of Poitier’s heyday. Costa-Gavras’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) seemed to some black militants a textbook for direct action, while Amiri Baraka spoke of the movie version of his short play Dutchman (1967) as a “revolutionary revelation.” Even the Hollywood movies hardened: Robert Mulligan’s film version of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) ended with the death of its black protagonist, and Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1965) is set in a harsh Harlem dominated by a coldly ominous drug dealer (played by Brock Peters). By way of contrast, more pastoral films such as Martin Ritt’s Sounder (1972) and Gordon Parks’s autobiographical The Learning Tree (1969) seemed childlike in their remoteness from the coming wave of angry films.

Catalysts for this turn toward rage, the cities of the late 1960s burst into riots of despair at the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the seeming exhaustion of his movement. Awaiting the arrival of this new wave of films were hundreds of derelict, cavernous downtown theaters, along with thousands of black youths upon whom the Civil Rights Movement had had scant impact. The prototype of the new genre, soon dubbed “blaxploitation” films by the trade paper Variety, was Melvin Van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (1971). More than any other movie, Sweetback defined its era.
Jangling in its lighting and music track, and heady with contempt for the white social order and its cops, the film’s success all but invited Hollywood’s major studios to rush forward in pursuit of the new audience.
MGM’s Shaft (1971), for example, played to the crowd by featuring a mouthy, streetwise hero who, in reality, was not an outlaw in Sweetback’s mold but merely a plainclothes cop. From the outset, the Hollywood studio version of this black, urban, outlaw culture cynically followed familiar pattern. Cool
Breeze (1972) was remade from The Asphalt Jungle, The Lost Man (1969) from Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, and Up Tight (1968) from John Ford’s film of an Irish rebellion, The Informer. The Hollywood studios even plundered genres like horror movies in films such as Blacula (1972) and Blackenstein (1972).

TV’s Amos ‘n’ Andy did the rest!


Meanwhile, a younger generation of black filmmakers emerged from academic settings: the film schools of University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of Southern California, New York University (NYU), and later from historically black schools such as Howard University. Variously they embraced Van Peebles, Micheaux, and African filmmakers such as Ousmane Sembne of Senegal as their cultural models. For the first time women joined black filmmakers’ ranks.

Asserting that black expression could be appreciated on its own terms, this new black cinema aimed to preserve black culture both within the Hollywood system and apart from it. New distributors, including the Black Filmmakers Foundation, California Newsreel, and Woman Make Movies, Inc., aimed at select audiences and academic circles rather than mass markets. Yet there were crossovers such as Warrington Hudlin, who made Black at Yale (1977) and Street Corner Stories for the new distributors, but who also penetrated Hollywood, together with his brother Reginald. St. Clair Bourne’s Let the Church Say Amen (1972) revealed both a filmmaker and a movement journalist. Women’s films ranged from Madeleine Anderson’s documentary pieces, Kathleen Collin’s Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, and Ayoka Chinzira’s satiric Hair Piece: A Film for Nappy Headed People (1985), to Julie Dash’s commercially distributed, nostalgic Daughters of the Dust (1991). Others who crossed the line between the avant-garde and the commercial were Charles Burnett with his Killer of Sheep (1977) and Haile Gerima (of Howard University) with, most successfully, his fable of a clash between African and American sensibilities, Sankofa (1993).

The best known of the new black filmmakers during the 1980s and 1990s was probably Spike Lee, an NYU alumnus. He managed to win large audiences for almost everything he produced-film school exercises, credit-card-financed early efforts such as She’s Gotta Have It (1986), television commercials,
and promotional pieces. He also directed a string of Hollywood successes, including one of the most politically challenging and commercially successful films of the new black cinema, Do the Right Thing (1989).

As black filmmakers became more prolific, black actors in Hollywood – Danny Glover, Halle Berry, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett, among others-got steady, rather than sporadic work. By the late 1990s, the steadily expanding black presence in American film seemed to assure a solid future for the new black cinema.

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