Postwar liberalism led to even more change, as dramas directly addressing issues such as race and power emerged from the studios in films like Intruder in the Dust (1949), Home of the Brave (1949), and Pinky (1949). By the 1950s, the "separate cinema" had ended, and African Americans no longer had creative control over their images. Hollywood had sought and highlighted black talent in front of the camera, but continued exclusionary policies in the unions and administrative offices. Social change brought by the civil rights movement saw changes at the box office, as the first group of African American movie stars emerged in the 1950s. Prominent among them were Sidney Poitier (b. 1927), the first black superstar; Harry Belafonte (b. 1927), the first African American male sex symbol; and Dorothy Dandridge (1922–1965), the first African American screen siren. Though in hindsight their films are somewhat problematic, the roles performed by these three talents brought new images to the screen, often challenging society's precepts about race and "proper" social roles. Island in the Sun (Robert Rossen, 1957), for example, contains what has been identified as the first real interracial kiss in a Hollywood film (previous films usually involved two white performers, with one in blackface). In the film, a political scandal erupts when a family in the West Indies is found to have "mixed blood." The situation is further complicated by the presence of two interracial romantic couples: one played by Dorothy Dandridge and John Justin, and the other played by Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine. Of course, the times would dictate that the kiss occur between the former couple, not the latter. Hollywood may have been transgressive with this film, but it would not go so far as to have an African American man kiss a white woman.
One of the most renowned African American directors, Oscar Micheaux produced and directed forty-three films over three decades. Though he was not the first African American director or the first to head an African American motion picture company, he was the first to direct a feature-length film.
Born in a small town in southern Illinois to a schoolteacher mother and an agriculturist father, the influence of his parentage can be seen in themes that would emerge in his films: the importance of landownership, an appreciation for those that work the land, and the value of education. In 1910 he became a homesteader in South Dakota. His skills as an entrepreneur were revealed when he prospered as a novelist, selling his works first to his fellow South Dakotans, white farmers whose land surrounded his own, and later nationally. His third novel, The Homesteader (1917), attracted the interest of the Los Angeles–based Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which wanted to adapt it into a film. Micheaux agreed, under the stipulation that he be hired to direct. When Lincoln refused, he founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company, which would later grow to include distribution offices in three locations: Chicago; Roanoke, Virginia; and Beaumont, Texas. His first film, the first feature film directed by an African American, was The Homesteader (1919), financed through the selling of shares. Micheaux earned enough profits from that film to finance his second production, Within Our Gates (1920), a provocative film that challenged the racist ideologies of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Micheaux's Within Our Gates presents African American characters who seek education, despite poverty, as a means to social mobility, while it critiques the failure of the judicial system to afford racial minorities equal protection under the law. Even more controversially, it blatantly portrays racial violence as it more commonly occurred—not committed by African Americans against whites, but just the opposite—through a tense scene of lynching. Within Our Gates was released during the height of lynching in the United States and immediately following the "Red Summer," when twenty-six race riots erupted across the nation.
Throughout his career, Micheaux would include such sensational elements in his work. His Body and Soul (1925), the first film to star Paul Robeson, was a scathing critique of corruption in organized religion. It was perhaps this element that would separate Micheaux's films from those of his "race movie" counterparts, since the Foster Photoplay Company specialized in comedy and the Lincoln Motion Picture Company on middle-class melodrama.
Within Our Gates (1920), Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), Body and Soul (1925), Murder in Harlem (1935), Underworld (1937), Swing! (1938), Lying Lips (1939)
Bowser, Pearl, and Louise Spence. Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, His Audiences . New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
Green, J. Ronald. Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
——. With a Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
Frances K. Gateward
Dandridge's career was impeded by typecasting. More often than not, she was offered roles that took advantage of her physical appearance, casting her as a sexual siren and object of desire. The exception was a film earlier in her career, Bright Road (1953), a low-key drama in which she plays a small-town schoolteacher trying to reach a troubled student. Ironically, the same can be said of Harry Belafonte, who played the principal in the same film. His films also exploited his good looks and physique, often placing him in competition against his white male costars. In The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), Belafonte plays one of three survivors of the nuclear apocalypse. The struggle for survival is made more difficult by the contest of masculinity between
Belafonte's character and the white male survivor (played by Mel Ferrer) over the sole surviving woman (Inger Stevens), who is white.
Of the three new black stars, only Poitier would enjoy a long and varied career, one that would last for decades. Dandridge's was cut short by her death in 1965. Belafonte, frustrated by the lack of roles, turned his energy toward music and a more involved role in the global human rights movement. Poitier became a Hollywood icon and a popular star with audiences. He was the first African American to receive an Oscar ® nomination for a leading role, in 1959 for his work in The Defiant Ones (1958), and he would eventually win the award for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963). His groundbreaking performances in films like In the Heat of the Night (1967), in which he plays a Philadelphia police detective who, in Mississippi to visit his mother, works with the local racist sheriff to solve a murder, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), in which a seemingly liberal father is introduced to his daughter's fiancé, played by Poitier, foregrounded issues of racism in American and the need for progress.
It was not until 1962 that an African American director would be accepted in Hollywood, when the renowned photographer Gordon Parks (1912–2006) was contracted by Warner Bros. to direct the adaptation of his autobiography, The Learning Tree . The film, a sensitive and poetic drama completed in 1969, chronicles the coming of age of a black teen in 1920s Kansas. It influenced the theme of most subsequent African American coming-of-age films, which, unlike their white counterparts, do not focus on sexual initiation. Rather, they center on the emergence of racial consciousness.
Melvin Van Peebles (b. 1932), noted for his work in the independent realm, is also one of the earliest African Americans to work within the Hollywood studio system, securing a three-picture deal with Columbia Pictures after the success of a film he made in France, Story of a Three Day Pass , in 1967. His second film, his first in Hollywood, was Watermelon Man (1970), a comedy examining racism and its stereotypes. In the film, the comedian Godfrey Cambridge plays a white bigot who wakes one morning to discover his race has changed—to black. That same year, United Artists released the first film by the actor/playwright/activist Ossie Davis (1917–2005), who would go on to direct four more feature films. Cotton Comes to Harlem , an adaptation of the Chester Himes crime novel of the same name. It is unfortunate that this film and those by Parks and Van Peebles are often misidentified, commonly assumed to be a part of the film movement known as blaxploitation (black exploitation). The movie-viewing public often assumes incorrectly that all black-themed films of the 1970s, regardless of origin, style, or content, can be categorized as such. A close examination of the period, however, reveals that there were three major trends of African American filmmaking during the 1970s: films produced within the Hollywood system; films produced by exploitation studios, such as American International Pictures (AIP); and another independent movement—an aesthetically challenging cinema politically grounded in issues of civil rights and the global pan-Africanist movement.