African American Cinema


Hollywood rarely, if ever, offered depictions of African American life and culture with humanity, and as a response, many African American entrepreneurs ventured into filmmaking to "correct" the negative images. Pioneers included Bill Foster (1884–?), founder of the first black film production company, the Foster Photoplay Company, established in Chicago in 1910; Noble Johnson (1881–1978), the Hollywood character actor who, along with his brother George, led the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Los Angeles established in 1916; and Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951), a noted novelist who formed the Micheaux Film and Book Company (1918). Their companies led the production of "race movies," films that featured all-black or predominantly black casts and were marketed to black audiences. Another important figure who would emerge as a writer, producer, and director, though decades later, is the actor Spencer Williams (1893–1969), who made the most popular race movie ever released, Blood of Jesus (1941).

This sound film, and the silent films that preceded it, like Lincoln Picture's The Realization of a Negro's Ambition (1916) and Micheaux's The Homesteader (1919), the first feature film by an African American, presented themes in concert with the racial uplift movement, an effort by African Americans to combat the unrelenting ideological and physical assaults aimed at their communities. During the period in which these film companies were formed, African Americans had to contend with lynchings (the practice was at its height between 1880 and 1940), race riots, the philosophy and practices of eugenics (pseudoscientific theories of racial inferiority), and psychological theses that rendered African Americans deviant and pathological. Ideologies of racial uplift based their opposition in the assertion of African Americans as civilized humans deserving of

Spike Lee's Bamboozled (2000) deliberately invokes racist stereotypes.
equality and social justice through an emphasis on education and morality. In films this was realized in narratives that valued temperance, adherence to the tenets of Christianity, and social mobility through education. Characters who engaged in criminal acts, gambling, infidelity, and substance abuse received punishment by the end of the film. The Realization of a Negro's Ambition , for example, is centered on James Burton (played by Noble Johnson), a civil engineer who leaves his rural surroundings to seek out his fortune in the oil industry of California. Using the knowledge he gained while attending Tuskeegee Institute (a black college founded in 1880), he surmounts a series of obstacles, including employment discrimination, and eventually discovers oil and returns home with newfound wealth.

Several films are also linked to racial uplift through the references made to actual community leaders and places of importance. For example, the schoolteacher Sylvia Landry (played by actress Evelyn Preer), the protagonist of Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1920), travels north to Boston in order to raise funds for the Piney Woods School, historically the largest black boarding school in the United States, located in rural Rankin County, Mississippi. By referring to the school in the film, Micheaux used his film as a publicity tool, aiding the institution's goal of providing for young black students a "head, heart, and hands education."

With the popularity of race movies also emerged an entire industry, virtually a separate cinema with its own stars, distribution system, and exhibition venues, such as the Howard Theater (1910) in Washington, D.C., and the Madame C. J. Walker Theater (1927) in Indianapolis. The development of this industry, in addition to its formation as a "counter cinema," should also be considered a logical outgrowth of already established forms of African American expressive culture. Bill Foster, for example, had a background in theater and vaudeville, and Paul Robeson (1898–1976), the noted stage actor, made his film debut in Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul (1924). The films often highlighted African American forms of dance, fashion, and literature.

The Great Migration between 1910 and 1920 was also a significant factor in the development of African American cinema. During this period close to 2 million African Americans moved from the South to northern cities, such as Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and Detroit, and west to Los Angeles, to escape feudal tenant farming, the lack of gainful education and employment, and Jim Crow laws, searching for what they imagined would be better opportunities. Though their choices remained limited and they were still subject to racism, the access to greater education, factory jobs, and positions of skilled labor and professional employment led to the growth of a black middle class. Films provided not only a reflection of their striving but also, for many, a way to engage in an urban form of modernity.

It is estimated that more than five hundred race movies were produced and distributed between 1910 and 1948, the most prolific era of black-directed and black-themed films (though not all race movies were directed by African Americans). Eventually, though, this separate cinema was crushed by a number of industry shifts, including co-optation by Hollywood and the coming of sound, and by the Depression. Interestingly, the introduction of synchronous sound and the genre that would develop with it, the musical, are grounded in African American popular culture, and it is this link that helped lead to the end of the race movies.

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