For more than a half century, segregated theaters pro-foundly affected the participation of African Americans in the film industry as both producers and viewers. The US Supreme Court ruled to allow state-legislated segregation in theaters in 1883, and the earliest nickelodeons inherited the practice of segregation by race from vaudeville theaters. Theaters enforced segregation by time (showing films for African American audiences late at night), by section, entrance (seating African American viewers in the balcony), and by neighborhood, with black-only theaters serving patrons in African American neighborhoods, especially in northern cities. As early as 1909, some theaters were already serving African American patrons only, but overall these viewers remained underserved—for example, there were about one hundred blackonly theaters nationally in that decade, compared to ten thousand theaters for whites. Black-only theaters were more run down than white theaters and usually showed
A major voice in independent filmmaking, Julie Dash was the first African American woman to direct a feature film with national theatrical release, namely Daughters of the Dust (1991). Her films—especially Illusions (1982) and Daughters of the Dust —have remained important texts in the study of American independent film. Her work consistently intervenes in and redirects Hollywood images of African American women, offering aesthetically complex and compelling characters and returning to specific historical moments to recover and revalue the nuances of black women's lives and professional contributions.
Dash's final project for her American Film Institute program, the thirty-four-minute, black-and-white film Illusions , tells the story of two African American women in the Hollywood film industry during World War II. Mignon Dupree (Lonette McKee) is a light-skinned African American studio executive, "passing" for white in the all-white production offices of a major studio; Esther Jeeter (Roseann Katon) is a talented black singer brought in to dub a song for a white screen star. Through its focus on sound, the film comments on the voices of black women that have been hidden, covered over, or gone unseen and unheard.
Dash's best-known film, Daughters of the Dust , isa lyrical, visually lush story of a turn-of-the-century Gullah family from the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast. Gullah is a Creole dialect and culture based on both West African grammatical patterns and Elizabethan English vocabulary. Dash herself is descended from a Gullah family on her father's side and spent time on the Sea Islands as a child. Based on ten years of meticulous research, her film evokes West African oral storytelling through two voiceover narrators—an elderly matriarch and a girl not yet born. Dash struggled enormously to acquire funding for the film, and by piecing together small grants and selling distribution rights, she raised $1 million to finance it. Her artistic control and commitment to Afrocentric storytelling extended to details of production—she cast the film using actors from other black independent films. The film won awards and made a profit, drawing an African American middle-class audience, especially women—a population of viewers often overlooked by Hollywood studios and distributors. This financial success surprised even its distributor, Kino International, which had marketed Daughters as "a foreign film made in America."
Despite the success of Daughters of the Dust , Dash continued to encounter difficulties in financing her projects. In the mid-1990s, she turned to television as a venue, directing programs for Black Entertainment Television and MTV. At Angela Bassett's request, she directed The Rosa Parks Story (2002), about the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1950s. The production benefited from Dash's habit of careful historical research as well as her interest in the human, emotional aspects of Park's story.
Diary of an African Nun (1977), Illusions (1982), Daughters of the Dust (1991), The Rosa Parks Story (TV, 2002)
Bambara, Toni Cade. "Reading the Signs, Empowering the Eye: Daughters of the Dust and the Black Independent Cinema Movement." Black American Cinema , edited by Manthia Diawara, 118–144. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Brouwer, Joel. R. "Repositioning: Center and Margin in Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust ." African American Review 29:1 (1995): 5–16.
Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust . New York: Dutton, 1997.
—— Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman's Film . New York: New Press, 1992.
Mellencamp, Patricia. "Making History: Julie Dash." In Redirecting the Gaze: Gender, Theory, and Cinema in the Third World , edited by Diana Robin and Ira Jaffe, 99–126. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
final runs of films that had played months earlier in white theaters. When sound came to the movies in the late 1920s, black-only theaters did not always have the where-withal to upgrade their equipment, and some continued to play silent films for several more years. Largely excluded from Hollywood production, distribution, and exhibition, African American viewers saw fewer movies and often turned to other media, such as radio, and alternative venues for social recreation, such as churches and clubs.
Because of the lack of humanizing representations of African Americans onscreen and segregated viewing practices, there emerged in the late 1910s a separate film industry, much of it black-owned, that produced "race films" with all-black casts for African American communities. Through the 1940s, these film companies provided opportunities for African American actors to perform in roles beyond the "mammy" and "Tom" caricatures in Hollywood. The productions were often versions of mainstream genre films, such as the black-cast westerns of singing cowboy Herb Jeffries (b. 1911) ( The Bronze Buckaroo , 1939). Though many of the producers and directors of race films were white, prominent African American directors such as Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951) and Spencer Williams (1893–1969) established an independent alternative to the Hollywood studio systems and produced a significant oeuvre. (Micheaux directed thirty five films in addition to writing seven novels.) Their films explored issues such as class divisions within African American communities, mixed-race romance, and interracial relations, including narratives of assimilation and "passing." Williams's work included genre films as well as religious epics, and later in his career, a role as Andy Brown in the television show Amos 'n' Andy (1951–1953). His 1941 film, The Blood of Jesus , has been included in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. More rarely, the term "race films" is used to refer to Yiddish-language films, which, like films for African American audiences, were produced independently outside of the Hollywood studio system.
In 1953, seventy years after the 1883 decision to allow theaters to exclude or separate African American patrons, the Supreme Court reversed that trajectory and outlawed segregation in Washington, DC, theaters. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy, in the process of presenting civil rights legislation to Congress, pressured studio executives and theater-chain owners to desegregate in order to avoid violence and picketing from civil rights activists. But another kind of segregation was already in place, and accelerating. As more African Americans came to northern cities, other ethnic groups moved to the suburbs, emptying Italian, German, Polish, and Jewish neighborhoods and the theaters that had catered to these groups. By the early 1970s the downtown movie palaces that had once served white city dwellers were operating at a loss. Then the early examples of what would become the "blaxploitation" film movement drew urban, working-class African American audiences to these theaters, showing films such as Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), and Shaft (1971). The opening sequence of Shaft comments tellingly on this situation: in a high angle shot, the camera pans across a series of downtown marquees, showing biker and other genre films, and after the last marquee, the title "SHAFT" appears, inserting itself into the line of titles. This announcement of a new black-oriented presence and mobility in the urban film lineup is followed by the protagonist's emergence from the "underground railroad" of the subway station at Broadway and 42nd Street. Thus both the film and its hero modeled for African American audiences a new presence in multiple social and racialized spaces in the studio industry and in the urban geography of New York. Shaft , which grossed $12 million at the box office, virtually saved the financially troubled MGM, and although white directors and studios produced many of the later blaxploitation films, the profitability of many early, independent blaxploitation films paved the way for the renaissance of independent minority productions of the 1980s (including those by directors such as Spike Lee, Charles Burnett, and Julie Dash).
bell hooks has used the term "oppositional gaze" to describe the way African American women engage cinematic images critically both as spectators and as filmmakers in their own right. Other minority groups have also developed oppositional film practices, working both within the established Hollywood industry and independently to produce films that both counter mainstream stereotypes and convey specific cultural forms and visual styles as part of an alternative aesthetic. These filmmakers face problematic issues of authenticity and hybridity as they work against the essentialist stereotypes perpetuated in the media while striving to maintain political solidarity based in common racial and cultural identity. Contemporary Chicano and Chicana filmmakers (Luis Valdez, Edward James Olmos, Lourdes Portillo), Asian American filmmakers (Wayne Wang, Ang Lee), and indigenous filmmakers (Chris Eyre, Victor Masayesva, Alanis Obomsawin) have spoken both as individual artists and as members of their communities in their films. These filmmakers revisit and revise colonialist history, integrating political and aesthetic strategies for the purposes of decolonization. In representing experiences of displacement, filmmakers must also navigate complex issues of race and nation in the wake of the political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Although space does not allow for a more detailed discussion of specific minority cinema traditions, Third World cinemas, television and radio media, and avant-garde and documentary traditions, representations of race and ethnicity remain central to the study of these areas as well.
SEE ALSO African American Cinema ; Arab Cinema ; Asian American Cinema ; Colonialism and Postcolonialism ; Diasporic Cinema ; Exhibition ; Ideology ; National Cinema ; Native Americans and Cinema ; Spectatorship and Audiences
Bernardi, Daniel, ed. The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema . New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
——, ed. Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
Courtney, Susan. Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation: Spectacular Narratives of Gender and Race, 1903–1967 . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Dyer, Richard. White . London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
Friedman, Lester D., ed. Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Gaines, Jane M. Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Gomery, Douglas. Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation." Framework 36 (1989): 68–81.
hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation . Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992.
Prats, Armando José. Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.
Rogin, Michael. Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Rony, Fatimah Tobing. The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.
Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media . London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture . Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Williams, Linda. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.