(Published as part of Black History Month 2022, but it’s an excerpt from a much longer work-in-progress about Hollywood history.)
I’m not an authority on film history, let alone black film history – I’ve been a professional film critic from 2001 to 2016, but otherwise don’t have any formal education in the matter. Furthermore, I am visibly, genetically and culturally not black – which obviously limits my perspective on the issue. This being said: consider this a quick trip through time when it comes to black American cinema and depiction of black characters in Hollywood, with a few recommendations about movies you may have missed and illustrative clips to whet your appetite.
The focus here is on American cinema – Aside from three exceptions I’ll mention later on, I simply don’t know enough about black non-American cinema to discuss it.
I’m going to use an ante-chronological approach, going farther and farther in time as we go. For viewers not used to the quirks and limitations of classic cinema, a process of progressive familiarization to older film is often a better approach than to start with silent films right away.
It’s worth a warning that as we go back in time, the representation of black characters often becomes increasingly problematic. They become unflattering stereotypes, stuck in supporting roles or contained in scenes that could be removed for distribution in the then-overtly racist American South. Even in the best-case scenario when Hollywood wanted to showcase black artists or pay homage to them prior to the 1980s, it’s clearly a white film-making establishment defining (or exploiting) the black community rather than letting them present themselves. It’s not useful to ignore, minimize or try to remove these problems – in fact, it’s only by looking at the limitations and excesses of past eras that we can understand how things were and the progress made since then. It may be difficult to like some movies while acknowledging that they have troublesome elements – but that’s part of a nuanced appreciation of cinema history as well.
The Fifth Wave – Authentic black voices and themes (2000s+)
It’s still too early to pose a judgment on the 2010s in Hollywood history, but a leading trend was the true integration of black voices, producers and themes in the fabric of mainstream American cinema. After decades of incubation, marginal success and the development of black filmmakers, Hollywood realized that even its mainstream blockbusters could be dedicated to black actors, themes and presentation while still meeting considerable success.
The flashpoint of the decade can certainly be traced back to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of early 2016, in which the austere Academy of Arts and Sciences responsible for awarding the Oscars got shamed for consistently picking white nominees. If there’s one reliable constant in Oscars history, it’s that these are the awards that Hollywood uses to refine the image it shows to others, and that shame works rather well at effecting change. By the 2016 awards ceremony, emcee Chris Rock addressed the controversy head-on:
(You can also read excerpts of it )
He does make a solid point: Even at its worst, Hollywood racism was seldom the extreme burn-all-black-people type but more the more pernicious we-can-ignore-black-people-as-irrelevant one. Birth of a Nation aside, Hollywood presented itself as liberally tolerant, but felt more comfortable othering Black Americans.
By 2017, four major awards went to black filmmakers, actors or movies, including the very low-budget Moonlight beating out odds-on favourite La La Land in a most Hollywoodian dramatic fashion: after the other film was announced as the winner due to a mix-up that has become part of Oscars history:
By 2018, the Academy gave the Best Picture award to a movie explicitly about racism (although many, including myself, thought it still made a mistake when it picked the bland racism-from-a-white-perspective Green Book rather than the far more audacious racism-from-a-black-perspective BlacKKKlansman) and by 2019 it named a South Korean film, Parasite, as the best movie of the year, further getting away from the #OscarsSoWhite criticism. While 2020’s best picture winner, Nomadland, featured a white protagonist, it was directed by Chinese-born filmmaker Chloe Zhao who also won the Best Director award. Clearly, the Oscars at the dawn of the 2020s aren’t the ones that were ten years ago, and that reflects the diversity of change under the visible line of nominations.
Increasingly, in both TV and film as packaged by Hollywood-based studios, the image of the director is changing. The 2010s saw the rise of black creators such as Steve McQueen, Lee Daniels, Ryan Coogler, Ava Duvernay, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, Perry Tyler, and other filmmakers able to propose black-themed projects to funding partners, hire a diverse crew, assemble a black cast and get their creative vision on the big screen… and still reach a wide, not necessarily black audience.
In this light, the success of the superhero film Black Panther (2018) remains epochal. There are plenty of excellent criticisms to make about the result – its embrace of tribal stereotypes, its dilution of the historical Black Panther movement, its built-in reliance on stupid comic-book tropes, etc. But the film joyfully embraces black culture, discusses black themes (even at a surface level), uses elaborate special effects to portray an amazing afrofuturistic vision, relies on a main creative crew of black filmmakers, features great performances from black actors… and made a billion dollars at the box-office, got great reviews, was nominated for many Oscars and was embraced by a variety of audiences. Just watch this introduction to Wakanda:
For this alone, it becomes an essential part of the curriculum. It’s worth noting that director Ryan Coogler didn’t come out of nowhere with Black Panther – his debut feature, Fruitvale Station (2013), remains a stinging slice-of-life drama with a gut-punch of an ending, while Creed (2015) showed his ability to work in a big-budget environment while blending strong inclusive themes in a crowd-pleasing film.
Other movies also received critical and commercial success while meeting many of those criteria.
- I’m not a big fan of Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016), but it was uncompromisingly an artistic statement from a black perspective. His next effort was the much-lauded If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).
- I’m far more partial to writer/director Jordan Peele’s superlative Get Out (2017), which combines horror tropes with black-specific fears to create a startlingly effective result. (His follow-up Us is not so effective because the literalization of the metaphor made no sense.)
- Steve MacQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) was as harrowing a depiction of slavery as ever presented on-screen, and it’s interesting to see how it was compared to other contemporary takes on related topics from white filmmakers, such as Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. His next films also gathered acclaim, with Widows (2018) being a very strong thriller with a multiracial cast. McQueen’s latest project, Small Axe, is a wonderfully multifaceted exploration of the West Indian experience in 1970s-1980s London as portrayed in five films of different genres.
Some twenty-first century movies consciously set out to explore the history of black activism with decent production means.
- Ava Duvernay’s Selma (2014), my favourite of the bunch, remains a reference as it ably dramatizes a turning point in the Civil Rights era. The “Edmund Pettus Bridge Attack” scene is as good as it gets when it comes to putting viewers in the middle of recent history:
- Lee Daniels’s The Butler (2013) also flips the usual “black butler in the background of the president” clichés of earlier Hollywood history to make a White House butler the centre of the story, with a series of white presidents in the background of his story.
- Regina King, best known for her comedy roles, directed a very interesting film in One Night in Miami (2020), imagining what could have happened during a (factual) evening spent together by Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke at crucial turns in their careers.
- Dolemite is My Name (2020) offers a fictionalized look at the production of the classic blaxploitation comedy Dolemite, and has fun re-creating the original’s ultra-low-budget style.
- Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) goes back to the Civil Rights era to examine the FBI’s murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton through the actions of a black informant… an approach similar to Lee Daniel’s dramatization of Billie Holiday’s relationship with a black FBI informant in The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)
- Even white-directed projects seem to reflect a more attuned sensibility informed by a more diverse perspective: Jeff Nichols’s Loving (2016) examines the epochal Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision that decriminalized interracial marriage in several states in 1967 (!), while Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures (2016) goes beyond the white astronauts of the US Space Program to take a look at the black women “computers” working to help achieve the rocket launches. Katheryn Bigelow also turned in Detroit (2017), showing police overreach in 1967 Detroit as a horror home-invasion film. Even the mighty Disney Animation empire took a turn with Tiana in The Princess and the Frog (2009) — the first black princess in what’s now a long list of ethnically diverse lead characters.
Veterans of the previous era of black movies also keep contributing to the movement.
- Veteran Spike Lee rejuvenated his career with two solid thrillers with strong social material in BlacKKKlansman (2018) and Da 5 Bloods (2020).
- Veteran director F. Gary Gray even taped into a nostalgic vein of sorts in Straight outta Compton (2015) which dramatizes the 1980s as experienced through the rap group N.W.A.
- You also see some of the actors moving to the direction and production side of things, perhaps the most noteworthy one being Denzel Washington not only directing Fences (2016), from a very well-known play by August Wilson, but agreeing to produce several more films based on Wilson’s “Philadelphia cycle”. The best known of those follow-ups, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), was nominated for a few Oscars.
New and provocative voices also have the freedom to approach material in ways made possible by their predecessors.
- There’s space for more intimate efforts such as the mother-daughter character study of Miss Juneteenth (2020), or the young black teenager protagonists of The Hate U Give (2018) and A Wrinkle In Time (2018).
- Or for a multifaceted exploration of black activism so confident in going beyond the obvious that it dares to ask how much of it is attention-seeking behaviour in Justin Simien’s Dear White People (2014).
- While consistently underrated due to working in the comedy or romance fields (with a filmography that includes everything from Undercover Brother, Scary Movie 5, The Best Man and its sequel, and Barbershop: The Next Cut to the recent Space Jam: A New Legacy), veteran director Malcolm L. Lee (Spike Lee’s cousin) earned some critical praise with Girls Trip (2018) for presenting a decently budgeted black-cast R-rated women’s comedy… with some incredibly crude jokes.
- Even coming-of-age stories could delve into ferociously geeky (and funny) material rarely seen in previous black-focused films, such as in Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope (2015).
- In a wilder genre, my admiration for the surrealist take-no-prisoners comedic approach of Boots Riley’s debut Sorry to Bother You (2018) has few bounds. Check out the “white voice” clip, which barely hints at the madness of the rest of the film.
Any history of 2010s black cinema would be incomplete without a discussion of Tyler Perry, which forged a distinctively black filmmaking empire from humble beginnings, all the way to building the first major studio in decades from the remnants of a decommissioned army base near Atlanta. Perry’s approach goes unremarked by most leading film critics because it’s clearly aimed at a specific public, and also because he’s not a particularly subtle filmmaker: his movies inelegantly blend melodrama and high comedy, executed with a wholly unremarkable visual style. It doesn’t help that he works at an incredibly fast pace that barely allows for polish. (At an average pace of two movies per year, while running an expansive media empire, it’s not rare to hear that some of his movies are shot in two or three weeks.) But it works – his dedication to black women issues is admirable, and that probably explains the amazing casts he regularly gets. If you like his Madea character (see the first half-hour of Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2006) for her introduction), then his films can be quite fun. If you’re into comedy, the most sustained Tyler film so far is probably Madea Goes to Jail (2009). Otherwise, there are some very impressive moments in For Colored Girls (2010) that hint at how good a filmmaker he could be with more time and discipline. For context, here’s Perry-as-Madea explaining Madea: (You don’t have to watch all of it to get the point).
It’s also worth noting that twenty-first century filmmaking is now diverse and affordable enough that consciously aiming for a black audience is a viable strategy . This leads to a slew of very low-budget films made for black-focused distribution channels. One of my not-so-guilty pleasures is watching such films on Black Entertainment Television (BET). Those “BET originals” are seldom good (some of them even have embarrassing technical issues due to their low budget), but they’re usually flawed in very interesting ways, and have their own undeniable appeal. I’d hesitate to recommend them, because even the best films of that group are clearly lower-tier film-making compared to more professional productions. But His, Hers & the Truth (2019) is a decent romantic comedy with great leads, Christmas Belles (2019) fits a strong female friendship story in a better-than-average Christmas romance framework, We Belong Together (2018) is a wild melodramatic stalker thriller and I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) (2021) provides a surprisingly energetic take on a downbeat story of homelessness. (Don’t bother looking for substantial reviews for most of these — it’s as if they don’t exist for movie critics. I’m faintly disturbed whenever I publish my own reviews and they end up being the most substantial critical commentary for those films available on the web — I’m not the target audience! Someone else should weigh in!)
It’s still far too early to see where we’re headed next — but the 2010s truly saw black cinema get to where it has wanted to be for the past decades: with black filmmakers and actors increasingly controlling their means of production, able to tackle a wide range of themes in a variety of styles, and do so in an environment in which commercial success can come from a wide audience. Even the spectacular strides made in the 1980s-2000s couldn’t quite get to that level.
The Fourth Wave – Emergence of a true black filmmaking movement (1980s-2000s)
Two trends are fundamental when it comes to the development of black cinema in the 1980s-2000s.
The first, most visible, is the emergence of several black box-office stars. In the footsteps of Sidney Poitier and his blaxploitation heirs, we see actors such as Eddie Murphy, Will Smith and Denzel Washington (and Martin Lawrence, and Chris Tucker, and Morgan Freeman, and Forest Whitaker, and Wesley Snipes, and Richard Pryor, and Samuel L. Jackson, and…) emerge as authentic draws for audiences – having their own recognizable screen persona, and not necessarily the saintly one that Sydney Poitier had or the action appeal of Richard Roundtree et al. We can agree that being a star is not the same thing as having control over filmmaking, but it was still an important step forward because it proved to the Hollywood studios that there was a wide appetite from all audiences for leading actors of non-white ethnic origins.
- Notable white-produced films with black leads during this period include Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Brewster’s Millions (1985), Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986), The Golden Child (1986), etc.
- The Toy (1982), with Richard Pryor essentially being hired as a slave to a white boy, still feels particularly provocative today.
- Similarly, we have a rich corpus (maybe even an emerging cliché) of interracial buddy movies during that period: While White Men Can’t Jump (1992), Trading Places (1983), 48 Hrs (1982), Stir Crazy (1980, directed by Sidney Poitier), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and the likes are recognizably not all-black films, they feature matter-of-fact black/white friendship that would have been exceptional in earlier decades.
But by far the most significant development during that period remains the emergence of several black filmmakers able to deliver projects talking about their own authentic experience. The leading voice among them remains Spike Lee, who emerged in the late 1980s with films like his debut She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and more significantly Do the Right Thing (1989). While able to deliver slick mainstream entertainment (most notably 25th Hour (2002) and Inside Man (2006)), he’s best known for engaged material like Malcolm X (1992) and the semi-autobiographical Crooklyn (1994). Other filmmakers were also able to helm films that directly reflected their own experience growing up or living in difficult surroundings – hence a small wave of “hood” movies in the early 1990s, of which the best are Boyz n the Hood (1991), Poetic Justice (1993), and Menace II Society (1993).
There’s also some distinctly black comedy during that period that builds upon the legacy of films like Dolemite to deliver their own sensibility.
- If you were tired of hood movies, the Wayan Brothers had Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996) ready for you, right alongside other comic commentary such as the underappreciated classic Fear of a Black Hat (1993).
- Speaking of the Wayans Family… I have a feeling that at some point, there will be a critical re-appraisal of their body of work. They don’t get any respect for working in dumb comedy, but when you take a look at their longevity and success, it’s easy to argue that they were just as essential to the development of black cinema as more serious filmmakers. From the late 1980s to the late 2000s, their imprint is everywhere, and their list of memorable (not necessarily good) films is significant. More interestingly, their approach allows for the stealth inclusion of anti-racism messages in the fabric of very audience-friendly movies. White Chicks (2004) gender-flips and race-flips the blackface concept to have two brothers become vapid white women. Major Payne (1995) is unforgettable, while Blankman (1994) parodied superhero films before superhero films were really a thing. Some of funniest jokes of the first two Scary Movie (2000, a significant box-office hit for a black director) films are about racial issues, no matter what you think about the films themselves. Here’s a sample:
- Also worth mentioning is Hollywood Shuffle (1988), an uneven but occasionally biting comedy taking on racism in the film industry. (Also: co-written by a Wayans.)
- There’s also the Barbershop series, which is significantly more ambitious in exploring the concept of black communities (as clustered around barbershops) than other comparable black comedies.
- Calling Good Hair (2009) a comedy is stretching it for a documentary exploration of the issues revolving around black hair, but under the direction of Chris Rock, it’s both funny and thought-provoking — and it features Maya Angelou getting a laugh out of Chris Rock:
- B.A.P.s. (1997) imagines two “Black American Princesses” invading Beverly Hills much like How High (2001) would chronicle the invasion of black stoners on an Ivy-league campus.
- Life (1999) is occasionally presented as a prison comedy, but ends up being a poignant journey through decades of 20th-century history.
- The Friday series, starting with Friday (1995) is interesting in that it was a deliberate effort from Ice Cube to portray a lighter side of south-central Los Angeles, getting away from the glum hood movies that had dominated for the previous few years.
- Blaxploitation also became a ripe subject for homage and parody, the three best of them being the essential Undercover Brother (2006), I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) and the layers-upon-layers comedy of Black Dynamite (2008), deliberately imitating the shortcomings of those earlier films.
You also start to see, during this time, films that consciously set out to explore past black artists in order to popularize a canon of defining pioneers.
- Building on the example set by 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues about Billie Holiday, What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993) also sets out to mythologize Tina Turner… and made a legend out of Angela Basset along the way.
- My favourite film on this topic remains Cadillac Records (2008), about the tumultuous existence of 1940s-1960s white-owned black-artist label Chess Records –the music here is extraordinary, with depictions of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and Etta James.
- Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1998) takes a look at 1950s R&B singer Frankie Lymon.
- Bird (1988) looks at jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker.
- Ali (2006) showcases Will Smith as a surprisingly credible Muhammad Ali at the height of his fame.
- Jamie Foxx (a music superstar in his own right — he sings a few verses on Kanye West’s “Gold Digger”) was exceptional as Ray Charles in Ray (2004).
- The Supremes get their own biopic in Dreamgirls (2006), featuring Beyoncé and also launching Jennifer Hudson’s career.
- Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), co-written by Shondra Rhimes, casts Halle Berry as the ill-fated Dandridge and goes rummaging through Hollywood history to dramatize the forces that led to her downfall. Much-admired figures such as Otto Preminger and the Nicholas Brothers don’t get much love here, and Berry turns in a great performance. The film is amazingly dedicated to re-creating scenes featuring its protagonist:
Another lovely surprise is the ultra-low-budget Watermelon Woman (1986), detailing the odyssey of a black lesbian as she tries to find more information on a beautiful little-known black actress from 1930s Hollywood. As someone who looked up many Classic Hollywood actresses to know more about them, there was an immediate connection there – but the film then goes on to talk about the intersection of black and gay issues in classic Hollywood in a way that pays homage to past generations while driving it even further forward. Despite its relative obscurity, it was deservedly selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in late 2021.
In a closely related vein, the 1980s managed to capture in docu-fictive format several of the new emerging artistic trends spearheaded by black entertainers. Wild Style (1983) and Krush Groove (1985) have a look at the burgeoning NYC rap/hip-hop scene with some amazing early performances by several musical legends. Breakin’ (1984) and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (also 1984) capture the breakdancing scene in its heyday. (Despite its much-ridiculed title, Electric Boogaloo is not a bad watch at all.)
Non-entertainment black history also becomes an increasingly frequent topic for filmmakers.
- Harlem Nights (1989) may look like a historical comedy, but it does, in re-creating a black entertainment venue of a past era, strengthen the visibility of such establishments and their importance as essential places for the community.
- A Soldier’s Story (1984) looks at the experience and discrimination against Black soldiers during WW2, a rich theme also examined in The Tuskegee Airmen (1995) and later on in blistering action-packed fashion in Red Tails (2012). Farther away in time, the legacy of black soldiers during the Civil War is examined powerfully in Glory (1989).
- Amistad (1997), from Steven Spielberg, shows his evolution as a filmmaker (see below for some not-so-complimentary commentary about The Color Purple) with a brutal exploration of slavery and its consequences… even if it focuses on a white protagonist, what most people remember from the film is Djimon Hounsou’s harrowing performance.
The 1980s-1990s also see the emergence of a stream of mid-budget efforts genre efforts dedicated to black audiences that don’t necessarily set out to have an explicitly progressive agenda, but often just tell stories featuring black characters:
- Straight-up dramas include Hustle & Flow (2005), Precious (2009), interracial romance drama Monster’s Ball (2001), southern-gothic Eve’s Bayou (1997),
- In comedy that’s not explicitly talking about black issues, we have House Party (1990) and Coming to America (1988), among many others.
- The 2000s see a significant sub-genre of teen dancing films focused on black performers — something that uncomfortably echoes earlier eras showcasing black performers solely as entertainers, but usually goes beyond simple representation to talk about broader issues. You Got Served (2004) is about as straightforward as these films go, but Save the Last Dance (2001) asks uncomfortable questions about interracial relationships from the perspective of black women left with fewer dating options. The remarkable Bring it On (1999) explicitly talks about how white performers steal material from black performers under the guise of a teen high-school comedy. Stomp the Yard (2007) spends most of its time on the campus of a historically black university, which is far rarer than you’d imagine in film history. (The Step Up series (2006-2014) has its moments, but its track record is muddled.) Then there’s Dance Flick (2009), by the Wayans Brothers, to make fun of it all.
- Black Snake Moan (2006) is in an uncomfortable category of its own. While white, writer/director Craig Brewer would go on to make several other films of interest, from Hustle & Flow to Dolemite is My Name to Coming 2 America.
- In non-hood crime thrillers, we have New Jack City (1991), Set it Off (1996), All About the Benjamins (2002), Blue Streak (1999), Double Take (2001), Bad Boys (1995), Dead Presidents (1995) — all decent evening picks that entertain without necessarily intending to change the world.
- In romance, we have Love & Basketball (2000), How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), Waiting to Exhale (1995, directed by Forest Whittaker), Boomerang (1992), Love Jones (1997), Booty Call (1997), The Best Man (1999), the Think Like a Man diptych and much more.
- There’s even a black musical of sorts in Purple Rain (1984). Let’s have another look at the dynamite opening sequence:
- Even Horror and Science Fiction get some representation. Candyman (1992) is a surprisingly good supernatural horror film that directly engaged with issues of race and ghettoization, anchored by Tony Todd’s lead performance. Tales from the Hood (1995) is exactly what it says in the title. Vampire in Brooklyn (1995) is held back by Eddie Murphy’s quirks but shows the films that can exist once black stars can lead to their financing. Blade (1998) is, from the first scene on, a must-see vampire film that predates the superhero movie craze. The Brother From Another Planet (1984) is still a reference for having a black protagonist in the middle of a socially conscious Science Fiction film.
In other white-directed films, however, the quality of the black representation became better over time. For instance, The Blues Brothers (1980) brings to mind the old-school MGM musicals, and it features plot-crucial musical numbers from blues legends. There’s something incredibly satisfying in making the link between 1980’s The Blues Brothers and 1942’s Stormy Weather through Cab Calloway, for instance — people my age will forever remember him as the “Minnie the Moocher” guy and seeing him pop up in the WW2-era musical is already having a way to enjoy a film now eighty years old.
The Blues Brothers, to be fair, is so steeped into Black-dominated blues that not featuring black artists would have been nonsense. You can level a fair criticism that the main actors of the film are all white (an oversight corrected in the otherwise much-worse sequel Blues Brothers 2000) but the film itself is criticism-proof when it comes to capturing incredible performances for posterity. Isn’t the world better with Aretha Franklin’s “Think” captured in such a glorious fashion?
Those two clips barely scratch at the depth of what The Blues Brothers has in store — I haven’t even mentioned the James Brown and Ray Charles numbers.
This being said, the limits of white Hollywood trying to present black culture also become apparent in many ways during that period. The Color Purple (1985), for instance, is not a terrible film — but asking a young pre-Schindler’s List Steven Spielberg to do justice to such subtle complex material is one of the last and most vexing gasps of white Hollywood mishandling material best suited to filmmakers closer to the source. There’s no way this adaptation wouldn’t be helmed by a black female director these days, and that’s eloquent enough.
Even within the black-themed films from black filmmakers’ subset, there’s some controversy during that period about whether these films are helping break prejudice or confirming them:
- Having black supporting characters in horror films was great… until critics noticed that the Black Dude Dies First.
- Many comedies, in adopting what’s now called “African-American Vernacular English” and making repetitive jokes about black culture, were perceived as perpetuating stereotypes.
- The “hood” movies of the early 1990s were also accused of focusing on exploitative elements, showcasing a black experience far from the reality of most educated Black middle-class Americans.
- The predominance and repetitiousness of rap/hip-hop music in Black films was no doubt a consequence of commercial imperatives, but echoed the minstrelsy of earlier eras — not to mention troublesome issues inherent to that musical genre, especially when measured against blaxploitation heirs.
- Some dramatic black actors also criticized the ease through which black rappers got leading roles in films — essentially taking jobs away from other serious black professionals.
In other words, while there are many more black-themed movies, artists and filmmakers during the 1980s-2000s, diversity of representation is not quite there, and that’s the challenge that the 2000s-2010s then went on to tackle.
(I said that I wasn’t going to go much outside Hollywood, but French-Canadian pride won’t let me leave the 1980s without mentioning the provocatively titled Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer [How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired] (1989), adapted from Dany Laferrière’s novel. It’s a very likable comedy following two black men in downtown Montréal as they go about their romantic and artistic business — the atmosphere is similar to many American films along those same lines, while being joyously Montréal-based. The film was roundly denounced upon release across North America for its title and sexual content (look up the poster to see what I’m talking about) but Haitian-born Laferrière, who co-wrote the screenplay, had the last laugh — In 2015, he was inducted as a member of the august Académie française in Paris, literally earning a seat at the table where French is defined).
The Third Wave – Blaxploitation, or: co-opted cool (1960s-1970s)
The late 1960s were an era of tremendous change in cinema. The Production Code that had infantilized the American movie industry was challenged throughout the decade by overseas cinema and by the liberalization of social mores. Already neutered throughout the 1950s, it essentially disappeared in the mid-1960s (replaced by the MPAA ratings) and eventually led to a complete change in topics and approaches in American cinema. 1967 remains a watershed year with several new filmmakers presenting a startlingly more realistic and mature approach to the material shown on the big screen.
That included a slightly more representative view of black characters on-screen. Buoyed by the continued success of Sidney Poitier throughout the 1960s, filmmakers were to propose projects that didn’t completely revolve around white protagonists. Sometime, those projects were even helmed by black directors, even if the production money, screenwriters and filmmaking crew were white.
The blaxploitation sub-genre remains the more memorable facet of that era. It’s easy to be dismissive of the trend half a century later: action-driven stories of inner-city crime, made for cheap thrills and sensational marketing. Violence, sex and drugs were usually showcased in those productions (especially at the grindhouse low-end) and you can reasonably make the point that this was not any more admirable or realistic a portrayal of the black American experience as the Hollywood blackface years. Most blaxploitation films looked black, but were written, produced and engineered by white studios as a profit-making enterprise – and many historians have noted that while funding was going to blaxploitation projects revolving around sensationalistic genre material, far fewer funding was approved for movies made to reflect the reality of the civil rights era.
But that’s being reductive in hindsight. For one thing, the blaxploitation movement allowed for the emergence of several black stars that did not have to be as perfect a persona as Sidney Poitier – Richard Roundtree, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, etc. It allowed writers/directors such as Melvin Van Peebles, Rudy Ray Moore and Gordon Parks to demonstrate to white producers that there was a viable black market for movies that could also be crossover hits with white audiences. It led generations of young black American to see characters looking like themselves portrayed on-screen (often in grander-than-life characters) as more than household help or agricultural workers.
If you want blaxploitation recommendations, there are plenty. Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972) and Dolemite (1975) are can’t miss references, but I found them slower and duller than their reputation suggests. I’m far more partial to the self-aware lunacy of Three the Hard Way (1974).
Even today’s viewers won’t be able to resist the charm of Pam Grier, but I prefer her strong character in Friday Foster (1975) than the abuse she suffers in the better-known Coffy (1973) or Foxy Brown (1974) — and don’t miss her turn in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 homage Jackie Brown. As far as female-centric blaxploitation films go, Cleopatra Jones (1973) is also a strong pick, especially considering that its PG rating is far friendlier to family audiences than its R-rated counterparts.
I’m far from being done watching and recommending blaxploitation films – it’s one of my favourite sub-genres of Hollywood history and I’m trying not to burn through them all too quickly.
It’s worth noting that Hollywood was certainly paying attention to the street cachet of blaxploitation and tried to rub some of it on otherwise non-black-specific productions. Results were mixed: While the black element of the James Bond installment Live and Let Die (1973) is now frankly embarrassing, the racial elements of Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (1974) is inseparable from its success as an irreverent comedy. So irreverent, in fact, that there’s serious doubt it could be made today. See if the in-your-face anti-racism comedy of the following clip works for you:
This being said, blaxploitation may get the nostalgic nod, but it was far from being the only representation of black Americans on the big screen. Many of the alternatives were far more admirable, coming from white filmmakers who wanted to highlight issues of segregation and poverty. A few highlights:
- Two white filmmakers at different stages of their careers are worth mentioning at this point: Stanley Kramer and Norman Jewison.
- Kramer was one of the leading social-issues filmmakers of the 1940s-1960s, with a filmography that appeared dedicated to highlight various injustices — albeit sometimes without subtlety. The Defiant Ones (1958, detailed below) was an early attempt at a white/black anti-racism statement, with the rest of his filmography tackling humanist themes of diversity and tolerance. His last big film was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), an admirable anti-racism message film that, unfortunately, has aged very poorly in its paternalistic didacticism.
- Also the same year, from up-and-coming Canadian director Norman Jewison (who would go on to have a socially conscious, but chameleonic career), is the far more enjoyable In the Heat of the Night (1967) — a far more immersive and hard-hitting film that, even today, works well in highlighting racial discrimination. In between “They call me MISTER TIBBS” and “The Slap heard ’round the world”, this is a film that still has plenty of great moments:
- The coincidence linking both films is that both starred Sidney Poitier, both tackled racial discrimination and were both nominated for the same Best Picture Academy Award. Fortunately, the Academy’s good sense prevailed, and the Oscar went to In the Heat of the Night. The point, however, is that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner looks backward in style and approach (with a father approving an interracial union), whereas In the Heat of the Night very much looked forward, anticipating the blaxploitation era in showcasing a black policeman more than able to hold his own. It would be difficult to best illustrate the way the tide changed in 1967 than with a comparative viewings of those two Poitier films.
- You can love Sammy Davis Jr. for his status as a Rat Pack member alongside Frank Sinatra and Tony Martin: his performances in Ocean’s Eleven and Robin and the Seven Hoods are quite amusing — and in the second case, showcase his real-life talent for gunplay in the “Bang! Bang!” musical number:
- But Davis also had a strong activist reputation, and I have great admiration for his turn as a self-destructive jazz musician dealing with racism in A Man Called Adam (1966).
- Sounder (1972) takes on a period drama about Deep South sharecroppers, but transforms it into a moving tale highlighting the importance of education and family – and don’t miss some of the greatest performances of the legendary Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield’s career.
- While zombie-movie landmark Night of the Living Dead (1968) is most definitely not a black-issues film, the focus of the film eventually shifts to a black character –a rarity at the time– and its ends up making quite a point about discrimination in its final moments.
- It’s also during that period that you can see more diversified ensemble comedies, perhaps the most noteworthy being Car Wash (1976) prefiguring many, many Los Angeles-centric comedies talking about race and co-existence.
Then there’ the entirety of Sidney Poitier’s filmography during that period. Poitier was the first bankable black star, and he got there by taking a very methodical approach to the roles he accepted. As he later explained in interviews, he knew that there was no room for error in being the black lead in Hollywood: he picked roles meant to be exemplary so that there could be no criticism of him and other black actors due to the flaws of his characters. The approach can be maddening (as any contemporary look at Who’s Coming to Dinner highlights) but fortunately, he was perfect at it: any Poitier film is a great performance, but the most memorable ones during that period are In the Heat of the Night (1967), his turn as a teacher in To Sir, With Love (1967, only twelve years after his turn as a student in Blackboard Jungle), the very likable Lilies of the Field (1963), and Paris Blues (1961) in which he competes with Paul Newman to look cool and the winners are the audience.
The coming of the civil rights era had white studios trying their best to address the topic of racism – far more often with the best of intentions, but still presenting a message from the dominant majority perspective. I keep going back and forth, for instance, on whether Finian’s Rainbow (1969, directed by Francis Ford Coppola) has aged all that well in this regard. There is, one side, an unequivocal anti-racism message and it’s done through comedy… but the comedy relies on a satire of the “shuffling black servant” stereotype that feels off, and then the super-racist senator gets a lesson thanks to being magically made black… and by that I mean blackface. Again.) See if the shuffling scene gets you laughing:
The tradition of having walk-on parts for black musicians also continued during this period, as this enjoyable bit with Louis Armstrong introducing “Hello Dolly” with Barbra Streisand in Hello Dolly (1969).
There’s another film worth mentioning in this period, but not a particularly good one. The Wiz (1978), a black-themed musical remake of The Wizard of Oz, was and remains a prodigious waste of the talents of so many people: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson (in his finest big-screen performance), Richard Pryor and a late-career appearance from Lena Horne. It’s a rare misfire by director Sidney Lumet – a white man, but married to Lena Horne’s daughter at the time – in that it seems to be bold and boring at the same time, scarcely taking advantage of its own lavish production for impact. It’s not a complete disaster, but even the highlights feel like a missed opportunity. “Ease on Down the Road,” for instance, is a great song — but watch the clip and ask yourself if a static long shot of Ross and Jackson was really the best way to showcase that material:
The reason why The Wiz still earns a mention in this history is that it flopped so spectacularly both on a commercial and critical level that it harmed big budget all-black productions for a long while.
And while these notes are about movie history, can we talk about Star Trek for a moment? The show which was the first to feature an interracial kiss (with mind-controlled characters, but still), the one with a multiracial crew, the one featuring a black Starfleet admiral, the one which (clumsily) race-flipped an alien civilization to make a point about racism? It was also, crucially, the show with Nichelle Nichols, who not only impressed many fans (including one Martin Luther King Jr., and at the other end of the spectrum, one kid raised in an all-white small town in Eastern Ontario) but later parlayed her notoriety into NASA’s outreach for the black community and diversified the astronaut program… as told in Woman in Motion (2019):
In closing this section, another look outside Hollywood, this time for the very grim La noire de… [Black Girl] (1966), “often considered the first Sub-Saharan African film by an African filmmaker to receive international attention” in Wikipedia’s words. It follows the life of a young Senegalese woman as she goes to work in France as the maid for an upper-middle-class French family, cross-cut with her previous life in Senegal. Even at 55 minutes, it feels like a very long film as she’s clearly unhappy, harassed, discriminated against and ignored. It ends on a very sombre note that guarantees that you won’t forget it… and show how much hard-hitting writer/director Ousmane Sembène could be in talking about his own experiences rather than let a white filmmaker do it. Mbissine Thérèse Diop is superb in the lead role. La noire de… is the kind of film Hollywood should have made during that period, but never would have dared to. It’s a landmark of African cinema, and it’s well worth watching at least once. (You probably won’t want to watch it twice.)
(Mid-2002 note: A later draft of this historical overview will probably split this section in half, and pay more attention to the era between blaxploitation and the new popular black cinema of the late 1980s/early 1990s: I recently discovered the overlooked “L.A. Rebellion” movement of independent black cinema, and there’s a lot of material to digest here that clarifies what happened during that time.)
The Second Wave – Hollywood blackface (1940s-1950s)
If you take a look at Hollywood filmmaking, the 1940s and 1950s are disappointing, frequently frustrating decades for the representation of black Americans in cinema. The race films of the silent era are further marginalized. The Hays Code prohibits frank discussions of racial concerns. Hollywood does occasionally produce films with all-black casts and themes, but they are clearly filtered through an all-white production crew and often present a safety-contained “exotic” package to white audiences. In the south, racism is so prevalent that segments featuring black artists are cut from the film entirely, which leads studios to contain black stars in easily removable subplots. Then there’s the lingering use of blackface, which this great TCM segment explains better than I can:
The only areas where black characters are allowed to have agency and demonstrate their talents are in singing and dancing, which is admirable but clearly limited. Otherwise, black representation in film is frequently comic, and not in a good way: the characters are designed to be laughed at, or hover at the edge of the screen as a supporting presence to the white protagonists. Some actors made careers out of such characters – Hattie McDaniel and the very likable Butterfly McQueen being two such examples, parlaying their presence in Gone with the Wind to a string of similar roles until they got tired of the stereotypes and left Hollywood.
Some of the worst examples can be found in films that are otherwise terrific.
- Dancing legend Fred Astaire had many admirable characteristics, and one of them was a deep affection for black culture. Which perfectly explains the frequent inclusion of black dancers in his films, or the homage that he wanted to pay to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in Swing Time (1936)… except that it’s a homage in blackface. While sincere and technically admirable (the sequence includes primitive but well-executed special effects technology for style), it’s not a sequence that has aged well. At best, it’s among the least objectionable use of blackface in film… but it still rankles.
- A much worse example of blackface can be found in the otherwise innocuous Holiday Inn (1942), in which Bing Crosby goes in blackface to celebrate Lincoln and… aw, it’s just a terrible sequence. I’m not linking to it.
- If you like Cary Grant (and who doesn’t?), there’s no way you can dislike domestic comedy Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). But contemporary viewers are liable to grit their teeth at the portrayal of a family satisfied of their social progressivism… while a black servant toils at the edges of the frame to provide them with their meals. Worse yet: one of her folksy utterances late in the film is taken by the protagonist to become the centrepiece of an advertising campaign that makes him rich. The rest of the film is excellent… but those aspects rankle as examples of how unobjectionable, good-natured material eventually becomes unpalatable.
- There’s a very similar white-taking-advantage-of-black-ingenuity situation (involving a character played by the same actress, Louise Beavers), in the otherwise halfway-decent Imitation of Life (1934).
- Topper Returns (1941) is a rather good supernatural comedy/mystery in which a man able to see ghosts helps a young murdered woman to find who killed him. A strong supporting character is played by black comedian Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (and his distinctive gravelly voice) as a valet utterly panicked by the supernatural happenings – in essence being the audience’s near-hysterical stand-in for the paranormal content. It’s often a very funny performance, but it’s squarely the kind of comic stereotyping that was prevalent at the time and that Anderson himself struggled with. Still, in impact and tone it’s not that different from many roles played later by the Wayan Brothers, Martin Lawrence or Chris Tucker, so there’s some nuance here to consider. See how this scene, um, lands for you:
It would be tempting to dwell on those issues to condemn the period as a dark age of sort. But that’s ignoring some of the undeniable progress accomplished at the time, the recording of incredible artists for posterity or the inclusion of some exceptionally good roles for black actors during that period.
Then-dominant studio MGM, for instance, deliberately set out to make musicals with all-black casts, consciously aiming for segregated cinema houses. The result is a remarkable glimpse at some of the era’s best black entertainers.
- Stormy Weather (1943) is uneven, but it has some amazing segments to it, most notably performances from Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller and concludes on an incredible “Jumpin’ Jive” dance number from the Nicholas Brothers that Fred Astaire once called “the greatest dancing he had ever seen on film”. Have a look: (There’s also a colorized HD version that may be more accessible for some).
- Cabin in the Sky (1943, directed by a then-unknown Vincente Minelli) is a very close relative of Stormy Weather, and it’s also worth a look – it’s a better film overall, but it doesn’t have as many anthology-worthy moments as the other.
There’s a lot to say about those two movies. They’re obviously limited by the codes and prejudices of the era, and the problems that come with white filmmakers making movies about black characters. But there’s a reason why both of those films remain essential for black film enthusiasts. For one thing, even in stereotyping some characters they provide far more development, depths and nuance for the actors than for the walk-on parts that they usually got at the time. Historians will point at how Horne got the full glamorous star treatment for those films — tailored outfits, glamour shots, skin tone-specific makeup, top billing, etc. Robinson got a chance to go beyond his classic image as Shirley Temple’s tap-dancing partner and stretch some acting muscles. Best of all, the films offer in incredibly good black-and-white cinematography the chance to see the era’s best black entertainers — forever capturing what made them special to audiences then and now.
A decade later, Carmen Jones (1954) adapted Bizet’s classic Opera to an all-black cast under the iconoclastic (and somewhat lecherous) direction of Otto Preminger. The film itself is a bit of a downer (and in a cruel twist, both Dorothy Dandrige and Harry Belafonte have their voices dubbed during songs), but the takes on the opera’s two best-known pieces are simply terrific. Here’s a good-quality excerpt of opening number “Dat Love” to let you appreciate Dorothy Dandridge’s incredible performance:
(The other standout number of the film is “Stan’ Up an’ Fight” -the “Toreador” song-, but there’s no good video excerpt of that one available online.)
MGM also welcomed the timeless diva Lena Horne as part of musicals that weren’t solely black-focused. There was a catch, though: since Deep South theatres regularly cut black actors from movies, her presence usually took the form of a brief singing segment that could be removed without affecting the narrative. (When she retired from Hollywood for a pure singing career, she cited exactly that as a reason.) Still, her performances are glorious. Her best-known songs are of the stirring soulful variety (her numbers in Till the Clouds Roll by show how Hollywood should have done Show Boat…
…but I have a fondness for the impish sauciness of her take on “The Lady is a Tramp”. There are other, better Horne performances captured on film, but this one from Words and Music (1948) has her smiling and having fun: a contrast from her usual stoic siren screen persona. Cinematographically, it’s also in colour with very few cuts to leave the focus on her performance.
Lena Horne was far from the only black performer to be featured in musical segments of larger films, sometimes in very interesting contexts. Many wartime propaganda musicals meant to bolster morale at home and with the soldiers abroad made a point of including black performer segments — such as This is the Army (1943), Reveille with Beverly (1943), Stage Door Canteen (1943) and Hollywood Canteen (1944). There was a point to it, though — presenting a racially-integrated America to audiences around the world was a propaganda aim by itself while America was fighting against a white supremacist regime. The unexpected consequence of that deliberate effort, however, was to increase the racial integration of Hollywood during WW2. Not very well, and perhaps not with entirely positive consequences (such as leading to the end of the “race film” movement), but clearly laying down the way for the integration of later performers such as Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.
Consequently, other black actors sometimes got plum assignments in more mainstream fare. The 1951 version of Show Boat (which I’ll cremate in a few paragraphs) reaches its apex as William Warfield delivers the best all-time version of “Ol’ Man River”:
Compare and contrast with the still-great 1936 version of Show Boat with Paul Robeson:
(Mid-2022 note: A later revision of this document will have a lot more to say about Robeson and his activism, or specifically how his career was deliberately extinguished due to his political opinions.)
Louis Armstrong had a mini-career of sort “acting” in Hollywood films, even if those roles were usually walk-on bits in white musicals. We’ve seen his turn in Hello Dolly earlier, but the best of those performances is his role as band leader and storyteller in High Society – his twinkling, knowing “End of song, beginning of story” at the beginning of the film gets me grinning every single time. (It’s about halfway in the following clip, but stay for the jazzy cover of the Bridal March:)
The 1950s were much better than the 1940s for black actors in dramatic roles, and much of it has to do with an early pre-Civil Rights era awakening to the discrimination faced by black Americans.
- Screen legend Sidney Poitier gets his first big-screen movie roles playing in such films. His debut No Way Out (1950) has him as a black doctor trying to save the life of an unrepentant racist criminal. The Defiant Ones (1958) has his handcuffed to a white racist (Tony Curtis) as they try to escape a chain gang.
- Before Sidney Poitier became a megastar, there was Harry Belafonte. While better known today as a singer and activist, Bellafonte has an impressive run of featured roles in the 1950s. Often paired with Dorothy Dandridge, he (still) gets great reviews from Bright Road (1953), Carmen Jones (1954) and Island in the Sun (1957) Comparisons between him and Will Smith get downright eerie considering his starring role in Science Fiction thriller The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), which anticipates the post-apocalyptic Manhattan of Smith’s later I Am Legend. Finally, he closes the decade by a leading role in a rare film noir to acknowledge racial tensions: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).
- Canada Lee has a small but well-remembered role in Alfred Hitchcock’s claustrophobic thriller Lifeboat (1944) — the most visible performance of a fascinating actor whose career was cut short by the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunt.
- Speaking of Poitier and Lee, they shared screen credits in Cry, the Beloved Country (1951, Poitier’s second list and Lee’s last), a film to tackle South Africa apartheid decades before it became an international flashpoint. (Astonishingly enough, the apartheid measures were so severe that Poitier and Lee were forced to pretend that they were indentured servants of the director in order to be admitted in South Africa to film.) This film, along with other titles such as Something of Value (1957) and the much-later The Comedians (1967 — not a comedy despite the title) had to head overseas (to Africa, to Haiti) for their subject matter in order to comment obliquely on American racism and provide good roles for black actors.
- (Mid 20222 note: There are more Hollywood movies worth mentioning here that slowly started to acknowledge racial prejudice during the period.)
Finally, there’s one terrible film that I want to highlight as exemplifying the absurdity of Production Code Hollywood: the 1951 version of Show Boat. Let us rewind: the original 1927 Broadway stage version is a lavish musical that has an important sub-plot about an interracial relationship. But while Broadway could do whatever it wanted without the paternalistic restraints of the Hollywood production code, the 1951 movie adaptation is forbidden from casting a real black actress for that subplot on penalty of not being distributed in several states and so gives the role to… Ava Gardner. Now, I like Gardner (and if you don’t, it’s because you haven’t yet seen her in Night of the Iguana) but she’s absolutely inappropriate here and her presence neuters a good chunk of the plot. It’s made even worse by how Till the Clouds Roll By (excerpted above) had Lena Horne in the role — something made possible because it presented the musical numbers as part of their composer’s biography… without the accompanying plot. Do you want even worse? Horne was actively lobbying for the role in the 1951 version and was a close friend of Gardner.
The other big story of the 1940s and 1950s in black cinema is one that you don’t see: the gradual disappearance of the “race films” made for black audiences in previous decades. While big studios got into that genre with some of the examples cited above, much of the backbone of that industry was severely affected by World War II, enlistment, changing economic incentives and, yes, Hollywood providing better opportunities for black actors .
So, we’re back to our original assessment of that period: rather poor, with a few bright spots. The void left by race films couldn’t be filled by tokenism, and what was presented by Hollywood, even at its glossiest, did not present a good representation. You would need to wait until the Civil Rights era for more of that.
The First Wave – Race films pioneers (1910s-1930s)
My deep dive into Hollywood history was filled with surprises, but few of them more striking than discovering the existence of black cinema well into the silent era. I grew up with the cinema of Spike Lee, I was certainly aware of blaxploitation and it wasn’t much of a surprise to discover all-black MGM musicals. But the so-called Race Films of the 1920s-1930s were a revelation.
Race films, in few words, were films explicitly made for segregated (black) theatres between 1915 and 1955. Roughly 500 of them were made, of which maybe a hundred survive. While, at the high end, they included already-mentioned big-budget mainstream studio productions such as Stormy Weather, Cabin in the Sky and Carmen Jones, most of them from specialized studios worked with much smaller budgets determined in function of the smaller audiences likely to pay for admission. See, for instance, the history of the activist Lincoln Motion Picture Company. Race films offer, in many ways, an alternate version of film history as presented by Hollywood: a vision of black Americans that was barely shown to the mainstream, and was meant as much for entertainment as edification. The value of education and hard work is frequently reiterated, and the lack of stereotyping in those films can be surprising if you’re coming at it from classic Hollywood. It gets even more interesting once you dig down even further in history and find out a viable race film ecosystem of studios, stars and movie distributors well into the 1920s. Some of them are still very relevant.
But first, let’s talk about the frankly ugly side of Hollywood racism at that time. By the 1920s, Hollywood was slowly coalescing, as filmmakers made the transcontinental trek from the cold and unforgiving climate of Fort Lee, NY to Los Angeles, CA where they could shoot movies outdoors all year long. But the tradition of Hollywood liberalism (largely forged by the fact that most studio magnates were immigrants, often of Jewish background) hadn’t quite taken hold and the Civil War was still within living memory at that point. There was clearly money to be made catering to the racist South. As a result, the leading director of the time, D.W. Griffith, ended up making Birth of a Nation (1915, originally called The Clansman), which romanticized the KKK’s actions against a caricature of black characters as rapists and murderers (most of them played by white actors in blackface). Let’s not pretend that this was a marginal phenomenon: the film was a box-office success and remains the first film ever screened at the White House. Worse yet — most historians agree that the film led to the resurgence of the Klan between 1915 and 1944, directly contributing to its now-familiar hooded iconography.
It’s not rare for movies at the time to feature black characters as maids, attendants, train help, porters and agricultural workers. You can glimpse them, unmentioned and unacknowledged, in the background or the edge of the frame of well-intentioned comedies, or making wisecracks for comic relief in a role not unlike that of a court jester, powerless except in tolerated sarcasm.
Then there’s movies acting as reflection of their era. It’s not infrequent to watch an otherwise amiable film of the era and suddenly have to do a mental spit-take at some of the language being used. No, I’m not referring to the pre-LGBT use of “gay” as in, say, The Gay Divorcee (1934), nor the shifting of the expression “making love” in the 1930s-1940s from describing casual flirting to the current euphemism for sexual activity. No, I’m talking about having one likable heroine in films such as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) suddenly dropping “I’m free, white, and 21” in casual conversation with a young man. As Jezebel explains it, it was then meant as a female empowerment catchphrase… but doesn’t come across the same way today, and in fact was nearly erased from the lexicon shortly after, led by criticisms from the black community and then the desire to project equality as an American value while fighting Nazis during the early 1940s.
Let me skip across the Atlantic, briefly, to talk about French films Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935), not particularly for the films themselves — which are still enjoyable, but sometimes too close to black exoticism– but because they give me an excuse to talk about their lead actress, the extraordinary Josephine Baker. American-born Baker left for France in her teens after an incredibly rough early life and constant discrimination. It’s in Paris that she became a cabaret star, musical sensation and a sex-symbol of the era, with major film roles in the 1930s French film industry. Her known associations in the 1920s-1930s is a jaw-dropping who’s who of Parisian celebrities — just the list of her rumoured lovers is astonishing. Everything about Baker is mind-boggling: After the Nazi invasion of France, she used her status as a singing star and her numerous contacts to relay information about the Nazis to the French Résistance, eventually winning numerous military honours for her efforts. She was an outspoken activist during the Civil Rights era. Even her death was astounding: Four days after a stand-room-only revue of her 50 years in showbusiness, she died in bed surrounded by the glowing reviews of her last show.
Hollywood did not exactly ignore black Americans during those years, but their inclusion in movies is far too often as servants or train attendants. (Hattie McDaniel memorably won an Academy Award for such a role in Gone with the Wind (1939), but wait – she had to sit at a segregated table during the ceremony and her acceptance speech, bafflingly enough for twenty-first century fans, included “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race.”)
A better-than-average effort came from white director King Vidor (one of the era’s most humanist directors) with Hallelujah (1929) – a somewhat stereotypical film by contemporary standards, but one with a rare all-black cast and one with tremendous affection for its characters.
Part of why the Race Films of the silent and early sound era remain so surprising are that many of these films came from the Pre-Code era. As mentioned previously, the Production Code was an incredibly restrictive list of dos-and-donts pushed by the religious authorities to tell Hollywood which topics it could or couldn’t approach in films. (Otherwise, they wouldn’t get approved for public exhibition — in fact, cinema was not considered free speech until the 1950s.) There was a general prohibition on criminals getting away from their crimes, for instance, that trivialized more than a generation’s worth of crime thrillers. But there were other, stranger and now completely ludicrous prohibitions that inhibited racial cinema from 1934 to the late 1950s. During that time, you couldn’t show interracial couples in movies, for instance. (A reminder: several states had laws making such relationships illegal until 1967.) It’s difficult to make hard-hitting social commentary in such an environment and that partially explains the stunted emotional register of Classic Hollywood.
But many race films were made before that code, and enjoyed wide distribution in the network of theatres with black American audiences. The most remarkable of those pioneer filmmakers is Oscar Micheaux, widely recognized as the first black American director of feature-length films. Born on a farm from a father who had been a slave, Micheaux left for Chicago early on and had a wide-ranging practical education before settling down on a Midwest farm and turning to writing. Initially an essayist and novelist, he turned to filmmaking to adapt his own work, and ended up forging a studio dedicated to race films. Casting about for a similar filmmaker, you always end up comparing Micheaux to Tyler Perry or Spike Lee despite a gap of 60 years between them. (Fittingly enough, Micheaux’s gravestone now reads, “A man ahead of his time.”)
What’s fascinating about Micheaux’s work, however, is that it’s still surprisingly biting. The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) squarely shows black protagonists defending themselves from the Klu Klux Klan, while Body and Soul (1925), Paul Robeson’s screen debut, examines the relationship between criminality and religion in a small black community.
But the best of Micheaux’s surviving films (most of them were lost to time) remains his sophomore effort Within our Gates (1920) and it doesn’t hold back: in a scant 79 minutes, it tackles issues of passing, skin colour within the black community, the urban-versus-rural divide, northern flight, black woman competing romantically for well-educated men, and illegitimate births from interracial affairs. The film graphically portrays a lynching and intercuts it with an attempted rape – not the kind of material that viewers expect from a 1920 film. Anchored by the beautiful Evelyn Preer (the first black actress star), the film makes for fascinating viewing: Despite the dated technical aspects, title cards and century-old fashion, it feels just as contemporary in its topics as many newer films.
Amazingly enough, we now have access to the film because one single copy survived in Spain and was found in the 1970s, before it was restored, translated back into English and digitized for posterity. (Such “passing through the eye of the needle” stories of films surviving thanks to a single copy are not rare – even for Oscar-nominated films.)
Within our Gates, being now out of copyright, is now freely available on-line. You should watch it one day:
But even 1920 is not quite the beginning of the road for black cinema – a number of shorter-length black films and filmmakers are being rediscovered even today. One of the earliest such segments in the incredibly charming Something Good – Negro Kiss (1898), rediscovered in 2017 and again in a slightly longer version in 2021. It’s an uplifting close to this overview of black cinema – watch and this 124-year-old film is guaranteed to make your day just a bit better: