As we all know, February marks Black History Month. But this year, February also marks something else: The 100th anniversary of the birth of black cinema. Black cinema was making black history before Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926. And this week, black cinema is making history once again with the nomination of Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire for Best Picture. It's the first time in the history of the Academy Awards that a film directed by a black director is nominated for the top award. Director Lee Daniels is following in the footsteps of those who came before him — namely, William D. Foster and Oscar Micheaux.
Oscar Micheaux is often lauded as the father of black filmmakers. But William D. Foster began producing films nearly a decade earlier than Micheaux's first effort. In 1910, Foster, a sports writer for the Chicago Defender, formed the Foster Photoplay Company, the first independent African-American film company. (Foster wasn't a complete stranger to show business; he had also worked as a press agent for vaudeville stars Bert Williams and George Walker.) In 1912, Foster, produced and directed The Railroad Porter. The film paid homage to the Keystone comic chases, while attempting to address the pervasive derogatory stereotypes of blacks in film.
This was three years before D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), a plantation fantasy credited with establishing negative stereotypes of blacks in film that still exists today. Consider the Reconstruction scene, where barefoot black legislators eat fried chicken, swill whiskey, lust after white women and pass a law that all legislators must wear shoes. Insert a cantankerous mammy, tragic mulatto, murderous buck, black rapists and a lynching, and you've got what is shamefully considered to be one of the greatest films of all time.
In response to The Birth of a Nation, brothers George Perry Johnson and Noble Johnson (a Universal Pictures contract actor), founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916, producing middle-class melodramas like The Realization of a Negro's Ambition (1916) and the Trooper of Troop K (1917) and their most well-known film, The Birth of a Race (1918). The Johnson brothers' movies featured black soldiers, black families and black heroes, concepts foreign to most mainstream films at that time.
Oscar Micheaux soon followed suit with The Homesteader (1919), becoming one of the most prolific filmmakers of his time. He directed over 40 films, most notably Within Our Gates (1920) and Body and Soul (1925), which featured film star Paul Robeson, and God's Step Children (1938). Micheaux's films explored the issues of the day: passing, lynching, religion and criminal behavior. They were independently produced until he filed bankruptcy in 1928, reorganizing with white investors as the Micheaux Film Company. Some argue that this changed the tone and direction of his films.
Micheaux's films attracted controversy: Some black film critics criticized his work for its portrayal of blacks, which sometimes perpetuated the same stereotypes found in mainstream films. You didn't find these stereotypes with the work of Eloyce Gist, a black woman filmmaker, who, with her husband, James, made religious films. Gist, a D.C. native, drove around with a camera, shooting footage that used “real” people as actors. Her morality films, Hellbound Train and Verdict: Not Guilty, were released in 1930 and were strongly endorsed by the NAACP.
Early black filmmakers aimed to show the full humanity of African Americans with story lines and themes that countered prevailing ideologies about blackness. Many of the films are hard to find and have “poor” production values because they were literally making something out of nothing.
Early black cinema is an important part of American culture because it visually brought our stories to life. Without the black independent film movement, there would be very few black films today. Where would the black film canon be without the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers of the 1970s? Haile Gerima, Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Pamela Jones, Jamaa Fanaka, Julie Dash, Billy Woodberry, Alile Sharon Larkin all came out of UCLA. Their films tied black stories to black political struggles with an intellectual and cultural core.
Some say Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) was revolutionary; others found it to be pornographic. Van Peebles made this cult classic for $500,000; it grossed $10 million. Without Sweet Sweetback, there would have been no space for Gordon Parks Jr., Ossie Davis and others to direct films during the blaxploitation era. Although controversial, the blaxploitation era gave black actors, filmmakers and musicians an opportunity to make movies — at least in the beginning. During that era, one of the most profound independent films of all time emerged — Ivan Dixon and Sam Greenlee's The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), which gave voice and visuals to the black power ideology that was evolving at that time. It was an unapologetic look at rebellion and literally using the masters' tools to dismantle the masters' house.
It wasn't so long ago that so many people of all races didn't believe that they would see an African-American president in their lifetime. But what some couldn't imagine in reality, black filmmakers created in fantasy, reimagining an America where a black man could be president. In The Man (1972), James Earl Jones stars as Douglass Dilman, a black man who becomes president of the United States after the untimely deaths of the president and speaker of the House. (The vice president was too sick to take over.) Jones brilliantly conveys the struggle over power and identity in this cult classic that shows the complexity of race and class in the Oval Office.
Historically, black cinema has been inextricably linked to social issues in our community. The controversy over Tyler Perry's and Daniels' films has a lot to do with class issues, something that Oscar Micheaux also experienced. While black filmmakers have broken many barriers, there is still much work to be done. For example, Cheryl Boone Isaacs is currently the only African American among the 43 governors of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. While African-American film directors like Antoine Fuqua and F. Gary Gray are directing films that encompass many different genres including action and suspense, black female directors like Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou) and Euzhan Palcy (A Dry White Season) have not fared as well.
Black cinema has always imagined what we could never dream of in reality. Now that reality is catching up with black film, it will be fascinating to see where it goes, particularly on the independent front. Let's think about how the concept of black cinema is being redefined when a film like Avatar features Zoe Saldana, Laz Alonso and CCH Pounder in starring roles.
Black cinema is evolving and will continue to evolve. It did not start with Tyler Perry, nor will it end with him. There would be no Denzel Washington without Sidney Poitier and no Sidney Poitier without Paul Robeson. There would be no Halle Berry without Dorothy Dandridge, no Dorothy Dandridge without Lena Horne and Lena Horne without Fredi Washington. There would be no Hughes Brothers without the Johnson Brothers, no Lee Daniels without Spike Lee, no Gina Prince-Bythewood without Darnell Martin. There would be no Tyler Perry Company without New Millenium Studios, no New Millenium Studios without Third World Cinema.
As in many other industries, African Americans have made their mark in film narratively, stylistically, historically, thematically, economically and aesthetically. What some call poor production values, particularly as it relates to early black films, I call a survival aesthetic — doing the best that we can with what we have. Now that we have 100 years under our belts, we will do better. No matter how much black film changes, the ways in which we interrogate society through our films will not.
As we embark on a new decade in American society where many believe race will become less of an issue, we often forget how long black film has been around and how it has given voice — and image — to our issues.
Black cinema is black history — and our future.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., serves as cultural critic for Creative Loafing. An assistant professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, she is a media scholar and filmmaker who recently finished Four Acts, a documentary on the 2007 public servants strike in South Africa. Follow her on Twitter.