Lessons from Early African-American Cinema

by Tèa Ashanti

Early on in the history of African-American cinema, filmmakers emerged to rectify the negative stereotypes and blatant racism found in popular films such as The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith and Song of the South by Wilfred Jackson. For a number of years, the history of these early African-American films has been left out of film history books and cinema courses. Due in part to a lack of preservation efforts, there aren’t many early African-American films that remain for study and appreciation.

Race films were controversial because they bucked stereotypes and challenged racism. One filmmaker who produced such films was Oscar Micheaux, an African-American entrepreneur and filmmaker who worked between the years 1919-1948. He introduced himself with The Homesteader in 1918, a film based on the novel he also wrote. While that film is currently lost, other films by Micheaux show him as a filmmaker concerned with uplifting African-American audiences and criticizing the way African Americans were generally portrayed in American popular culture. Interestingly, it seems as though Micheaux was directly inspired by The Birth of a Nation. For example, in his film Within Our Gates the depiction of the mulatto protagonist dealing with the trauma of attempted rape is a direct mockery of a scene in The Birth of a Nation in which an African-American man threatens a white woman by forcing himself on her. The truth is at times unbearable, but Micheaux was determined to produce content for those like him who suffered far too long. Furthermore, Micheaux also confronted African-American audiences by challenging the problem of “passing”: the practice of African Americans—feeling so restricted by their heritage—pretending to be another race out of hatred for their own race.

Other filmmakers and producers such as Spencer Williams and William Alexander were also pioneers of films that highlighted positive images of African-American life, specifically by depicting the normalcy of African-American life. Williams’ The Blood of Jesus (1941), which is recognized by the Congressional National Film Registry, is a film that avoids mockery or degradation of its characters. Alexander, known more as a producer than a director, also fought for his films to portray people of in a positive manner. The Alexander-produced Souls of Sin shows African-American actors in realistic roles of everyday life. By utilizing strong and dignified black roles played by famous actors, such as Dorothy Dandridge, Sydney Portier, and Harry Bellafonte, Alexander provided African Americans with a representation of themselves they had rarely seen onscreen.

Besides providing people of color with a sense of on-screen respect and dignity which they weren’t exposed to before, early independent African-American filmmakers helped pave the way for future filmmakers like Spike Lee and Robert Townsend. Funding is always an issue in Hollywood, and stories of African-America life are still a hard sell. Directly related to this is the fact that African-American filmmakers struggle with how much they have to tailor their content to white audiences while explicitly addressing issues like African-American poverty, mass incarceration, racism, and the histories of slavery and segregation. Fortunately, for current African-American filmmakers and audiences alike, some early African-American films have resurfaced, providing a blueprint on how to address such issues. With the recent release of Kino Lorber’s boxset Pioneers of African-American Cinema, we can now look back on the ways Micheaux, Williams, and others navigated this tricky terrain.

For those of us who are just now being introduced to early African-American cinema, it is awe-inspiring to see representation of African Americans in a positive manner. With the resurfacing of these films, the world will be able to recognize the concerns of African Americans. The hope is that this will enhance the knowledge of our community by changing the predominant stereotypes of African Americans. After all, cinema has the compelling power to evoke human emotion despite race or ethnicity.

Tèa Ashanti is from Fort Worth, TX. At HBU she majors in Mass Media Arts. Previously Tèa was editor of the Collegian, HBU’s weekly student run newspaper. Now she serves as co-managing editor of Satellite. She does not have all the answers and probably never will, but she does enjoy spoken word and 90's R&B a little too much. 

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