Black Images in Filmdom: Yesterday and Today

By St John, Michael | The New Crisis, September/October 2000 | Go to article overview

Black Images in Filmdom: Yesterday and Today

St John, Michael, The New Crisis

The fourth chapter of Genesis in Old Testament tells the story of how Cain and Abel, out in the wide open grasslands tending their flocks, offered sacrifices to the Lord from their cattle according to their individual desires. God looked with kindliness on Abel's efforts but with indifference and disdain on Cain's. So Cain, in a fit of jealously, killed Abel. And when the Lord came to Cain and asked him what he had done, he gave a pointed retort in the form of a question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" God's reply was in the form of a positive affirmation. This is one of the first recorded instances in literature of emphasis on social responsibility. In this case it was an urgent demand for social solidarity, a state achieved only when people work together.

The integration of blacks into movies on the basis of equality was not considered a socially responsible thing to do in filmdom. From its infancy to middle age, the only concern of the movie industry was selling a socially acceptable product. And the portrayal of demeaning black characters, played mainly by whites in blackface, was acceptable. Through this new medium, white filmmakers not only protected their own and the public's negative beliefs about blacks but also perpetuated the racial stereotypes of the day.

It was different in the very beginning. In 1898, several months after the projection of moving images, the silent-era screen showed black soldiers boarding a ship for the Spanish-- Cuban-American War and West Indians assuming their daily responsibilities. But after the release of a 14-minute Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1903, the transfiguration of black characters into brutes, idlers, clowns and the like began. D.W. Griffith's silent film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), which is about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, was the epitome of such characterizations.

In 1918, The Birth of a Race, produced by Emmett J. Scott, personal secretary to Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute, responded to Griffith's inflammatory film. Although it failed commercially, it inspired the Johnson brothers, George P. and Noble, to form the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. The Johnsons wanted to produce films that presented the black character "in his everyday life, a human being with human inclination and one of talent and intellect." In pursuit of a black cinema, they completed and distributed films-The Realization of the Negro's Ambition (1916), A Trooper of Troop K(1916) and By Right of Birth (1921)-that featured successful and adventurous African Americans. Their pursuit failed, however, because of a nationwide flu epidemic that closed theaters.

After World War I, the movie industry responded to a call from California and gradually made its move to Hollywood. The subsequent Jazz Age still relegated blacks to stereotypical parts. The few authentic roles included the seaman performed by the boxer George Godfrey in James Cruze's Old Ironsides (1926) and the gray-haired hobo in Jim Tully's Beggars of Life (1928). The greater portion of blacks who secured parts were convicts, racetrack grooms, servants and chorus girls.

The dearth of positive images resulted in the advent of race movies produced by blacks, and even whites, for black audiences. These movies enabled black thespians to exploit their talents and to ply their art. Some of the films were black versions of such Hollywood genres as success stories; some were a voice of advocacy, such as the Philadelphia Colored Players' The Scar of Shame (1927), a melodrama about caste and class in black society; and some, especially those made by Oscar Micheaux, the most dominant black filmmaker of the silent era, explored such themes as lynching and color-based caste that Hollywood ignored.

Sound film emerged at the beginning of the Great Depression, and black filmmakers momentarily lacked the funds to invest in sound filmmaking or in wiring theaters in black communities. In contrast, white filmmakers, emboldened by sound, began to make socially engaged films that focused attention on the reality of black life. …

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