Spanning for over one hundred years, the American Motion Picture industry — better known as Hollywood — undoubtedly produced some of the world’s best-known classic films, filmmakers, stars, and starlets. However, not much is widely known about the African-American men and women who were actively making their own indie films since the medium emerged. For many, many years, Hollywood and Black American Cinema seem to have existed in parallel, converging only on occasion.
When films first began to appear on the silver screen, white actors in black-face portrayed black people. Even if African-Americans were able to secure a role, they, too, were expected to paint their faces. Dejected and repulsed by how they were treated in Hollywood, these men and women created a new motion picture industry; their “race films” told their stories and worked to counteract the negative stereotypes often depicted about them in mainstream works of the era.
It is believed that over five hundred race films were made, but just fewer than one hundred of them remain accessible. According to NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang: “More than 30 companies were producing race films at the height of their popularity during the 1920s.” Today, however, only “fragments of decomposing film strips” remain. The fact that old film was extremely flammable further complicated preservation efforts. Countless works from that era have perished because of this.
Oscar Micheaux (1884 – 1951) is regarded as one of the most prolific black filmmakers of the 20th century. Born in Metropolis, Illinois, Micheaux was a successful homesteader and novelist before embarking on his storied career in cinema. Involved in the making of over 40 motion pictures, he enjoyed the longest professional run out of any African-American director of his time, solidifying his place as the most influential black figure of the silent film era.
After a movie deal for his novel The Homesteader (1917) fell through, Micheaux created the Micheaux Film and Book Company around 1918. The Homesteader (1919) became the first feature length film by an African-American filmmaker at a time when feature length films were a rare accomplishment for anyone. The leading character, John Baptiste, was played by Charles Lucas and an interracial relationship served as the film’s major plot point. The work marked the beginning of Micheaux’s flourishing career.
A remastered version of Oscar Micheaux's 1925 film Body and Soul.
Although a great deal of early Black American Cinema as well as the American Motion Picture industry in general hinges on the work of Micheaux, he was not the only African-American filmmaker doing work that would have a lasting impact, nor was he the only one to own a production company.
Brothers Noble and George Johnson in Omaha, Nebraska founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916, before relocating to Hollywood; it was one of the first and most well known producers of race films. Although the company only released and distributed five works, it is responsible for one of the most important race films ever produced, Harry A. Grant’s The Realization of a Negro's Ambition (1916).
It was made as a direct response to D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a racially inflammatory film that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a heroic force, and black men as aggressive sexual predators. By contrast, The Realization of a Negro's Ambition centered on a black junior oil engineer who rescues a white woman, thereby earning a chance to succeed in the oil business. Although the film did not survive, it did successfully turn the mainstream narrative on its head.
But the tendency to include important social commentary in films was not limited to black male filmmakers; it was also common for black female filmmakers, who played significant roles in the advancement and pioneering of the evolving art form. In 1915, Drusilla Dunjee Houston (1876 – 1941) wrote a screenplay entitled Spirit of the Old South: The Maddened Mob as a direct challenge to The Birth of a Nation, though the film was never made.
Fact is black women were very active in the emerging indie film scene. For all the credit that‘s given to Oscar Micheaux, most may be surprised to learn that Alice B. Russell (1892 – 1984), his second wife, is believed to have been instrumental to her husband’s success by providing her talents in front of and behind the camera. She was, in fact, one of the first African-American actresses to grace the silver screen.
Furthermore, one of the first widely known films to be produced by an African-American woman was A Woman’s Error (1922) by Tressie Souders (1987 – 1995). Very little is known about the film, since there’s no surviving footage, but rumor has it she wrote and produced the film as well. A year later, in 1923, Maria P. Williams also wrote, produced, and acted in her own film, a mystery drama entitled The Flames of Wrath.
But the women’s involvement in the film industry went well beyond that. Madam CJ Walker (1967 – 1919), a beauty products entrepreneur and the first female African-American millionaire, commissioned films about her factories for training purposes. Similarly, the well-known author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (1891 – 1960) made several documentary films in the late 1920s, though these films were mostly intended to aid her research and rarely ventured into the fictional work of her novels.
It’s amazing how little we know about the incredible people who created and elevated Black American Cinema, as well as paved the way for modern African-American filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Madeline Anderson, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Spike Lee, John Singleton, and many others.