“Moving pictures have become one of the greatest revitalizing forces in race adjustment.” – Oscar Micheaux
Still striving for truly equal opportunities in the film industry, Black actors and creatives have long struggled against the systemic racism of Hollywood, an industry whose sheer foundations are rotten with prejudice. Having struggled to gain a significant voice in the industry through the course of the 20th century, it is only due to the likes of pioneers such as Oscar Micheaux, William Greaves, Melvin van Peebles, Kathleen Collins and Spike Lee that Black voices have gained such a platform in modern cinema.
This systemic imbalance was bolstered upon the release of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915, a deeply racist film that was imbued with deeply disturbing racist propaganda, emitting much of the hatred that was still festering in America ever since the period of Reconstruction that following the country’s civil war in the late 19th century. Becoming the very first film to be shown at the White House, President Woodrow Wilson legitimised the fear and evil of the film at the time when he remarked, “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true”.
The prevalence of this notorious American film pervaded throughout the remainder of the 20th century as Hollywood tried to shake its connection to the film’s racist ideals without considering that the damage had already been done. Rising up against such hatred and alienation, Black cinema thrived in its own right throughout this same period of time, reflecting the defiant civil rights movement that was flourishing at the very same time.
Charting the roots of Black cinema from its earliest pioneers to the contemporary innovators, find the essential history of Black filmmaking right here:
Piecing together the very basics of its identity, cinema wouldn’t thrive until the turn of the 20th century, with filmmakers only just beginning to see the potential of this brand new technological marvel. Alongside the likes of Georges Méliès who revolutionised cinema from overseas, Black filmmakers were also starting to express themselves on screen, with Booker T. Washington’s simple documentaries offering the very first examples of Black cinema
Classified as ‘Uplift Cinema’, these films were created at an early Post Civil War teacher-training college in Alabama called the Tuskegee Institute, with Washington helping to produce several short films to promote the institute itself. Creating A Trip to Tuskegee in 1909 followed by A Day at Tuskegee four years later, these films would provide a basis for Black cinema to thrive, even if these small documentaries had little impact on future pioneers such as Oscar Micheaux.
In 1919, four years after the release of The Birth of a Nation, the writer and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux entered the industry armed with his debut film The Homesteader, the first major feature film by a Black filmmaker. With a sharp analytical mind, Micheaux defied the makeup of contemporary Hollywood and provided spirited opposition to mainstream cinema, releasing Within Our Gates in 1920 as a direct response to D. W. Griffith’s infamous Birth of a Nation. Contrasting the experiences of Black people in the rural countryside to those who had been urbanised by the cities, the film explored the suffering of such people in modern America, bringing their plight to the attention of the white national populus.
These films were released under the umbrella term of the ‘Race Film’, a category used to describe films made between 1915 and 1950 that were targeted at Black audiences, made by Black filmmakers on a budget. Emphasising civil rights messages, such films, pioneered by Micheaux helped to establish a ‘Black Cinema’ in America, providing a clear collection of films that discussed the experiences of Black people during the time. With 500 films being made during this period of almost four decades, ‘Race Films’ became pivotal in the blossoming of similar pioneering films later down the line.
Efforts to level the playing field between white and Black filmmakers continued in the middling decades of the 20th century, with Spencer Williams directing the influential fantastical drama The Blood of Jesus in 1941 whilst William D. Alexander also rose to prominence. Such filmmakers were joined by the iconic jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who acted in 20 feature films between the 1930s and 1960s including Birth of the Blues, Cabin in the Sky and New Orleans. In addition to such icons, singer and actor Bill Robinson and Lena Horne along with the significant success of Hattie McDaniel who became the first Black person to win an Oscar in 1939 with her supporting role in Gone with the Wind.
The 1950’s turning point
Whilst racist Hollywood ideals had remained stagnant in the industry for several decades, with white filmmakers retaining power and influence, as societal attitudes began to shift toward during the drive for civil rights in the 1950s, the film industry followed suit.
As the likes of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X worked to change the public perception of Black people across America, the general population were able to witness first-hand the brutality Black people received at the hands of white police officers. The very same year that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed by President Lyndon Johnson, film star Sidney Poitier became the first Black man to win the Leading Actor Oscar at the Academy Awards, winning the award for his performance in the Ralph Nelson film Lilies Of The Field.
This significant cultural and political shift encouraged a plethora of Black creatives to join the industry as filmmakers and actors, with William Greaves becoming a significant creative behind the scenes as Poitier rose to even further crucial and commercial heights. Becoming the first Black film star, the late Sidney Poitier starred in several key civil rights films that highlighted the importance of social equality with the likes of films such as In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the Black people of America liberation from social persecution, and whilst racism had been far from eradicated across the country, the success of the previous decades had provided Black creatives with a significant boost of confidence. Rising from the positivity of this period was the Blaxploitation genre, portraying violent, powerful, unapologetically angry Black characters as a response to decades of systemic racism in the industry.
Often leaning on Black stereotypes, these films often followed Black characters living in urban environments overcoming ‘the Man’, a euphemism used to describe the oppressive white lawmakers. Whilst the genre had its opponents who claimed such films did little to promote the image of the modern Black individual, such films are also recognised for empowering the heroes and subjects of such stories, using funk and soul music in their soundtracks to promote the quality of the culture of the Black community even further.
Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles emerged as a pioneer of this genre with his 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song becoming an influential feature alongside Gordon Parks’ action movie Shaft featuring Richard Roundtree that was released in the very same year. The likes of Ivan Dixon’s thriller Trouble Man and Bill Gunn’s 1973 horror Ganja and Hess followed such successes as Pam Grier became an icon of the era as one of the first female action stars.
L.A. Rebellion movement
In direct response to the more frivolous joys of the Blaxploitation movement of the 1970s, the L.A. Rebellion movement would follow in the successive decade, with the likes of Spike Lee, Julie Dash and Charles Burnett leading the charge with art house films that challenged Hollywood convention and questioned social constructs. With vibrant soundtracks, stunning fashion choices and free-spirited characters, these films were both celebratory and innovative.
Defined by a collection of filmmakers who studied at the University of California Film School between the 1960s and 1980s, the films of the L.A. Rebellion movement are considered landmark pieces of contemporary cinema, telling stories of working-class characters who are powerful forces for change. Burnett’s Killer of Sheep from 1978 became a notable title along with Spike Lee’s 1989 classic Do The Right Thing and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust two years later.
Taking a strong anti-Hollywood stance whilst being committed to telling authentic Black stories, these films made way for the likes of New Jack City, a pulpy crime drama from Mario Van Peebles, son of the Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song director Melvin Van Peebles. Whilst entertaining and stylish, such films were authentic to the contemporary Black experience, often offering moral lessons to troubled, conflicting characters.
Juice from director Ernest R. Dickerson would follow in this style upon its release in 1992, speaking to a young generation of Black teenagers by starring the burgeoning musician Tupac Shakur in the lead role. It was Boyz n the Hood one year earlier, however, that would have the biggest cultural impact, with director John Singleton providing an empowering message for his rousing drama starring Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Regina King.
In addition to such influence from the L.A. Rebellion movement, Black cinema also saw great innovation in the 1990s, particularly from female filmmakers with Cheryl Dunye’s romantic comedy Watermelon Woman and Kasi Lemmons’ drama Eve’s Bayou breaking new ground for diverse stories of genre and vivid style.
Though Black filmmakers and actors are still vying for the attention of Hollywood executives, there have certainly been major strides of improvement in the 21st century, with directors such as Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen, Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele and Nia DaCosta helping to establish a new reality for Black creatives behind the camera.
Such has been helped by the likes of Tyler Perry whose brand of humour proved wildly commercially popular in the early part of the new century, whilst Spike Lee continued to please critical circles with increasingly challenging works. Often charged with political vigour, modern Black cinema has worked to create real social change after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 following the tragic death of Trayvon Martin.
Demanding proper systemic Hollywood change, such filmmakers have been galvanised by the movement, with subtextual films such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Ryan Coogler’s superhero film Black Panther and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight helping to encourage discussion and question the makeup of the modern industry. Whilst contemporary Black cinema looks to innovate into the future, it also refuses to ignore the past, working to provide a better awareness of such systemic racism with films such as 12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen and Selma by Ava DuVernay providing an essential perspective on Black history.
As Black cinema thrives, classic constructs of the industry are also beginning to be re-evaluated, with Melina Matsoukas’ Queen and Slim providing a Black impression of the iconic American Road movie whilst Nia DaCosta’s Candyman repositions the slasher sub-genre of horror cinema to be considered in a Black context. Thriving in every corner and genre of the cinema industry, Black filmmaking is certain to keep innovating with one foot in the past and its eyes firmly on the promise of the future.