“A Fine Romance” from Essential Ella by Ella Fitzgerald.
The Early Years
When Thomas Edison was shooting his actualities in the 1890’s (footage of unedited real events) little did he know that his film of black women bathing their kids in Jamaica or the return of the African American Calvary division from the Spanish American War, would be the first and last for a long time on film of the non-stereotyped black image. During the early 1900s when editing was introduced, the black image became what white directors wanted it to be. In most cases, whites played black folks in blackface. The first black film company was formed by William Foster out of Chicago. From 1909 – 1913 William Foster produced the first all black cast film shorts, i.e.The Pullman Porter 1910 & The Railroad Porter 1912. Because of distribution problems he eventually folded the operation. In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s, “Birth of a Nation” was produced. Even though there were no black stars in the film it can be considered to have been the kick that started Black film again in America. The Birth of a Nation took stereotypes to a new level. It would show the world what coloreds were really like during reconstruction. It showed crazed, ex-slaves running wild, raping and killing their good masters, and the colored government leaders in session with their bare feet in chairs eating chicken and acting like buffoons. The entire movie was an advertisement for the Ku Klux Klan, especially when they rode in and saved the whites from the brutal coloreds at the end.
In response to Birth of a Nation, the Black community was up in arms and decided to counteract this horrid film by producing all-colored cast, or Race films (films especially made for the negro audience) to show the world the real truth. After an attempt by the N.A.A.C.P. in 1916 to produce a movie, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company produced one of the first positive image feature race film entitled, “The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition.” In 1917, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company contacted a young black novelist about making a film of his novel “The Homesteader.” The novelist said he would agree if he could be involved in the directing of the film. Naturally, company executives refused his demands, and he returned home to South Dakota, determined now to see his book on film. This novelist, was Oscar Micheaux, the most prolific writer, director, and producer of Race films in the history of motion pictures.
The Boom Years – Twenties
The boom years of the twenties saw scores of Black-owned and operated film studios operating out of Philadelphia , New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Kansas City. They were producing screen versions of Black novels, parodies of Hollywood movies, and melodramas with a positive, uplifting theme or the tragic consequences of passing for white. These films were shown in black owned theatres, schools, churches and at special midnight shows in white theaters. During the 20’s, over 30% of the film companies and movie theatres making and showing race films were black owned. This is the greatest percentage ever for blacks in film. These boom years were short lived. With the advent of the Great Depression and the new expensive film technology of sound, many of the Black independent film companies went bankrupt and disappeared. One of the only Black film companies to survive into the Talkie era was the Micheaux Film Company, headed by Oscar Micheaux. His keen business sense kept him from disappearing even though he, as well, declared bankruptcy. Micheaux had handed over his stocks and business to his wife before he declared bankruptcy. He would sell rights to films before they were made, thus allowing him to have money in hand before production began.
The Mid-Thirties began another boom in the Race film era. This time over 90% of the film companies that produced Race films were white owned. The focus of Race films changed. They were now mainly parodies of Hollywood movies ( gangsters, westerns, love, science fiction, comedies,etc.) unlike the early period where they focused on themes relative to the Black community. They were still low budget, but now the plots were “if blacks lived in a black world”. Black gangsters ran Black cities, Black cowboys tamed a Black West so it was an escape to fantasy world. Oscar Micheaux began to produce films with the same themes, like Underworld, Lying Lips, The Notorious Elinor Lee, and many others.
During this period another multi-talented man emerged in the person of Spencer Williams, former scenarist for Al Christie comedies in 1929. Spencer Williams, who was mostly known to the nation as Andy Brown of the fifties television show, Amos n’ Andy, wrote, directed and starred in numerous Race films including the first black science fiction movie the Son of Ingagi. He also starred and directed films with the good vs. bad, crime vs. religion theme, as in Go Down Death and the Blood of Jesus. As a director he brought to race films the technique of montage, the superimposing of scenes. Spencer Williams was the second most prolific person “talent-wise” in race films.
Many Black Hollywood stars got their start in race films, like Mantan Moreland, Charlie Chan’s movie sidekick. He starred in over 20 race films such as, Mantan Messes Up, Professor Creeps, The Dreamer and the first all black cast western Harlem on the Prairie. Lena Horne started her film career with The Duke is Tops(Bronze Venus) in 1938. Dorothy Dandridge’s first feature film was Four Shall Die in 1940. Paul Robeson’s first appearance on film was in Oscar Micheaux’s 1924 silent feature Body and Soul. Many stars due to the lack of work in Hollywood counted on race films for a living. In the early Forties,Hollywood tried its hand again at race films by producing Cabin In the Sky and Stormy Weather,but the characters were still stereotypical.
Forties – WWII
World War II was the beginning of the end for race films. The government, on one hand, in an effort to recruit more Blacks for the service, produced several all-black-cast propaganda films. One film, the Negro Soldier showed the army to be perfect, with ideal conditions for the Negro. On the other hand, the government took control of all film stock (one reason being the importance of the chemicals used to make film) and rationed it out to only Hollywood, thus giving the Black independent film maker another nail for it’s coffin. By this time filmmaking had become very expensive and race films fell the victim.
Late Forties: After the war, race films changed again. The focus shifted to almost all musicals. Most movies were musicals like Cab Calloway’s Hi-De-Ho or Louis Jordan’s Look Out, Sister, and Caldonia. As the Fifties approached and because of outside pressures and changed attitudes after WW II, Hollywood decided to start making films with Blacks, not as servants or slaves but as the protagonist. There were “problem” films of 1949 like Lost Boundaries, Intruder in the Dust, Home of the Brave and Pinky.
The End – Fifties
During the Fifties, Hollywood produced the all-colored-cast films, Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess, Anna Lucasta, and St. Louis Blues. Some films came directly from the stage of the Apollo Theater in New York, like “Rock and Roll Review” and“Rhythm and Blues Review”. The race films of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s played an essential role in the Black Community, serving as a source of pride, entertainment, and employment. Race films ended when Hollywood finally began to put blacks in movies in a more positive and true light. Blacks just wanted to see more authentic black experiences on the big screen. The need for race films diminished when blacks began going to the Hollywood produced movies to see other African Americans on the screen.