Dorothy Dandridge, Cab Calloway and Paul Robeson were each symbols of black cinema. Each depicted stages in black filmmaking before 1959, a time when stereotypes of minorities were unchecked.
“There was a serious film industry – African American industry – before “Shaft,” or Melvin Van Peebles, or Spike Lee,” said Larry Richards, collector and exhibitor of early black cinematography.
Richards enlightened a crowd of 30 people at Ambler’s “Food for Thought” lecture series on Feb. 21. He showed and explored a few clips from the 1,300 films that had either a black cast or a black star before 1959
Dandridge’s played exotic or foreign roles. She rarely played a black person – an exception at the time.
“Back in the Silent Era in Hollywood, if you were black you were a clown, a butler, or a servant. If you were an actor doing something else you were white in blackface,” Richards said.
Cab Calloway’s famous song-and-dance routines delighted audiences. These musicals had no plot, but were profitable. Black filmmakers tried to dispel negative stereotypes of blacks in movies and Paul Robeson was one who portrayed a positive image of blacks.
Thomas Edison filmed “actualities” with his invention, the camera. Actualities were unedited footage that Edison documented. No stereotypes were involved. “What you saw is what happened,” said Richards
Negative stereotypes came with editing. The most extreme case of stereotyping of blacks in film was in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” Griffith was employed to direct the movie by Thomas Dixon. Dixon wrote the play to explain how the Ku Klux Klan saved the south from blacks.
Woodrow Wilson’s approval of “The Birth of a Nation” and the editing techniques used in the film made the stereotypes accepted truth. African Americans wore the stigma from “The Birth of a Nation.”
Lincoln Motion Picture Company founded by William Foster was a black-owned company that would only show blacks in a positive light. Its first movie was “The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition,” it and many other films like it countered the effects of “The Birth of a Nation.”
“In fact, in the Silent Era, blacks owned more film companies and more movie theaters than any other time in history, including now,” Richards said.
As the motion picture industry grew, everyone decided to cash in. White filmmakers chose to portray blacks as trivial. And the black film industry did its best to defend African Americans.
The song-and-dance all black cast films were an exploitation of black culture even though they were profitable and popular. The first music videos called “soundies” were made because of this popularity. Soundies were a small video reel played with jukeboxes. Soundies began in the 1940s and died out along with the all-black cast films.
The major problem afflicting black-owned film industry was distribution because it was difficult. A distribution network was set up where entertainment editors of black newspapers in major cities would promote the films for a cut of the profit. This distribution network was not as sophisticated as Hollywood’s network.
Oscar Micheaux was an independent author, publisher, writer, director, producer and actor. He wrote novels and turned them into films. Micheaux’s company was the only black company to survive the Great Depression and he continued making positive films about Blacks.
Micheaux spent the rest of his career trying to correct the negative images of blacks. His movie “Within our Gates” answered the insults from “Birth of a Nation.”
In the 1940s, “problem pictures” showed blacks as people who dealt with racial issues. Richards said that the U.S. government forced Hollywood to depict Blacks in a better light because the government needed blacks to fight in the war. All-black cast films ended when African Americans were depicted as individuals with character.
“The African American film industry came out of necessity. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ forced it,” Richards said.