If you consider yourself a film buff or even just a casual movie fan and are interested in learning about the first century of the Black film industry then my review of “A Century of Black Cinema” might be for you.
In planning out my content for 2021 I was initially concerned that I might run out of movies that fit my review criteria. Fortunately, while searching the internet for ideas I came across several lists of Black films, documentaries, etc. so I’m no longer worried about running out of ideas. And with that in mind, when I saw A Century of Black Cinema I thought it would be the perfect movie to kick off the year.
As a lover of photography, I enjoy seeing photos of Black people from the past, especially if they’re decked out and dressed to the nines. I don’t like westerns at all but enjoy classics and black and white films. But when you go back past a certain point, it’s hard to find films from Hollywood’s early era that are centered on Black people or just featuring realistic Black characters.
A Century of Black Cinema begins roughly at the start of the film industry but narrows its focus to Black cinema by discussing the movie that ironically launched Black cinema, the travesty that is Birth of a Nation. Despite being incredibly racist, the film was very successful and remained popular decades after its release. Although by that point the film industry had been around for several years, as with theater and even minstrel shows, Black characters were portrayed by White actors in black face. I was aware that various Black public figures and organizations had protested the release and screenings of Birth of a Nation. But it was interesting to learn that Black people didn’t just protest but instead decided to start making movies.
These events motivated the brothers Noble and George Johnson to create their own film company, Lincoln Motion Picture Company. I hadn’t previously heard about them but they planned to release films portraying Black people in a positive light, unlike the negative stereotypes that were prevalent in films of the time. Lincoln’s films portrayed Black characters as being of the time or of the recent past emerging from slavery and working to improve their lives and move their way up in society. This was closer to the reality of Black people as they had not been happy as slaves nor had they suddenly become savages following the Civil War. Instead, they were complex human beings striving to survive, provide, and better themselves and their families like all other Americans.
Unfortunately, the company folded due to financial issues but I thought it was cool that way back in 1916 these people decided that they didn’t like how they were being portrayed. Sure, others used traditional means of protest but they decided to found a company, create stories of their own, and make independent films. They didn’t like what they were seeing so they made the images that they wanted to see in the media.
Noble Johnson had worked as an actor before establishing the film company with his brother. He continued to appear in mainstream films after his studio closed. But at the time, mainstream film companies felt there was no room for realistic Black characters or for Black actors to portray regular people. As a result, Johnson was typically in costume or heavy makeup that made his features unrecognizable. He seemed to have a relatively if not financially successful then at least productive career. Yet, most people had no idea that he was Black because he was relegated to playing monsters, villains, and other roles requiring masks and costumes.
I occasionally listen to a podcast called, The Micheaux Mission where the hosts discuss and review Black movies. Thus I’d heard the name “Micheaux” before but hadn’t looked too deeply into it. My ears perked up when A Century of Black Cinema began discussing Oscar Micheaux because the name was somewhat familiar. But I still learned a lot because it was my first time hearing about him and his films in any detail.
When the film got to the point of discussing Black actors, I felt I would be pretty familiar with most of the actors, their roles, and overall careers. This was the case with several of the profiles where even when I thought I knew about an actor or actress, I still learned something. For example, I’d seen pictures of Josephine Baker but it put things in perspective to see a video clip that showed her in motion.
I knew that Paul Robeson was an actor, singer, and activist and had his film The Emperor Jones on my list of movies to watch. But it was interesting to see the overview of his career in juxtaposition to the roles of earlier Black actors. Well-known for his artistic talents, he was also an outspoken activist who I learned had some ties or at least interest in communism. But I was unaware that this led to him being blacklisted which cut short his career. (Maybe it’s a result of being born and living during a different time but I’ve never really gotten the fear of people being interested in the ideology of communism or socialism.)
Every few years, I get really into reading books that revolve around a certain theme. Starting in college, I began working my way through the classics and it was during that time that I read Gone With the Wind. Having heard about it through cultural references but not knowing anything about the content or its author, it gave me pause.
When I watched the film, I saw the stereotypes embodied by Mammy and Prissy who were respectively portrayed by Hattie McDaniels and Butterfly McQueen. I then read books about the performers, production, and success of the film so from a mental standpoint I knew about the discrimination that McDaniels and McQueen had experienced with regards to promotions, premieres, etc. But having only seen them in those roles it gave me greater respect for their talent as actresses to see a clip of McDaniels giving her Academy Award speech.
Through reading about Black History I was aware that like other venues movie theaters were segregated. But I’d only heard about them being segregated in the form of White people being on the main floor while Black people had to sit up in the balconies. What I didn’t know was that in some instances entirely separate movie theaters were established for Black audiences.
It seems that they likely weren’t as big or grand as general movie theaters as most were set up in storefronts. But because they were for Black people they played what was referred to as “race movies”. These were films with all-Black casts or prominently featuring Black performers which might have otherwise been heavily edited for White Southern audiences or not shown at all.
With the advent of television, there was less demand and content for these theaters which led to many of them closing. Living through the rise of cable and satellite as well as the advent of streaming I’ve heard a lot about the impact those technologies have had on the television and film industries. I wasn’t alive at the time but heard about the impact that talkies had on silent films and that television had on radio. Somehow I never thought about or even considered that television had an impact on the film industry as I regard them as two completely different things. But, it was interesting to get a different perspective.
Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were both problematic in their personal lives and are now heralded as icons. I haven’t seen any of Belafonte’s movies aside from Carmen Jones. But I have seen several Poitier films so I was a bit more familiar with his career. Poitier was one of the actors who received a rather thorough profile. A Century of Black Cinema spent a fair amount of time explaining how he got to where he is by setting and keeping high standards for the types of roles he would accept. But at the same time, it presents the question of playing into the trope of respectability politics.
Poitier’s roles were in great contrast to those of other actors who came before and were limited to stereotypes or servants. But his roles were also confined in a way as the characters generally fit a rigid conservative persona that was decidedly non-threatening. I can’t think of a role where he played a bad guy or even someone that wasn’t middle-class or upwardly mobile. It’s also pointed out that it was ok for him to have chemistry with Black actresses such as Diahann Carol. But when it came to interacting with White actresses they were seemingly kept at a distance even in instances where they were supposed to be love interests.
Poitier’s career and reception were then juxtaposed against Jim Brown. I knew of Brown from guest appearances in movies in the 1980s and television sitcoms from the 1990s but didn’t know he left football to pursue acting and achieved a full-fledged movie career. Moving into the films of the 1970s showed the continuation of Black actors no longer achieving success by being relegated to the roles of servants and safe negroes.
I know people have a lot of love for Black exploitation films but I have a love/hate relationship with those movies. On the one hand, it’s a positive that they offered Black actors and actresses an opportunity to play a wider variety of characters in front of the camera as well as positions behind the camera as filmmakers. But I disliked the continued tradition of negative stereotypes, hyper-masculinity / misogyny, and the frequent glorification of pimp culture and drug dealing. It didn’t help that a lot of them were terrible with regards to the acting, dialogue, and storylines.
Coverage of the 1980s to 1990s felt a bit thin but that could simply be because I was more familiar with the actors and movies from those decades. As is to be expected Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy are discussed as big names in front of the camera.
But the one point that struck me as a cool observation was that the classic Black films of the late 1980s to the early 1990s that tied hood stories and hip hop together could be considered a throwback to the Black exploitation era of the 1970s. I’m Gonna Git You Sucka was my favorite movie as a kid and I’m pretty familiar with the story of the rise of the Wayans brothers. I appreciated getting to see some clips of Hollywood Shuffle and my mind was blown to find out that Keenan Ivory Wayans and Robert Townsend collaborated on each other’s projects. While I’m not a fan of Spike Lee’s early work from this period, it was cool to get a bit of insight into the start of his career.
I came away from the film with knowledge of more Black actors and actresses as well as a longer list of Black movies to watch. A Century of Black Cinema is a dope documentary. If there’s one drawback it’s that Black actresses aren’t profiled nearly as in-depth as the Black actors. But this isn’t necessarily the fault of the filmmaker. As it’s pointed out, movies that centered on Black female characters who weren’t stereotypes were almost non-existent until the 1990s. That’s not to say that there weren’t occasional Black female-focused movies before then. But rather that they were few and far between. While Black actors were leading men playing a variety of roles by the 1960s or 1970s, it took more time for Black actresses.
A Century of Black Cinema is worth checking out if you’re into documentaries but especially if you consider yourself a film buff or movie fan. In a bit under two hours, you can learn a lot about the history of the Black film industry. Most of the content focuses on the actors and actresses who appeared in front of the camera but there’s also some info about a few Black directors. As someone interested in the business of film, I think it would be interesting to see a similar project that profiles the Black creatives and professionals behind the cameras and behind the scenes.
A Century of Black Cinema also made me think. It’s now a bit over a century since the launch of the first Black film company. As with other areas of life, there’s been some progress but the Black film industry and opportunities for Black actors and actresses still aren’t where they should be. But mixed into this history of Black people playing great roles is the larger story of Black people making small budget films independently to create the characters and stories that they want to say and Hollywood doesn’t seem interested in making.
I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a continued push for realistic and diverse portrayals of Black characters and stories in film. But, while doing that we also need to draw inspiration from the stories in the past of making projects and thus opportunities for ourselves. The technology and distribution outlets are far more readily available than they were in the past. We should take greater advantage of them.
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