Black Cinema Part 1
Something has been building up recently, quietly but steadily, and that is the presence of African-Americans in films. This year might be considered a breakthrough year because, for the first time in history, black actors and filmmakers have a chance to be nominated and perhaps win more Oscars than any year in history.
It is a time long overdue, for as long as there has been cinema in the U.S., African Americans have been a vital part of its history.
Black entertainers in music and dance were first recognized, and you could spiel off a list of names: Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, with enough etceteras to fill a volume of pages. But Hollywood was very slow in recognizing and showing the Black actors’ talents. If you watch TCM, the first things that will jump out at you in an old black & white film is that all the guys wear suits, slick hats, and everybody smokes. You will also notice when a Black actor appears, sometimes from out of nowhere, it is to provide a moment of comic relief. Very rarely are they an essential part of the plot or used as an element to keep the story moving.
In the 1920s African-Americans were rarely cast and in the 1930s they were, for the most part, always under used. To help explain this might be the fact that the 20s and 30s were not in fact very far removed from the American stain of slavery. It is a fact that in the American South, many people still had a hard time dealing with the subject of slavery; Hollywood knew that putting an African-American in a picture was a good way to get the movie banned in Southern theaters.
When the more sophisticated films of the 1930s appeared, popular forms were Westerns, light romantic comedies and above all, material from other mediums. Somehow, it was hard to cast a Black lead in a Western, light comedy, and period piece based on a Dickens or other Victorian novel.
But the talent and the creativity were all there and every once in a while a picture would come out to show how special a Black entertainer could be.
When Bill Robinson tap-danced down the stairs with Shirley Temple and a few years later, Hattie Mc Daniel became the first Black actor to win an Oscar for Gone With the Wind, audiences realized how demeaning it was to cast white actors in blackface. Going into the 1940s and ‘50s, stereotyped portrayals of Blacks slowly disappeared.
Walt Disney loved The Song Of the South. He saw it as a warm, family film that showed Blacks as a wise and kindly group who accepted and were almost oblivious to slavery. While some audiences at the time agreed that it was harmless and charming, others were repelled by the stereotyped characters in the movie who were shown to be happy and contented, singing and dancing most of the time. The film callously ignored the real horror of slavery and was eventually pulled from distribution and never released to video and DVD.
The first films featuring African-American actors (called race films) were made by white producers for Black audiences. Although they meant well, most had low budgets and were not very well produced.
Enter Oscar Micheaux and William D. Foster, two Black entertainers who were the first African-American producers. This was the time of the rise to prominence of Marcus Garvey and his desire to educate and inform Blacks concerning culture, and their
own history. Micheaux and Foster were determined to help this movement by the best possible means of the day: cinema.
PART 2 will appear in December; I’ll continue the story of African-Americans in cinema to the present day.