Monday, January 28, 2013

A Look Back at 100 Years of African-American Film

Black Film - A Short History
The black film industry sprang to life on Chicago’s south side in 1912 with the completion of The Railroad Porter, which Fatty Arbuckle ripped off as The Pullman Porter six years later.  Hollywood was not making films about, for, or starring blacks, so the black community created its own film industry, to share the magic of this new entertainment medium and speak to their issues.  In 1915, Birth of a Nation, which glorified the racist Ku Klux Klan, inspired black businessmen to create film production entities to fight the stereotypes.
Oscar Micheaux
The Railroad Porter, produced by entrepreneur and vaudeville promoter Oscar Micheaux was a hit. Within Our Gates, the earliest surviving feature directed by a black man as a rebuttal to Birth of a Nation was his second.  Micheaux went on to make forty more  so-called “Race” films through 1948 including Birthright, Body and Soul, Within Our Gates and Harlem After Midnight.  In an era of outright discrimination, he said ‘One of the greatest tasks of my life has been to teach that the colored man can be anything’.
Frederick Douglass
Booker T. Washington associate Emmet J. Scott raised money to make another Birth of a Nation rebuttal, the three hour The Birth of a Race.  The Frederick Douglass Film Company and the Lincoln Motion Picture Company were established in New Jersey to “picture the Negro as he is in his every day, a human being with human inclination, and one of talent and intellect”.
But Chicago’s South Side was the heart of the industry, where the majority of product was created for underserved black audiences.  Conventional movie theatres were segregated so they created their own chains.  The films produced there found appreciative audiences in northern US cities and Canada.
Al Jolson
 Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer, notable not just as the first motion picture with sound and song, but also for Jolson’s blackface performance of Mammy.  It made him a star and remains a strong and objectionable image.  Judy Garland, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor and Bing Crosby used blackface, a practice that thankfully died out in the fifties. 

Blackface dates back to the minstrel shows of the 1850s and subsequent vaudeville shows, known as the ‘fool’s mask’, evoking the stereotypical Darky or Coon.  Whites weren't the only performers to use blackface.  Bert Williams used it as the sole black member of the Ziegfeld Follies and in later films.
The Depression caused a ten-year slump in race movies but Hollywood was finally beginning to tell blacks’ stories.  Many depictions were demeaning, like the jive talkin’, shuffling Stepin Fetchit, the ubiquitous houseboy, elevator operator and shoeshine boy.   Fetchit was known to feign loss of memory or mumbled lines that he found offensive, or pretended to be too dumb to understand the script.
Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson, one of the most admired entertainers of that era, had a deep, booming voice and powerful presence in The Emperor Jones.  He won fans in the US and around the world.  He was rarely challenged by the obstacles his colleagues faced.

The 1939 Oscar sensation Gone with the Wind was universally despised by black audiences for its stereotypical characters.  Ironically, Hattie McDaniel became the first black to receive an Academy Award, the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of house servant Mammy.  She was known as the “colored Sophie Tucker” and the “female Bert Williams” for her sense of humour and often came under fire for her stereotypical characters.  “Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid?  If I didn’t, I’d be making seven dollars a week actually being one!” 
Lena Horne
By the late forties, black actors and filmmakers were finding regular work in Hollywood.  Black musicals became especially popular and launched the careers of Cab Calloway, Lena Horne Duke Ellington and Count Basie, among others.  All-black films like Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather and later Carmen Jones were huge hits with mixed audiences.
Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier, such a success in Blackboard Jungle, Raisin in the Sun, the Defiant Ones, and Lilies of the Fields radiated an appealing, elegant and intellectual persona that smashed stereotypes.  He set the tone for more enlightened exchange as the civil rights movement grew.  The film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in which he is a doctor engaged to an upper crust white woman, the daughter of intellectuals, was a landmark in which his full powers of persuasion came to the fore. 
Pam Grier as Foxy Brown
But that tone was turned on its head in the 60s’ when a rebellious new generation emerged, bringing angry, radical politics into the mix.  Sex, drugs, and criminal subject matter eventually resulted in the blaxploitation genre of Shaft, Foxy Brown, Coffy, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss’ Song.  These were stylized caper film with iconoclastic themes and actors.  Blaxploitation filmmaker Gordon Parks said “I chose my camera as a weapon against all the things I dislike about  America”.  

TV star Eddie Murphy led an influx of black superstars into public consciousness in the eighties and became one of the highest paid and most successful actors of the time.  The Beverly Hills Cop franchise led to a diverse variety of roles.
Robert Townshend galvanized the independent black filmmaking world in 1986 with the release of Hollywood Shuffle, a comic, ironic look at the treatment of blacks in Hollywood.  He famously funded the film on credit cards, which brought him and his work initial media attention. 
Spike Lee
That same year, Spike Lee hit hard with She’s Gotta Have It, launching not only his career, with idiosyncratic films Do the Right Thing, School Daze and Do the Right Thing, but the careers of important stars of the future.  Rap and gangster movies of the late eighties and nineties made music/acting crossover stars of Ice T and Ice Cube and led to careers in production.
Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington, a fiercely talented actor and Oscar winner whose movie star good looks and interesting choices make him one the today’s most respected stars.  His performance in Flight earned him another Oscar nomination this year.  
Quvenzhané Wallis
Quvenzhané Wallis made history this year as the youngest star ever to be nominated for an Oscar.  She is up for the Best Actress award for Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson is one of the most distinctive and hardworking actors in Hollywood.  Jackson made an indelible impression on Django Unchained this year and won a Black Reel Best Supporting Actor nomination, and Jamie Foxx was named Best Actor for the film .
Jamie Foxx
Among recent black Academy Awards winners are Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman and Halle Berry.  
One hundred and one years later, the South Side of Chicago has undergone a cultural renaissance, thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s rebuilding efforts.  Studios dot the area and Winfrey has infused a creative energy that enlivens the television landscape. Oscar Micheaux would be thrilled to see it.



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