Black Film History

For many, the February is filled with feelings of *love*, amorousness, and ill-fated dreams of fairytale romances. It’s a strange coincidence that we also celebrate Black History month this same month. Still, there will probably have been million and ten valentine-related posts this month and probably a bit less on the black history. But in the world of cinema, all are welcome! And frankly, due to an over-indulgence of romance-related posts, I find it far more interesting to delve into something in the spirit of black history month. More importantly, the history of black involvement in cinema is a rich and wrinkled tale. From beginnings as a point of cruel fascination to the complicated state we’re in today, the story of black people in Hollywood holds much more gravitas in this day and age than perhaps ever before.

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Remember Chiwetel Ejiofor in Love Actually? Well no one knew it at the time, but that guy would go on to have quite the career. And a career that gives you plenty of viewing opportunities this February. Love Actually and 12 Years a Slave are only a little more than a decade apart too!

In cinema’s very earliest days, black people were generally taboo. They didn’t make many appearances onscreen, in Europe or America, and certainly didn’t get to do much behind the scenes either. Motion pictures were profit machines and the thought of sharing any piece of that pie with black people was considered outlandish. References to them were seldom. When they were seen, it was as some kind of extra figure floating in the background. Well in 1912, the genesis of modern cinema begins with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. An “epic” movie which is considered by many to be the first long-form narrative in cinematic history, the film set the bar for more than just narrative form onscreen. The problem is that it’s significance also cemented the presence of blacks in cinema. Only, it kind of got off on the wrong foot. In Birth of a Nation, a Civil War tale about a “helpless” Confederate soldier and his southern belle love, the black characters are the villains – kidnappers of the innocent white damsel-in-distress. The heroes who come to the rescue of our madame? Some Klansmen. So cinema isn’t even twenty years old and were already revering racists and condemning former slaves. Super. Not only that, but there’s not really a true black actor amongst the crowd because of course they had to do blackface. And this set the tone for black characters in cinema for a long time. Throughout the entirety of silent film, there wasn’t really a notable or redeemable black figure in the mix. They started off miles behind the starting line.

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Nate Parker’s The Birth of A Nation is a perfect example of history being reevaluated as we speak. Nearly a century after the original, a new Birth of a Nation comes around. This one, fittingly tells the story of the famous slave revolt – Nat Turner’s rebellion.

Fast forward to 1927. The birth of the talkie. The first motion picture to feature sound, The Jazz Singer, made waves as the first film to do so. In the movie, Al Jolson plays a young man who dreams of becoming a “Jazz Singer”, which at that time was a field heavily dominated by black performers. Because of the nature of the music at the time, it wasn’t really a well-respected career decision to try and become a “Jazz Singer”. But hey! Jazz was kind of hip with the kids, so the youngsters in the audience could feel his plight. Because of the films revolutionary use of synchronized sound, as well as it’s ‘follow your dreams’ message, it became a huge success at the time. Now it didn’t have any significant black performers and it did feature the main character in a kind of iconic use of blackface, but it did do one major thing for black culture at the time: put a positive spin on jazz. Through the validation of jazz as an intriguing, cool, and unique path of artistry, there was this vicarious validation of a “cool” part of black culture. And validated it was through it’s box office returns. Thanks to its success people were forced to acknowledge that some facet of black culture was something to be appreciate and evens sought after. Throughout the twenties and thirties this neutralizing mentality continued as blackface died out. Though they weren’t always directly mentioned, African-Americans were still very present in the cinematic world. The next big staple came in 1933, with a much-celebrated film called Gone With The Wind. Hattie McDaniel, the first black woman to sing on national radio, played a servant in the Civil War film, and made headlines when she became the first ever black Academy Award winner for doing so. Again, the celebration came with mixed feelings. On the one hand, such a milestone could not be ignored. Handing out awards with such pomp and circumstance didn’t come easy to minorities, especially those persecuted so directly onscreen (not even two decades prior). On the other hand, it was for the portrayal of a certain facet of black life: a particularly unflattering one. The household servant was a petty, practically insulting role, which had stymied progression for African-Americans. The years following silent film seemed to be an acknowledgement. You influence culture and you are present. But there was still so much to do.

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Hattie McDaniel looks so done with this already. Her face says, “FRANKLY MY DEAR, I DON’T GIVE A DAMN”. Wouldn’t you be too if you had to deal with these posh, needy people? Regardless, the shift from a negative screen connotation to a more neutral one was a small victory in a big war.

Through the World War II years, the “servant” stereotype, which carried over from the days of slavery, shifted from being a household domestic role, to one of the world. Look at Sam from Casablanca. Still pretty much the guy who helps out the white people. But hey! He’s out of the house now! And not a bad guy! And for what it’s actually worth, he’s the owner of the establishment for a change. Still, he’s a servant to the hordes of white guys in…um, Africa? The details are irrelevant apparently, but still, there was a stark shift from the kind of representation we were used to previously. No, there still wasn’t anything particularly encouraging about these types of roles, but compared to the malicious role they played in The Birth of a Nation, they had gained some notable footing. The biggest thing hindering them at the time was the lack of a national figure to drive and inspire them. They needed someone who wasn’t simply an unnamed piece of comedic relief. There really wasn’t anyone at that time, except maybe one man by the name of Sammy Davis Jr. You see, Sammy was cool. He was a singer who was friends with Frank Sinatra and an integral member of the Rat Pack. For him, talent transcended race. He was accepted as a cool guy by his fellow celebrities and, for the most part, was able to be a huge participant in their lifestyle. That was huge. Their embrace of him led to his inclusion in their films, shows, and much, much more. Sammy may not have been the member of the Rat Pack. But how many people remember Peter Lawford? Despite post forties and fifties America doing very little for African-Americans in cinema, Sammy David Jr. remained the small glimmer of hope for future progress.

The Rat Pack pose for a photo group. August 1960. They are L-R: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.
The fifties had an overall aesthetic that just wreaked of cool. And these guys were at the forefront of it. If culture is good for anything man, it’s for breaking down barriers. Music transcends race. It just does. So jazz, swing, soul, blues, or whatever shade of cool these guys were – they were doing something big through their inclusion.

The sixties were like a punch in the face of change. You had JFK, so many events in the Civil Rights movement, the space race, the Voting Rights Act, and – somewhere in the midst of all that chaos, big cinematic changes. The industry was becoming a bit more liberal. Old agencies like the Catholic Legion of Decency were now seen as stuffy, uncool suits – unfit to acts as arbiters of taste. Characters in films would curse more, drink more, have more sex, and do everything in their power to rip off the guise of perfection perpetuated by the nuclear household of the fifties. One of these huge changes? More African-Americans in cinema and, more importantly, greater career opportunities for them. Black culture had increasingly significant influence in the culture at large. Jazz was bigger, the NBA gained prominence, and Muhammed Ali knocked out Sonny Liston. The number of notable African-Americans increased significantly. And at the movies, cinemagoers were finally seeing black people in leading roles, without being marginalized in they way they had been. Sidney Poitier as the suitor to a young white woman in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) showed how transformative a decade can be, when twelve years earlier Emmett Till was killed only in such a gruesome and horrific manner for whistling at one. On top of all this, the end of the decade saw Martin Luther King Jr set the tone and foundation for for African-American progress in years to come. The black population finally has a way to use their political capital with the voting rights act and Sidney Poitier stood onstage at the Oscars, being praised as more than an equal for this outstanding ability as an actor. Cinema was beginning to reflect the changes of the era. Progress was being captured onscreen. Not all African-Americans were immediate beneficiaries, but the sense of change was coming.

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Remember the cheesy early 2000’s film Guess Who with Ashton Kutcher? That was the attempted reverse version of this classic. It had the right idea, but didn’t have the cultural environment to give it any support. When this film came out in the late sixties, it was supercharged by the debate around integration and interracial marriage. Bold move for a filmmaker!

By the time the seventies and eighties roll around with The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show (current public bias withholding), the average black American had seemingly been integrated into media, cinema and otherwise. There were now many iterations of black characters: funny ones, cool ones, geeky ones, mean ones, nerdy ones, and yes, even sexy ones! It sort of seemed that there was a subtle acknowledgement that there were many different types of African-Americans lacking in cinema and it was probably starting to become evident. Wider representation was a necessity. The rise of other famous black men and women outside of cinema also helped bolster their status. People from the sports world, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammed Ali, people from the music world like Michael Jackson and Tina Turner, even people from the public sphere like Al Sharpton and Douglas Brown, made powerful impressions on the American public through their excellence in their respective field. These peripheral figures who made leaps and bounds in different industries all elevated the perception of the modern African-American. Each one changed what it meant to be black. By the time the late eighties came around, huge cinematic figures like Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman all made their cinematic debut and contributed in their own right. Essentially, there was a fundamental change, a big move towards the recognition of an integrated society that was being broadcast to the masses. Leading black actors and actresses starting appearing in large numbers. Danny Glover, Eddie Murphy, Carl Weathers, Gloria Hendry, and Pam Grier slowly started to become household names – something unheard of in such quantities twenty years prior. This isn’t to say this was a period of uninterrupted progress and success. Blaxploitation cinema, which directly stigmatized African-American culture and its performers, came about during the same period. Films like Superfly and Blacula capitalized on and emphasized stereotypical elements of black culture. So at the same time cinema is starting to branch out and provide various iterations of black characters, it’s also creating this parallel stream of content which instead narrows those possibilities. The seventies and eighties were entirely about seeking a wider – and more realistic representation of the black american.

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Yes, this is a screencap from Airplane!. But hey, we need some levity in this post. This little snippet just happens to illustrate the increased public awareness of notable African-Americans, amongst kids of all races!

By the time the nineties and the new millennium had came along, those iterations evolved. The peripheral culture expanded. We now had black icons. Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey started to hit their stride in prolific careers. The beginnings of a hip-hop revolution were underway and with it, a new interpretation of the black experience. Outside of the African-American world, the wider world was seeing a black rise in prominence. Leaders like Nelson Mandela unapologetically shifted the global perspective on what it means to be a Black person. All these changes affected the way media represented African-Americans. BET, a network centered around Black-oriented programming became popular. R&B music, a hotspot for Black artists increased in national popularity. In the film world, things changed too. Famous figures who paved the way in the past like Sidney Poiter and Spike Lee had started to become legends in their own right. Other filmmakers like John Singleton, F. Gary Grey, and Malcolm D. Lee were just beginning their careers. Through the screen, we had now seen black characters take on just about every role possible. Lawyer, doctors, politicians. We had black filmmakers making stories about the African-American experience firsthand. The sky literally seemed like the limit. All that was exemplified with the 2008 election. Change was sweeping. And at the end of the last decade, the cinematic world took a long look back towards the transformation of African-Americans in cinema.

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I have yet to see Black Panther, but it’s cultural significance is already being felt. It’s generated conversation, if nothing else. And conversation is a key step towards success.

That brings us to today. Where exactly do we stand? Certainly the conversation of race is still a huge hot-button issue in film as well as America as a whole. Representation is still a huge issue in cinema and wider media for the significant black population in this country. But at the very least, there’s signs of progress being made across the board. Black Panther opened up to a record-breaking box office release, doing away with an outdated idea that superheroes need to appeal to a specific demographic. It opens up the floodgate in terms of representation. Two years ago, the #oscarssowhite controversy buzzed up Hollywood. This year, we are finally seeing significant movement: several nominees across a number of categories (including Best Director) have shown the power of ordinary people to affect change. Now this doesn’t mean there is not progress to be made (especially for Asian-Americans and Latinos), but looking back at how far backwards everything was from the start, it’s evident that perseverance has paid off in the last hundred years. All of this has lead up to the most significant achievement in all of black history in cinema: conversation. Because thanks to the constant ideological flux we find ourselves in, we’re constantly faced with different mutations of the same problem. And if we’re ever to get to the bottom of it, the most important step is recognition and validation. Denial of any issue hindered progress for centuries and there is a real opportunity now. So don’t let the February love bug overshadow the other important feature of this month. Because while black cinematic history may have a difficult and muddled past, the black cinematic future can be something to really fall in love with.

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