I can’t imagine a world without movies. I have never lived in a world without Black heroes starring in films. For this, I consider myself fortunate. In the decades following June 19th, 1865, the kinds of motion pictures I appreciate today simply did not exist for my ancestors.
The development of the movie camera began in the late 1880s with early films being “peep shows” or sequences of pictures viewed through a lens in a box. These peep shows gave way to minute-long films that could be projected onto a screen and broadcast before larger audiences as features of vaudeville shows. It was these same vaudeville shows that kept the sentiments of the minstrel show tradition (with and without black face) alive—and therefore as motion picture technology developed, the growing popularity of movies also relied on the same tired racist tropes white audiences loved. A few film titles I found to demonstrate the kind of BS one could expect from these offerings included Who Said Chicken (1902), The Gator and the Pickaninny (1903), and of course, A Nigger in the Woodpile (1904). To attract Black audiences, white-owned production companies created motions featuring all-Black casts (with and without black face) called “race films.” Titles and links to several of those films can be found here in case you wish to delve into that. I found it interesting to see exactly what kind of ideas these films peddled to better understand why prejudice and bigotry still exists so heartily today.
By 1905, the first nickelodeon or small movie theater opened in Philadelphia with a seating capacity of just under 100 seats and a 5-cent ticket price. Theaters continued to expand in size and came to exclusively offer motion pictures instead of a mix of live plays and recorded entertainment. By 1910, an estimated 26 million Americans flocked to theaters on a weekly basis to take in silent productions accompanied by live musical soundtracks. *****Post continues below image.*****
Along with other moviegoers went the Black journalist, film critic, diplomat and civil rights activist Lester A. Walton of the New York Age (the largest Black news publication of the era). When The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, Walton said the film, “teaches the false doctrine of ‘All white men on top and all black men down.’… the anti-Negro propaganda strikes at the very roots of the fundamental principles of democracy.” Recognizing how cinema could be used as a tool to advance a political cause, Walton said that films had the power to “emancipate the white American from his peculiar ideas” of Blackness that proved to be “hurtful to both races.”
FUN FACT: Lester A. Walton, with the support of the New York Times and Associated Press, successfully campaigned for the use and capitalization of the term “Negro” to refer to African Americans.
Whatever Walton wrote, the vast majority of literate Black folks read and agreed with because his words and viewpoints largely supported their collective mission. As recorded in The Black Towns by Norman L. Crockett, upwardly mobile Blacks were intent on laying claim to their piece of the American dream as equal and respected citizens. Particularly in all-Black cities and communities like Nicodemus, KS and Clearview, OK, community leaders felt that Blacks could “solve the race issue once and for all” through solidarity in self-government, property acquisition and “a spotless reputation, superior even to that of whites.” They allowed very few, if any, white people in their towns and even side-eyed bi-racial folks. Furthermore, their pro-segregation, self-governing communities insisted on a strong work ethic, prohibition of intoxicants and prostitution, Booker T. Washington-inspired educational pursuits, strong marriages between men and good Christian Black women, and peace and civility among all of its citizens. In other words, their respectability politics game was long and strong and they definitely were not feeling the race films.
FUN FACT: Booker T. Washington was biracial but I guess he got a special pass in these towns because he was pretty brown.
Therefore when the Chicago-based, white-owned Historical Film Feature Company also launched its operations in 1915 with the same racist drivel, Black audiences opted to give the company the finger instead of their hard-earned movie ticket money. In 1917, to gain Black patronage, the Historical Film Feature Company changed its name to Ebony Film Corporation and hired an African American staff to help clean up its act. (Does any of this sound familiar?) Y’all can read more about Ebony Film Corporation and their inevitable demise here along with more interesting info on African American silent film history and the story of legendary Black silent film producer Richard Norman. Thanks Norman Studios!
I watched three of Ebony Film Corporation’s projects that came after their staff change: A Black Sherlock Holmes (1918), A Reckless Rover (1918), and Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled (1918). Each one starred Sam (Samuel) Robinson, an actor who was born in 1888 in Richmond, Virginia and died in Chicago in 1971 just 7 days shy of his 83rd birthday. *****Post continues below image.*****
As I watched these early projects, I saw a lot of things to be upset about. Brown and dark-skinned Black women did not exist in any of these films. In A Black Sherlock Holmes, the investigation appeared to involve a man named Baron Jazz from the town of “Hot Dog” in Africa—as if Africa is a country and not a whole Continent with several unique nations. In Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled, one scene included Black Egyptian emissaries emerging from the sewer in the middle of the street. In A Reckless Rover, Sam Robinson’s character played the quintessential shiesty MF who managed to pull a series of fast ones, smoke dope, steal, cheat and commit sexual assault; and the single Chinese character was portrayed by a Black actor in yellow face. Finally, A Reckless Rover ended with a poster advertising a film by D.W. Griffith—the same fool who made Birth of a Nation (1915) and charged $2 (equal to $148 today) to see it. Do not make me go into the implications of that.
Still, I found several things to admire about these films. First, these productions featured all-Black casts and who worked regularly. Though the films were sometimes severely damaged in parts, the acting talent was undeniable, the characters believable. They performed their own stunts! I could tell that a lot of care and consideration went into staging the various props, scenes and camera angles therefore making the stories easy to follow without a lot of dependency on title cards. The stories included Blacks in every profession and socio-economic class and all of the main characters were learned and literate even if they didn’t always practice good ethics. And I did actually LOL when the protagonist in A Reckless Rover put a literal target on the laundry owner’s butt for the cops to shoot. I’m sorry but that ish was funny because who keeps a random target in a laundry?
So should these films continue to be preserved in the canon of Black cinema? I challenge you to watch them and judge for yourself. Until tomorrow.