Tag: black film history

New Book “Envisioning Freedom” Shows African Americans Helped Invent the Movies

Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life

As centennial commemorations of DW Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” gear up, a new book by historian Cara Caddoo proves African Americans helped invent the movies a decade before the first Hollywood film. Published by Harvard University Press, “Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life” uncovers the forgotten history of black inventors, filmmakers, and exhibitors.

“A lot of people assume that African Americans just followed in the footsteps of white filmmakers,” says Caddoo, an Assistant Professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, “That’s really a whitewashing of American film history.”

Years before the 1915 debut of Griffith’s pro-KKK film, which is widely credited for inaugurating “modern American cinema,” African Americans produced their own films and built their own theaters. Caddoo explains that this began in the 1890s–more than a decade before Hollywood, and long before the rise of better-known black filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux.

The first African American films featured themes like the “American Negro and the Negro abroad.” In “The Devil’s Cook Kitchen,” a minister named H. Charles Pope used movies to highlight black contributions to American history, and to explain the “26 sins” involved in dancing.

Some black filmmakers were former slaves, others just a generation removed. Faced with racial discrimination and shoestring budgets, these black film pioneers relied on their wit. Segregation limited African Americans’ access to public space so they turned black churches, lodges, and schools into motion picture theaters during off hours.

“Envisioning Freedom” is packed with colorful characters such as Fleetwood Walker, the first–and last–major league baseball player before Jackie Robinson. Caddoo writes that Walker became an inventor and traveling motion picture exhibitor after his baseball career. One of his most important inventions was an alarm system that enabled film projectionists to switch seamlessly between reels of film.

When “Birth of a Nation” debuted, African Americans launched the first mass black protest movement of the twentieth century. By that time, motion pictures were deeply integrated into black life. African Americans had produced films and used them to fundraise, build businesses, construct theaters, and socialize in an era of racial segregation. Caddoo explains, “They were fighting to reclaim a form of popular culture that they had helped create. Tens of thousands of African Americans participated–housewives, gangsters, ministers, and schoolchildren, from Hawaii to Massachusetts, and from the Panama Canal to Canada.”

Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon here.

article by Tambay A. Obenson via blogs.indiewire.com

Earliest Surviving Footage for a Feature Film with a Black Cast to Be Exhibited by Museum of Modern Art

Footage from what may be the earliest surviving feature film with a black cast, made in 1913. (Credit: Bert Williams, “Lime Kiln Field Day Project”, via Museum of Modern Art)

For decades, the seven reels from 1913 lay unexamined in the film archives of the Museum of Modern Art. Now, after years of research, a historic find has emerged: what MoMA curators say is the earliest surviving footage for a feature film with a black cast. It is a rare visual depiction of middle-class black characters from an era when lynchings and stereotyped black images were commonplace. What’s more, the material features Bert Williams, the first black superstar on Broadway. Williams appears in blackface in the untitled silent film along with a roster of actors from the sparsely documented community of black performers in Harlem on the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance. Remarkably, the reels also capture behind-the-scenes interactions between these performers and the directors.

MoMA plans an exhibition around the work called “100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History,” which is to open on Oct. 24 and showcase excerpts and still frames. Sixty minutes of restored footage will be shown on Nov. 8 in the museum’s annual To Save and Project festival dedicated to film preservation.

“There are so many things about it that are amazing,” said Jacqueline Stewart, a film scholar at the University of Chicago. “It’s the first time I’ve seen footage from an unreleased film that really gives us insights into the production process.”

She added: “It’s an interracial production, but not in the way scholars have talked about early film history, in which black filmmakers had to rely on the expertise and money of white filmmakers. Here, we see a negotiation between performers and filmmakers.” Of the three directors of the film, one was black and two were white.

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