When thinking about silent cinema, the animated faces of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or Rudolph Valentino may come to mind.
If you read this and didn’t recognize any of the names listed above, that’s okay because this piece isn’t interested in re-exposing readers to a typical or well-known cinematic canon. Rather, quite the opposite.
Instead, it’s interested in unveiling a rich history of African-American independent filmmaking. A history that dates back to the early 20th century.
Netflix has done its part in making this history known to others by re-releasing the Kino Lorber series, Pioneers of African-American Cinema.
The collection features more than 20 films from 1915-1946, made by groundbreaking African-American directors such as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams.
While this list includes both silent and sound cinema, the dates of 1915-1946 also includes major historical events that shaped, informed and importantly, disrupted the development of black independent filmmaking as well as a thriving black press that was committed to making these films known to black communities.
Nonetheless, these black independent filmmakers transformed the ways in which blackness had been represented on screen. More specifically, their projects were a critical response to D.W. Griffith’s racist film Birth of a Nation (1915).
Griffith’s film has been cited by film scholars as the ultimate model of classical Hollywood narrative film and a historical moment for which a formal language for cinema was born. His editing style was unprecedented and transformed the way audiences perceived time and space on and off screen.
To put differently, Griffith’s use of parallel editing, (a technique that consists of putting together two completely different sets of shots that occur in different locations), gave the illusion that the action was occurring simultaneously. It is an editing style that condenses time and space and we see this editing technique in films today.
But Birth of a Nation’s famous chase sequence was also a cinematic serenade to the Ku Klux Klan. Griffith’s heroic and romanticized portrayal of the KKK had a formative influence in the white supremacist group’s resurrection in the aftermath of the film’s release.
The film is a historic referent not only in discussing the development of early Black cinema but more specifically, Birth of a Nation was instrumental in fabricating a mythology around black criminality and miscegenation.
In an effort to reclaim the image of African-Americans, that had been co-opted by productions’ such as Griffith’s, in 1916, The Lincoln Motion Picture was founded by two African-American brothers and was the first movie company organized by Black filmmakers.
Another prominent Black filmmaker was Spenser Williams. Before landing his role on The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show, Williams produced and directed low-budget films that consisted of an all-Black cast.
All of the films were made through William’s production company, Amnegro and distribution company, Sack Amusement Enterprises. His films, The Blood of Jesus (1941), Brother Martin, Servant of Jesus (1942), and Go Down Death (1944), evidently, explored religious themes but also black life in the rural south.
In 1918, author and independent filmmaker Oscar Micheaux founded Micheaux Film Corporation.
Micheaux’s silent films often fell into the genre of melodrama. The narratives were largely oriented around black Americans efforts of social and economic advancement, in which characters would attempt to establish their own businesses, schools and other institutions.
Micheaux’s films explored class issues within the Black community, colorism as well as the benefits and perils that came with black migration within the U.S. In fact, Micheaux personally imagined the midwest as a geography that would offer respite for Black Americans to escape the social terror of the South, and the vices of the urban North.
In addition, Micheaux promoted education as the primary means of social and economic mobility and he denounced religion and the Church as a pacifying force to Black Americans.
Clearly, his films were highly political. The daring content of Micheaux’s work made his films susceptible to sensory boards. Though his films were repeatedly banned, Micheaux used this prohibition as a marketing tool to incite audiences to see his films.
His film Within Our Gates (1924) was a pointed critique of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. A critique that is emphatically depicted when Micheaux intercuts a scene of a lynching of a Black family with another scene that depicts the attempted rape of a Black woman by a white man.
Given that lynching was a technology of white supremacy inflicted on black men for looking at a white woman, the sequence is a powerful subversion by showing the white man as a site of danger.
At the same time, the cross-cutting between these two scenes presents how miscegenation isn’t a simple threat to white hetero-masculinity, rather, it is an economic threat as it has the potential to destabilize the power arrangements and social structures founded and fortified on the notion of white supremacy.
The narrative, visual and political concerns of early Black cinema were pivotal for its time. Yet, with a limited budget and limited funds for producing films, these filmmakers struggled to compete with the advent of synchronized sound and the rise of the major studios who eventually had an oligopoly over the film market.
Cinema is a little over a century old. In this sense, it is a relatively young art form, though as movie-goers, we don’t tend to see it as so.
Importantly, cinema is also a technological art form and it is due to rapid advances and developments in technology, that many of us perceive silent cinema and early sound cinema as dated and so foreign to our modern eyes from what we are used to now, that to watch such films would be a giant leap back in time.
But making this leap backward is important because without it, we wouldn’t have discovered the movie posters, the advertisements from the black press who were committed to making sure there was a black audience to receive these films.
We wouldn’t have known what early black films had to say about being Black in America. Without returning to the past, we wouldn’t have known that groups were actively protesting Birth of a Nation and its abhorrent depiction of blackness.
Historians and film scholars have painstakingly pieced together a counter-history, exposing not only the existence of Black independent filmmakers but an enthusiastic Black audience, a creation of a public sphere and politicized public space where black people could congregate, create a community and a place of respite against the threat of daily violence that pervaded their lives.
By spotlighting the oeuvre of these Black independent filmmakers we see their films as not simply a means of artistic expression. These films were an intervention. A reclaiming of their image. A reclaiming of their identity.