This is the first installment in a three part history of early Black Cinema.
To read Part I, covering the independent Race Movie years of the 1910s and '20s, click here
To read Part III, covering the TV Age of the 1950s and '60s, click here
In the silent film era, most roles for minority characters were filled by white actors in make-up. As a result, Asians and blacks began making their own, alternative cinemas. But whereas Asian-American silent film quickly faltered, black silent film flourished and a great number of race movies were cranked out to eager and under-served black filmgoers.
By the 1930s, though yellowface and redface continued to be common practice, blackface began to disappear from the mainstream as Hollywood began efforts to woo the audience it had previously been content to insult. This meant there were many new opportunities for black actors, albeit mainly as musicians, porters, chauffeurs, waiters, hat check girls, maids, bootblacks, convicts, bartenders, bone-through-the-nose Africans or buffoons. Because of the improving but still less-than-satisfying opportunities afforded by Hollywood, many black actors supplemented their Hollywood bit parts with simultaneous careers in race movies.
BLACK CINEMA OF THE 1930s
Black-oriented movies made in the 1930s include: Dark Town Follies, A Daughter of the Congo, Deep South, Easy Street, Georgia Rose, High Toned, Honest Crooks (all 1930); Darktown Revue and The Exile (both 1931); The Black King, Black Magic, The Girl from Chicago, Harlem is Heaven, Pie, Pie Blackbird, A Rhapsody in Black and Blue, Ten Minutes to Live and Veiled Aristocrats (all 1932); Barber Shop Blues, A Bundle of Blues, Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Phantom of Kenwood and Rufus Jones for President (all 1933); Bubbling Over, Chloe, Harlem After Midnight, Imitation of Life and She Devil (all 1934); Cab Calloway's Jitterbug Party, Murder in Harlem, Sanders of the River and Temptation (all 1935); The Black Network, Gifts in Rhythm, The Green Pastures, The Love Wanga and Song of Freedom (all 1936); Bargain with Bullets, Big Fella, Dark Manhattan, Harlem on the Prairie and Underworld (all 1937); All's Fair, The Duke is Tops, Gang Smashers, God's Step Children, Gone Harlem, Life Goes On, Spirit of Youth, Swing and Two-Gun Man From Harlem, (all 1938); and Birthright, The Broken Earth, The Bronze Buckaroo, The Devil’s Daughter, Double Deal, Harlem Rides the Range, Keep Punching, Lying Lips, Midnight Shadow, Moon Over Harlem, One Dark Night, Paradise in Harlem, Prison Bait, Straight to Heaven, Way Down South and What Goes Up (all 1939).
BLACK ACTORS OF THE 1930s
Amanda Randolph Ben Carter Bill Robinson Billie 'Buckwheat' Thomas
Butterfly McQueen Cab Calloway Canada Lee Carman Newsome
Dooley Wilson Dorothy Dandridge Dorothy Van Engle Duke Ellington
Dusty 'Open the Door Richard' Fletcher Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson Edna Mae Harris Elisabeth Welch
Emmett 'Babe' Wallace Ernest Whitman Ethel Moses Etta McDaniel
Eunice Wilson Fats Waller Fayard Nicholas Francine Everett
Georgette Harvey Ira “Buck” Woods Jackie "Moms" Mabley James Baskett
Jeni Le Gon Jess Lee Brooks Jester Hairston Jo Jones
Joe Louis Johnny Lee Juanita Hall Lena Horne
Les Hite Lillian Randolph Louis Armstrong Lucky Millinder
Mantan Moreland Marguerite Whitten Marie Bryant Minto Cato
Napoleon Simpson Nicodemus Stewart Oscar Micheaux Oscar Polk
Robert Adams Robert Earl Jones Ruby Dandridge Sammy Davis Jr,
Shelton Brooks Sidney Bechet Vivian Dandridge Willie Best
Willie Covan Woodie Strode
Black actors who began their film careers in the 1930s but whom aren't pictured (due to lack of availability) include Al Duvall, Alfred Grant, Artie Young, Augustus Smith, Avanelle Harris, Babe Matthews, Bo Jenkins, Bob Howard, Bud Pollard, Buddy Harris, Carl Mahon, Celeste Cole, Charles Andrews, Charles Hawkins, Cherokee Thornton, Cleo Herndon, Clinton Rosemond, Columbus Jackson, Consuelo Harris, Cora Green, Corny Anderson, Dan Michaels, David Bethea, DeForest Covan, Donald Heywood, Dudley Dickerson, Earl J. Morris, Ecce Homo Toto, Eddie Green, Edward Brandon, Emily Santos, Eugene “Chuck” Thompson, Eunice Brooks, Florence Field, Florence O’Brien, Flourney E. Miller, Frances McHugh, Frances E. Williams, Frank H. Wilson, Freddie Robinson, George Randol, George Wiltshire, Gertrude Saunders, Gladys Williams, Guernsey Morrow, Hamtree Harrington, Harold A. Garrison, Harold Nicholas, Henry Hastings, Herbert Skinner, Herman Green, Hilda Offley, Ida Forsyne, Ida Jones, Ira Hardin, Ivory Williams, J. Louis Johnson, Jack Carr, Jack Carter, Jack Clisby, James Davis, James Dunmore, James Fuller, Jesse Graves, Jessica Grayson, Jewel Smith, Joe Byrd, Joel Fluellen, Josephine Edwards, John Alexander, John Mason, Johnny Taylor, Johnny Thomas, Larry Seymour, Leon Buck, Leonard Christmas, Lester Wilkins, Lillian Fitzgerald, Louise Franklin, Lucille Battles, Lucius Brooks, Mabel Garrett, Mae E. Johnson, Mae Turner, Maggie Hathaway, Morgan Roberts, Myrtle Anderson, Napoleon Whiting, Neva Peoples, Paul Blackman, Paul White, Paulene Myers, Philip Hurlic, Phil Moore, Putney Dandridge, Ralph Cooper, Ray Martin, Raymond Kaalund, Reginald Fenderson, Richard Huey, Rosalie Lincoln, Roy Glenn, 'Rubberneck' Holmes, Rudolph Hunter, Sally Gooding, Sam Patterson, Sammy Gardiner, “Slick” Chester, Slim Thompson, Sol Johnson, Stanley Morrell, Tom Southern, Vernon McCalla, Wade Dumas, William Broadus, William James Adamson, Willie Bryant, Willor Lee Guilford and Zerita Steptean.
BLACK CINEMA OF THE 1940s
In the 1940s, American prolific race movie actor Spencer Williams began to making them as well. So did Dewey 'Pigmeat' Markham, although just one, at his short-lived Markham & Heckle. In 1946, Missouri-born producer William D. Alexander formed the Associated Producers of Negro Pictures in New York City. Other directors who turned to race movies include Richard C. Kahn, a white, former B-movie director, Canadian Leo C. Popkin and Kansas City, Missouri-native Josh Binney.
At the same time, many black musicians appeared in Hollywood-produced Soundies. Hollywood portrayals of and roles for blacks generally improved and "message movies" attempted to address race more sensitively, for eager, mostly white audiences. Hollywood also produced several big budget black musicals with black movie stars and, for the first time, began eating away at race movies' traditionally strong fan base.
William D. Alexander's success in the forties was the exception to the rule for race movies. The result was a sudden and almost complete cessation of independent minority-aimed cinema that lasted for the next two decades. Before the arrival of 1950, both Oscar Michaeux and Spencer Williams had directed their final films. Black Cinema struggled considerably during through the 1950s and '60s. It wouldn't be until the 1970s, with the advent of blaxploitation, that black cinema truly rebounded.
BLACK CINEMA IN THE 1940s
Examples of black cinema of the 1940s include: Am I Guilty?, Broken Strings, Four Shall Die, Gang War, Mr. Smith Goes Ghost, Mystery in Swing, The Notorious Elinor Lee, One Big Mistake, Son of Ingagi, Sunday Sinners and While Thousands Cheer (all 1940); The Blood of Jesus, Carnival of Rhythm, Lucky Ghost, Mr. Washington Goes to Town, Murder on Lennox Avenue, Murder With Music and Up Jumped the Devil (all 1941); Brother Martin, Colored Amerians in the Nation's Capital, Mokey, Professor Creeps and Take My Life (all 1942); Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, Marching On!, Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather (all 1943); Boogie Woogie Dream, Eddie's Laugh Jamboree, Go Down, Death!, The Negro Soldier, Of One Blood and We've Come a Long Way (all 1944); Big Timers, Caldonia, Harlem Hotshots, It Happened in Harlem, Laff Jamboree, The Negro Sailor, Open the Door Richard and Pigmeat Throws the Bull (all 1945); Baby Don't Go Away from Me, Beware, Call to Duty, Chicago After Dark, Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A., Fight That Ghost, The Girl in Room 20, House-Rent-Party, International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Jivin' in Be-Bop, Laugh Jubilee, Mantan Messes Up, Mantan Runs for Mayor, Midnight Menace, Song Of the South, Stars on Parade and Tall, Tan and Terrific (all 1946); Beale Street Mama, The Betrayal, Boy! What a Girl, Ebony Parade, The Fight Never Ends, Going to Glory, Come to Jesus, Hell Cats, Hi-De-Ho, Juke Joint, Junction 88, Look-Out Sister, Love in Syncopation, O'Voutie O'Rooney,The Peanut Man, Pigmeat’s Laugh Hepcats, Reet, Petite, and Gone, Sepia Cinderella, Shut My Big Mouth and Wrong Mr. Wright (all 1947); Boarding House Blues, Come on Cowboy, The Dreamer, Killer Diller, Look-Out Sister, Miracle in Harlem, No Time for Romance, The Quiet One, The Return of Mandy's Husband and Sun Tan Ranch (all 1948); and Intruder in the Dust, The Joint Is Jumpin’, Lost Boundaries, Pinky, Rhapsody of Negro Life, Souls of Sin and Symphony in Swing (all 1949).
BLACK ACTORS WHOSE FILM CAREERS BEGAN IN THE 1940s
Archie Savage Benny Carter Bill Walker Darby Jones
Eartha Kitt Ella Fitzgerald Elliot Carpenter Estelle Evans
Frederick O'Neal Hadda Brooks Harry Belafonte HazelScott
James Edwards Janet Collins June Richmond Katherine Dunham
Kenneth Spencer Kenny Washington Louis Jordan Mabel Lee
Nat King Cole Pearl Bailey Ruby Dee Savannah Churchill
Sheila Guyse Sidney Poitier Slam Stewart Slim Gaillard
Spencer Williams Suzette Harbin
Black actors who embarked on film careers in the 1940s but whose pictures are not included due to lack of availability include: Al Young, Alan Jackson, Albert Smith, Alberta Perkins, Alonzo Bozan, Austin McCoy, Billie Allen, Billy Mitchell, Bobby Johnson, Carmencita Romero, Clarence Hargrave, Davis Roberts, Don Gilbert, Doris Ake, Dots Johnson, Duke Williams, Elwood Smith, Emory Richardson, Frederick Johnson, Gene Holland, George T. Sutton, Harry Levette, Henry “Phace” Roberts, Howard Galloway, Inez Newell, Ivan Browning, Jay Loft-Lyn, Jessie Cryer, Joan Douglas, John D. Lee Jr., John Hemmings, John Marriott, John Murray, July Jones, Katherine Moore, Ken Renard, Lollypop Jones, Lou Swarz, Marcella Moreland, Maude Simmons, Millie Monroe, Milton Williams, Milton Woods, Myra D. Hemmings, Raymond Allen, Rudy Toombs, Russell Morrison, Shirley Haven, Sybil Lewis, Talley Beatty, Wallace Earl and William Washington.