Black Cinema Part I -- Race Movies - The Silent Era

Posted by Eric Brightwell, January 31, 2010 10:11am | Post a Comment
This is the first installment in a three part history of early Black Cinema.
To read Part II, covering the Hollywood Studio years of the 1930s and '40s, click here
To read Part III, covering the TV Age of the 1950s and '60s, click here

The Lincoln Motion Picture Company

In most American silent films, minorities were generally played by white actors in make-up. When actual minorities were cast, roles were generally limited. Latinos in silent films usually played greasers and bandits; Asian-Americans played waiters, tongs and laundrymen; and blacks usually played bellboys, stable hands, maids or simple buffoons. Early film depictions of black characters were highly offensive, including those in the films Nigger in the Woodpile, Rastus, Sambo and The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon. Not surprisingly, both Asian-Americans and blacks responded by launching their own alternative cinemas. But whilst Asian-American Silent Cinema quickly faltered, black cinema (blessed with a much larger audience) flourished and soon many so-called race movies were being made by both black and white filmmakers for black filmgoers.


The first film company devoted to the production of race movies was the Chicago-based Ebony Film Company, which began operation in 1915. The first black-owned film company was The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, founded by the famous Missourian actor Noble Johnson in 1916. However, the biggest name in race movies was and remains Oscar Micheaux, an Illinois-born director who started The Micheaux Book & Film Company in 1919 and went on to direct at least forty films with predominantly black casts for black audiences. Also in 1919, seeing how lucrative the growing race movie market was, Jacksonville, Florida’s Norman Film Manufacturing Company switched tracks and began making race films, starting with an all black remake of one of their earlier films.



Aladdin Jones and The Two Knights of Vaudeville (both 1915), Money Talks in Darktown and The Realization of a Negro's Ambition (both 1916), A Trooper of Troop K, Dat Blackhand Waitah Man, Devil For a Day, The Hypocrites, The Law of Nature, Shine Johnson and the Rabbit's Foot and Wrong All Around (all 1917), Are Working Girls Safe?, Billy the Janitor, Black and Tan Mix Up, A Black Sherlock Holmes, The Bully, A Busted Romance, The Comeback of Barnacle Bill, Firing the Fakir, Good Luck in Old Clothes, Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled, Our Colored FightersA Reckless Rover, Some Baby, Spooks, Spying the Spy, When You Are Scared, Run and When You Hit, Hit Hard (all 1918), The Green-Eyed Monster, The Homesteader and A Man’s Duty (all 1919)



Charles R. Moore, Dora Dean, Ernest "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, Evelyn Preer, Jack Johnson, Noble Johnson, Rex Ingram, Samuel “Sambo” Jacks and Tim Moore

Other actors who got there start in the '10s but whom aren't pictured: Anita Brown, Anita Thompson, Beulah Hall, Bert Murphy, Blue Washington, Charles D. Lucas, Clarence Brooks, Cleo Desmond, Ethel Smith, Evon Skekeeter, Florence McClain, Frank L. Wilson, Frank Pollard, Harry Tracey, Iris Hall, Jimmy Marshall, John Wesley Jenkins, Julia Mason, Mattie Edwards, Mildred Price, Robert Duree, Robert Stewart, Rudolph Tatum, Sam Robinson, Steve Reynolds, Walter Brogsdale, Webb King, Will Starks and Yvonne Junior.


In the 1920s, more film companies sprang up to exploit the black film audience. Royal Gardens Film Company of Chicago made only one race film. In 1922, Blackburn Velde Productions also made just one film, a vehicle for boxer/actor Jack Johnson. In Kansas City, Missouri there were several black-owned film companies: The Andlauer Film Company, Progress Picture Producing Association, Gate City Feature Films and Turpin Films. In 1926, the Colored Players Film Corporation was founded by white producer David Starkman. The Original Lafayette Players was the first major professional black drama company in the country, founded back in 1915, but they didn’t get into film until 1928. From 1929 to 1930, Monte Brice Productions existed as a vehicle for the black duo Buck & Bubbles. In 1929, The Christie Film Country began making all-black talkies. In 1929, Fox made Hearts in Dixie. 



Race movies of the '20s include The Brute, In the Depths of Our Hearts, The Symbol of the Unconquered and Within Our Gates (all 1920), As the World Rolls On, The Black Thunderbolt, By Right of Birth, The Burden of Race, The Call of His People, The Custard Nine, The Gunsaulus Mystery, The Lure of a Woman, Secret Sorrow, The Simp and The Sport of the Gods (all 1921), The Crimson Skull, The Dungeon, Easy Money, For His Mother’s Sake, The Hypocrite, Spitfire and Uncle Jasper's Will (all 1922), The Bull-Dogger, Deceit, Ghost of Tolston's Manor, Regeneration and The Virgin of Seminole (all 1923), Birthright, The Flaming Crisis and A Son of Satan (all 1924), Body and Soul and Marcus Garland (both 1925), The Conjure Woman, The Devil's Disciple, The Flying Ace, The Prince of His Race and Ten Nights in a Barroom (all 1926), The Broken Violin, The House Behind the Cedars, The Millionaire, The Scar of Shame, The Spider's Web and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (all 1927), Black Gold, Children of Fate, The Midnight Ace, Thirty Years Later and When Men Betray (all 1928), Black and Tan, Black Narcissus, Blue Songs, Brown Gravy, Election Day, Fowl Play, The Framing of the Shrew, Hallelujah!, Hearts in Dixie, In and Out, The Lady Fare, Melancholy Dame, Music Hath Harms, Oft in the Silly Night, St. Louis Blues and Wages of Sin (all 1929).



Black actors who got their start in the 1920s include Allen 'Farina' Hoskins, Anita Bush, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Bill Pickett, Clarence Muse, Daniel L. Haynes, Ethel Waters, Eugene Jackson, Eva Jessye, Evelyn Ellis, Fredi Washington, Gertrude Howard, John Lester Johnson, Laura Bowman, Leigh Whipper, Lincoln "Stepin Fetchit" Perry, Lorenzo Tucker, Mamie Smith, Nelly “Madame Sul-Te-Wan” Conley, Matthew 'Stymie' Beard, Mildred Washington, Nina Mae McKinney, Paul Robeson, Pearl McCormack, Spencer Williams, Theresa Harris, Trixie Smith and Zack Williams.

Others, not pictured, include A.B. DeComathiere, A.C.H. Billbrew, Alec Lovejoy, Alfred Norcom, Alice Burton Russell, Alma Sewell, Andrew Bishop, Ardelle Dabney, Arline Mickey, Arthur Ray, Bee Freman, Bernice Pilot, Bessie Givens, Bessie Lyle, Blanche Thompson, Charles Allen, Charles Olden, Claude Collins, Clifford Ingram, Daisy Buford, Dink Stewart, Dorothy Morrison, E.G. Tatum, Edgar Connor, Edna Barr, Edna Morton, Edward Fraction, Edward R. Abrams, Edward Thompson, Evelyn Pope Burwell, F.E. Miller, Fanny Belle DeKnight, Flo Clements, Ford Washington Lee, Fred "Snowflake" Toones, Freddie Jackson, George Edward Brown, George Reed, George Williams, Gertrude Snelson, Grace Smith, Harry Gray, Harry Henderson, Henrietta Loveless, Inez Clough, J. Homer Tutt, J. Laurence Criner, James B. Low, Jimmie Cook, Kathleen Noisette, Kathryn Boyd, Lawrence Chenault, Leo Bates, Leon Hereford, Leroy Broomfield, Lewis Schooler, Lionel Monagas, Lorenzo McClane, Louis De Bulger, Louise Beavers, Mabel Young, Maceo Bruce Scheffield, Madame Robinson, Marshall Rodgers, Mary Jane Watkins, Matthew Jones, Mattie Wilkes, Mercedes Gilbert, Mildred Boyd, Monte Hawley, Nathan Curry, Neva Peoples, Norman Johnstone, Percy Verwayen, Dr. R.L. Brown, Roberta Hyson, S.T. Jacks, Salem Tutt Whitney, Shingzie Howard, Sidney Easton, Susie Sutton, Sylvia Birdsong, Tom Fletcher, Virgil Williams, Vivian Smith, Walter Cornick, Walter Richardson, William B.F. Crowell and William E. Fountaine.

THE 30s AND 40s

In the '30s and '40s, Hollywood would increasingly make films with all black casts. With their much larger budgets, Hollywood black cinema in the studio era largely appropriated race films' audience and by World War II, an independent black cinema was no more. It wasn't until the 1960s and '70s that a new generation of black filmmakers emerged, creating what came to be known as blaxploitation. However, just as Hollywood co-opted race movies, so too was blaxploitation co-opted. Over the following decades, as black characters grew less and less common in Hollywood, a black independent film movement slowly resurfaced in the '80s and continues to grow.


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Race Movies (3), Black Cinema (8), Black History Month (134), 1920s (23), 1910s (17), Silent Films (8)