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Black America's Forgotten Film History

A new MoMA exhibit puts black films front and center

Sack Amusement Enterprises

American cinema has never been particularly kind to black folks. As blacks moved north into cities with burgeoning movie palaces and industrial jobs and laws designed to keep them impoverished and on the margins, filmic representation of black life—limited for most of the time between World War I and Vietnam to “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks,” as historian Donald Bogle put it in 1973—was the lens through which American society viewed blacks.1 

Anyone who took silver screen representations of blacks at face value would come away with the notion that black folks were, by and large, stupid, cowardly, lazy and worthy of subjugation, censure and plunder. That this is just how America has largely treated its African American population both before and since is no accident. When the blustery but occasionally insightful critic Armond White said “you have a culture of criticism that simply doesn't want Black people to have any kind of power, any kind of spiritual understanding or artistic understanding of themselves,” he wasn’t wrong.

“A Road Three Hundred Years Long: Cinema and the Great Migration,” a series at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that began last Monday and runs through June 12th, provides a much-needed corrective, a narrative of black resistance to the dominant mode of slanderous Hollywood storytelling—both now and, somewhat miraculously, in the days of Jim Crow. Curated by MoMA’s Joshua Siegel and independent curator Thomas Beard of Light Industry, the country’s leading micro-cinema for experimental film, the exhibition is pegged to the Museum’s show of Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration paintings. “A Road Three Hundred Years Long” includes many films that catered to black audiences in the era of their flight from terror, showcasing a significant amount of pre-war black filmmaking as well as movies by contemporary black filmmakers that explore the mysterious legacy of the Great Migration.

Blacks were unable to go to segregated movie theaters in the south except under special circumstances—“midnight rambles,” for example, which were late night screenings of popular films and black-themed movies for black patrons that were barred during the day. But some black owned movie theaters persisted and some of the work shown there, both home movies and narrative features, found appreciative pre-war audiences. MoMA’s program includes many of these films, as well as WPA-style proletarian news reels and avant-garde non-fiction films, to showcase images of black life that—despite the specter of prejudice—highlight unadorned, provincially black, middle class normality in a way that is painfully rare. These spaces have largely escaped Hollywood visions of black American life, obsessed as they are with broad stereotype (see this summer’s Dope) or elegantly rendered historical struggle (Selma, 12 Years a Slave).  

But for black experimentalists (like Kevin Jerome Everson, who directed Company Line) or great, sadly underemployed black narrative directors—like Charles Burnett, who made To Sleep with Anger, and Julie Dash, who did Daughters of the Dust—the forgotten spaces of black American life provide wonderful fodder for exploring the mysterious resilience of black middle class life.

The program's most interesting discoveries are rooted further in the past. Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams were the only African Americans to make narrative feature films in the years before the Civil Rights Movement and they are very much at the center of “A Road Three Hundred Years Long.”Several works by Micheaux, the most prolific of the black pre-war filmmakers, are on display, including his 1920 film The Symbol of the Unconquered. A rejoinder of sorts to The Birth of a Nation, it remains one of the watershed moments in black film history. 

Meanwhile, Williams’s work is the subject of the documentary Juke: Passages from the films of Spencer Williams, a series-opening compilation film by noted found footage documentarian Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself). Williams is known more as the star of the popular early ’50s sitcom the Amos 'n’ Andy than as a groundbreaking independent filmmaker. Financed by a Jewish Texan named Alfred Sack, Williams’ moralizing work is often compared to Tyler Perry’s, but given the era he worked in he couldn’t hope to control the means of production on his own (as Perry famously has).

Williams’ race movies made great use of magic realist flourishes in his early films; in The Blood of Jesus, undeniably his masterwork, the devil drives a flatbed truck with sinners perched on the back and Angels—given etherealness through that most basic cinematic trickery, the double exposure—hover over the bed of a woman who lies mortally wounded. Andersen’s interest, however, lies mainly in recontextualizing clips from Williams’ films to highlight the documentary-like aspects they contain. Because so few motion picture images of black middle class life were taken in Dallas suburbs or Harlem night clubs, in cab stands and in juke joints, in sitting rooms and in neighborhood streets, Williams’ scenes have a representative quality that transcends their narratives of jazz age sin and Christian redemption, one that Andersen’s deft cutting compiles in a lucid, if decidedly non-narrative way. (Next winter, arthouse film distributor Kino Lorber will release a box set of Micheaux and Williams movies.)

This has been a watershed year for black repertory programming in the city. Between the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Telling It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York 1968-1986,” the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “Space is the Place: Afrofuturism in Film,” and “A Road Three Hundred Years Long,” movies about black life have been given significant platforms in some of New York’s august cultural institutions. The takeaway from these wonderfully curated programs, though, is grimmer: Looking through the filmographies of the artists involved, very little of their work has come with the support of our national film culture’s most enduring brands, the Hollywood studios. One quickly gets the sense that thoughtful, nuanced stories about the African American experience aren’t welcome out there.

Today African Americans are underrepresented in the movie industry’s workforce, both in front of and behind the camera. In the boardroom and in the postproduction house, blackness is scarce. This holds true for every strata of the industry, from the dying vestiges of New York’s indiewood to the hallways of power at Los Angeles’ major studios. I imagine there may be a black person within the studio apparatus who holds the power to green light movies about the parochial anxieties, dreams and predilections of American negroes without fear of quizzical glances from his peers and superiors, but I’ve yet to meet or hear of this person. I’m not holding my breath.

This year and last year are the only consecutive years in cinematic history in which films directed by people of African descent were nominated for the Oscar for best picture. But look for African Americans when you walk through the offices of a major film production or distribution outfit—you’ll still only find them at the guard’s desk or near the janitor’s closet. That narrative has to change.

  1. President Woodrow Wilson’s response to seeing W. Griffith’s 1915 Klu Klux Klan-sympathizing Birth of a Nation is emblematic: “Like writing history with Lightning, ” he reportedly said, “and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”