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Black Cinema Matters

Black films have championed Black lives for over 100 years—while white America studiously ignored them.

In the fall of 1960, Melvin Van Peebles stood on the Champs-Élysées with wet cheeks and three reels of film under his arm. His life was in shambles. Hours before, the aspiring film director had been lauded during a screening of his films at the famed Cinémathèque in Paris. He was the guest of its founder, legendary cinephile Henri Langlois. After the event, Langlois kissed Van Peebles on both cheeks and drove away. As the afterglow of the applause faded, Van Peebles realized he was alone—stranded in France, with no money and no way home. He spoke no French and had no friends. What was he to do?

He stayed, and in so doing altered the course of cinematic history. Like other Black intellectuals and artists from America, from Richard Wright and James Baldwin to Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon, Van Peebles found a refuge in Paris from the hostile racial climate back home. That alone was enough to keep him going. He started life in his adopted country as a homeless street performer, taught himself to speak French, and went on to become a respected magazine journalist. When he learned of a law that subsidized French writers to adapt their books into films, Van Peebles transformed himself once more, eventually publishing four novels in French. He was then awarded financing to direct a movie based on his novel La Permission.

The resulting adaptation, titled The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967), combines French and English dialogue. It portrays a Black U.S. soldier stationed in France who, on a weekend pass from the Army, embarks on a steamy love affair with a white French woman. Van Peebles experimented with jump cuts and freeze frames to express the social anxieties that presided over interracial dating in the 1960s. His stylistic choices clearly situate the picture within the French New Wave, a movement popularized by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. But, tellingly, one seldom sees Van Peebles’s name mentioned in discussions of that lively cinematic chapter. When The Story of a Three-Day Pass won the top prize at the San Francisco Film Festival that year, audiences and critics were astounded to discover the director of that marvelous French film was actually … a soul brother from Chicago.

Van Peebles’s festival triumph generated buzz and garnered him a shot in Hollywood. In 1970, he helmed a successful picture, Watermelon Man, and became the first Black director to receive a multi-picture deal with a major studio. But if you were to ask the average movie buff today to identify Van Peebles or any of his films, even amid an unprecedented commercial effort to expose audiences to Black directors, they would likely be at a loss.

The story of Melvin Van Peebles speaks to a larger problem. Many Americans, in the face of public outrage over the high-profile police killings of unarmed Black citizens like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, are struggling to make sense of this country’s appalling racial violence. Some have looked to Black films for answers. Numerous media outlets and streaming services have compiled lists of films that reduce Black cinema, a heritage filled with strange twists and fascinating personalities, to a familiar menu of offerings from Spike Lee and a couple of other big names. This is what happens when you combine corporate incentives with performative “wokeness.” These campaigns leave the public imagining an enjoyable stay-at-home movie night: “Learn About the Black Struggle and Chill.”

The separate-and-unequal attention Hollywood pays to Black cinema has left moviegoers mostly unaware of its rich tradition. Even the Criterion Collection, the most prominent gatekeeper of the cinematic arts, has had to reckon with the fact that it features only four Black American directors in its canon.

Throughout its roughly 125-year history, Black cinema has served as an avenue for creative expression, cultural affirmation, and a reimagining of what freedom really means. It has also forecast, critiqued, and documented the social changes we now see unfolding. Since the very inception of moving pictures, Black directors have occupied a paradoxical role in American cultural history: They have represented an artistic vanguard, introducing innovations in aesthetic sensibilities and production practices, while remaining perpetually on the outside looking in. The truth is, Black artists helped build the American film industry—and it’s finally time for a widespread recognition of that legacy.

Some of the first Black filmmakers were children of the enslaved or were born into slavery themselves, yet they still started producing films as early as their white counterparts. When film projectors became commercially available in 1896, long before the rise of Hollywood, Black entrepreneurs and religious leaders began promoting motion pictures as a tool to help “uplift” the race. They believed movies possessed the power to forge a modern image of Black culture that could advance collective racial progress and generate economic opportunity. Black social clubs held film presentations that mesmerized audiences with their novelty, while filmmakers also started recreating scenes from the Bible to screen in Black churches.

Pioneering Black women like S.A. Bunn and Ednah Walker were among the first entrepreneurs to develop traveling film exhibitions. They toured the Midwest and the South, visiting churches and concert halls to showcase Black moving images. Bunn and Walker helped create an entertainment model in which live music and vaudeville acts were used to supplement their slate of silent films.

The dawn of the twentieth century saw motion pictures become an alluring pastime in many Black communities. In 1905, Robert Motts, a colorful proprietor of popular gambling spots and taverns, launched one of the first Black-owned movie houses, the Pekin Theater on Chicago’s South Side. Ida B. Wells hosted a successful charity event there, lending credibility to Motts’s establishment. By 1914, under a vicious apartheid regime, over 200 Black-owned theaters had opened across the United States, ranging from small storefront shops to resplendent marble movie palaces. These communal spaces became potent symbols of Black self-determination and economic independence, as well as sites for entertainment, resistance, and cultural celebration.

As women gained voting rights, former actress Theresa “Tressie” Souders and activist Maria Williams broke new ground as the first Black women directors. Souders’s A Woman’s Error (1922) and Williams’s Flames of Wrath (1923), both shot in Kansas City, were monumental achievements of the time. The Black press hailed Souders’s film as “the first of its kind to be produced by a woman of our race.” Neither Williams nor Souders is known to have made another movie, but their spark blazed a trail for Black directors like Kathleen Collins, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Darnell Martin in the 1980s and ’90s.

Booker T. Washington, one of the most influential Black leaders of the era, worked with two separate Black companies to produce motion pictures to enhance the national reputation of his Tuskegee Institute. A Trip to Tuskegee (1909) and A Day at Tuskegee (1913) became promotional tools for Washington to augment the school’s fundraising efforts.

The enterprise of Black cinema coincided with the increasing influence of Black-owned newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the New York Age, which became the community’s primary arbiters of art and culture. Black newspaper columnists like Lester Walton, Sylvester Russell, and Columbus Bragg were some of America’s first film critics, ebulliently writing about the artistic merits and social implications of the burgeoning cinema phenomenon. Their work helped motion pictures become all the rage in Black popular culture.

The early years of Black filmmaking, in other words, were extraordinarily diverse, touching on nearly every aspect of Black culture and featuring an array of characters from different walks of life. An intriguing example of its diversity is the story of James Young Johnson, professionally known as James Young Deer. He often bragged, to anyone who would listen, about his full-blooded Native American heritage, even though he was actually Black. Young Deer tried to “pass” himself as an “Indian” to break into filmmaking—and it worked. From 1911 to 1914, he directed over 100 short Westerns for Pathé Frères West Coast Studio, catapulting himself into the pantheon of early Hollywood filmmakers. It was discovered well after his death that Young Deer did have some Native American ancestry, but he was unaware of it during his lifetime.

William Foster is typically identified as the first successful Black director. He was an early champion of cinema’s radical potential to prove Black lives matter. He began his career as the press agent to the first Black stars of Broadway, Bert Williams and George Walker. Foster recognized in cinema a vehicle for Black America to recuperate its cultural image, which had suffered grotesque distortions in the national imagination throughout the nineteenth century. Racist caricatures in literature and white performances of blackface minstrelsy, on stage and in film, had crystallized myths that denigrated Black life. Foster insisted that cinema portray “the finer aspects and qualities” of Black life and “set the race right with the world.”

Foster culled together capital, purchased a motion picture camera and film stock, and founded America’s first prominent Black movie studio in Chicago, the Foster Photoplay Company—two years before the establishment of Universal Pictures, the first Hollywood studio. Between 1913 and 1916, Foster produced a series of movies, including The Fall Guy, The Butler, and The Barber. His best-known film, The Railroad Porter (1913), is a chase comedy starring Lottie Grady, the highest-paid Black woman in show business at the time, and Kid Brown, a fixture in Chicago’s theater scene. The press declared that the film “contains more wit and humor than any picture ever seen at the [Majestic Theater].”

Foster’s visionary efforts helped usher in the golden age of early Black cinema—the so-called “race film” era, which peaked during the 1920s. These movies were made by Black directors, featured all-Black casts, and depicted the world from Black points of view for the enjoyment of avid Black moviegoers, who watched in the comfort of Black-owned theaters.

Yet with every step forward, the snares of Hollywood were always present. In Los Angeles, Noble Johnson, a handsome Black man with a light complexion, rose to prominence as the most famous Black actor of the era. He signed a lucrative contract with Universal Pictures and appeared in a staggering number of films. But he rarely, if ever, portrayed Black characters. He played Middle Eastern, Native American, Latinx, Asian but never Black—one of the myriad ways Hollywood repressed and devalued Black lives.

In 1916, Johnson assembled a group of well-heeled Black Angelenos—Dr. James Thomas Smith (a pharmacist), Willes O. Tyler (an attorney), and Clarence Brooks (an actor)—and formed the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. Their first movie, The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916), starred Noble Johnson in a Horatio Alger–like tale that emphasized Black pride, upward mobility, and success in the face of a racist system. Johnson’s fame was a massive draw for Black filmgoers. They flocked to watch him star in Lincoln movies like The Trooper of Company K (1916) and The Law of Nature (1917).

A poster for Oscar Micheaux’s 1919 film The Homesteader
Wikimedia Commons

For two years, Lincoln operated successfully, serving Black audiences with the “classy” films they craved. Once Universal learned Johnson was starring in “race films,” however, it slapped him with a harsh ultimatum. Either terminate his relationship with Lincoln Pictures or never work for Universal again. The studio bullied Johnson into submission, and he reluctantly resigned from his own company. Without its most bankable movie star, Lincoln Pictures folded— revealing an early example of the countless ways Black cinema has been suppressed and undermined by Hollywood.

The most famous of the early Black filmmakers was a burly, charismatic businessman named Oscar Micheaux, who launched the Micheaux Film Corporation in Chicago. Micheaux created nearly 50 films during his 30-year career. Before turning to film, he published several popular semi-autobiographical novels, adapting his most famous book for his screen debut. Released in 1919, The Homesteader, starring Evelyn Preer and Charles Lucas, is the first Black narrative feature-length film. Unfortunately, that picture, like so many works of early cinema, has no surviving prints.

Within Our Gates (1920), Micheaux’s second feature, is a bold rebuttal to the anti-Black stereotypes rampant in Hollywood. The film was controversial, addressing themes of Black migration and racial uplift. It also featured the first on-screen depiction of the horrific practice of lynching. The explosive lynching scenes prompted battles with censors, who feared Within Our Gates would incite violence after the “Red Summer of 1919,” which saw devastating race riots grip the country. The film, however, appealed to Black audiences demanding racial justice and equality.

In addition to his penchant for provocation, Micheaux had an eye for talent. He discovered the sprightly film star Evelyn Preer, who became the premier Black actress of her time, affectionately known as “the First Lady of the Screen.” He also directed legendary actor Paul Robeson in his film debut, Body and Soul (1925).

But the obstacles remained formidable. Micheaux and William Foster had to work entirely outside the Hollywood system, touring their films around the U.S., Europe, and South America. They had little support—just entrepreneurial grit, spurred by Black audiences thirsting for entertainment that reflected their lives.

Despite the successes of early Black cinema, the advent of “talkies,” or sound films, was a death knell for many Black silent-era directors. Hollywood’s technological shift from silent to sound coincided with the Great Depression and left most Black film companies undercapitalized and unable to bear the cost of expensive new sound equipment and camera gear. Many Black studios, which produced over 500 movies during the “race film” era, were shuttered. Hollywood quickly poached top Black talent like Evelyn Preer and Paul Robeson.

A sad, telling detail: Robeson’s performance in Micheaux’s Body and Soul marked the only time he worked with a Black filmmaker, though his career lasted another 50 years.

Hollywood actively banned Black directors until studios faced economic disaster in the late ’60s. The failure of several big-budget films like Hello Dolly and Cleopatra at the box office, coupled with the increased popularity of television, put major studios under tremendous financial strain, and executives were desperate for a remedy. Gordon Parks was the first Black director to breach the exclusively white world of Hollywood studios, directing The Learning Tree for Warner Brothers in 1969. He was a highly regarded photographer at Life magazine, who spent decades producing award-winning images of Black subjects like “Emerging Man” and “American Gothic.” Based on his bestselling memoir, The Learning Tree chronicles Parks’s turbulent childhood in 1920s Kansas, where he survived the brutal malice of Jim Crow racism.

Veteran actor Ossie Davis, later known for his role as “Da Mayor” in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, broke into the studio system when United Artists employed him to helm the crime-comedy Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), based on the book of the same name by Chester Himes.

When Melvin Van Peebles arrived in Hollywood as the hip “French” auteur, he became the third Black filmmaker of the sound era to direct a major-studio picture. That was Watermelon Man, the story of a racist white salesman who suddenly turns Black overnight. Van Peebles transformed the film from a bland caricature comedy into a rollicking, politically charged satire, starring Godfrey Cambridge in “whiteface.”

Watermelon Man was a hit, and Columbia offered Melvin a three-picture deal. He declined. Instead, he wrote, directed, produced, starred in, and edited the rebellious revenge fantasy Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), which sent a tidal wave cascading through Hollywood.

Van Peebles portrays Sweetback, a street urchin who is radicalized after being framed for murder and witnessing the all-too-familiar scenario of white cops brutalizing an unarmed Black man. Sweetback ultimately kills two crooked cops and becomes the target of a massive manhunt. He evades capture and becomes a legend, symbolizing a radical vision of Black power. The film’s picaresque tale, psychedelic visuals, and lush soundtrack (by a then-unknown band named Earth, Wind & Fire) combine to make a gut-punching indictment of police violence.

No distributor would touch Sweetback and its insurgent narrative, and Van Peebles refused to submit the picture to the all-white MPAA ratings board for approval. So the board slapped the film with an X-rating and doomed it to flop. With a huckster’s panache, Melvin seized the MPAA’s X-rating as a marketing opportunity and printed Sweetback T-shirts that read: “Rated X … by an all-white jury.” When word of the film’s revolutionary impulse got back to Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, he declared Sweetback mandatory viewing for all Black Panther members.

Although the movie opened in only two U.S. theaters, lines of customers clamoring to see it stretched for blocks. Sweetback became the top-grossing independent film of the year. Van Peebles was heralded as a folk hero and financially rewarded for his efforts but found himself shunned in the industry. Infuriated by his achievement, executives ruthlessly froze Van Peebles out of Hollywood and co-opted Sweetback’s success into their business model. Studios began producing cheaply made, Black-cast action flicks. These movies, later dubbed Blaxploitation films, diluted Sweetback’s political message with themes of inner-city crime—and raked in huge profits.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the first generation of Black film students, studying at UCLA, became disenchanted with Blaxploitation’s one-dimensional characters and cartoon-like violence. Inspired by arthouse schools like the Brazilian Cinema Novo and Italian Neorealism, they spearheaded an independent movement later called the “L.A. Rebellion.” Through the 1970s and early 1990s, filmmakers like Haile Gerima, Billy Woodberry, and Charles Burnett created daringly profound yet tragically underseen Black cinema treasures.

The group was diverse not only in terms of race but also gender. The first Black woman to garner theatrical distribution, Julie Dash, directed Daughters of the Dust (1991), a lyrical portrait of Black womanhood in Gullah culture. The movie is an obvious inspiration for Beyoncé’s Grammy-winning visual album, Lemonade, which borrowed its stunning imagery of Black women on sandy beaches draped in flowing white dresses.

The group’s key figure, Charles Burnett, is best known for his poetic masterpiece Killer of Sheep (1978), a film that tenderly explores the world of working-class Black people. Burnett’s visual style captures the quiet ennui of inner-city life with simplicity and depth. Gerima, a cinematic provocateur and Burnett’s classmate, crafted polemical films like Bush Mama (1979), which assails police brutality, prisons, and the welfare system.

Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), another L.A. Rebellion classic, is a transcendent, terrifically subtle film that details the soul-crushing stress chronic unemployment places on Black families. The movie boasts one of the most emotionally gripping scenes in American cinema. A breathtaking 10-minute, hand-held long take (shot by Burnett) depicts a shattering domestic argument between a weary couple trapped in a crumbling marriage.

The anti-Hollywood ethos of the L.A. Rebellion, alongside films by the director Bill Gunn, represents cinema’s equivalent to Blues music, imbued with a rebellious impulse that evokes the humanity of Black life. Several of these landmark films are receiving long-overdue recognition as culturally significant works, with recent induction into the Library of Congress National Film Registry.

The post–L.A. Rebellion generation of Black directors was, of course, led by Spike Lee, who made waves with his quirky debut, She’s Gotta Have It (1986). But a movie that receives far too little credit for its genre-creating impact is Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987), which is rarely considered a “serious” picture, even though it remains a disturbingly relevant satire of the film industry’s racist practice of limiting Black actors to regressive roles as slaves, maids, and butlers.

During that time, major studios would place low-risk bets on relatively cheap Black movies in hopes of yielding high short-term profits. What resulted was the vibrant Black film fad of the 1990s. This period witnessed the rise of directors like John Singleton (Boyz ’N the Hood, 1991), Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, 1997), Reginald Hudlin (House Party, 1990), the Hughes brothers (Menace II Society, 1993), Forest Whitaker (Waiting to Exhale, 1995), and Melvin’s son Mario Van Peebles (Posse, 1993). The sheer volume of Black-themed pictures produced during the ’90s rivals only Blaxploitation in quantity, with the profits to match.

In the twenty-first century, with formulaic superhero films established as its new money-making machine, Hollywood stopped targeting Black audiences. Seemingly overnight, the decade-long gains in Black cinema were halted. Not until the arrival of filmmaker Ava DuVernay did Black cinema achieve a renewed social velocity. Her film Middle of Nowhere (2012) employs the fresh visual aesthetic of cinematographer Bradford Young (a disciple of the L.A. Rebellion’s Haile Gerima). The film’s splendid use of color and lighting accentuates Black skin tones while examining the lives of Black women left behind by the mass incarceration of Black men.

Six years later, Oakland-born filmmaker Ryan Coogler made Marvel’s Black Panther, becoming the first Black millennial director to find commercial success. Coogler had burst onto the scene with a poignant debut, Fruitvale Station (2014), based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Black father murdered by police in a Bay Area train station. The modern era of Black cinema has seen directors tackle complex ideas with both auteurist style and popular appeal. Two movies that achieved this in entirely different ways are Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016) and Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). The former is a heartbreakingly beautiful exploration of masculinity and belonging. The latter is a work of genre-blending social horror that unmasks America’s love-hate relationship with Black bodies and attacks the fallacy of a post-racial society. Both films were independent, wildly profitable, and won Oscars.

The power of Black cinema remains rooted in its commitment to illuminating Black life: its nuances, dreams, and nightmares. Despite its cultural cachet and proven financial viability, Black cinema has, at the hands of the Hollywood machine, been deliberately underdeveloped and kept apart from “the canon.” Black films are continually viewed as a part of a shiny “new renaissance,” rarely understood as grounded in a rich legacy, as an essential ingredient in American film, or as vital to the mainstream cultural conversation.

There are impressive Black filmmakers today carrying the torch of their cinematic ancestors. One such director, Dee Rees, has made compelling and evocative films that explore issues of race and queer identities. Other contemporary filmmakers like Arthur Jafa and Kahlil Joseph are pushing modern film forward, with richly coded moving images that are in conversation with Black cinema’s deep past. These filmmakers (among many others) offer our best guide to understanding the full weight and complexity of Black America and the outcry for social justice pulsating in our streets.

Black filmmakers saw this moment coming. Their work helps us understand it. For nearly 125 years, under the oppressive knee of systemic racism, and in the teeth of unimaginable horrors, Black cinema endures, indispensable, boldly asking America: “Do you see us now?”