If you happen to be in the United States and you have Netflix, check out a set that’s currently streaming called Pioneers Of African-American Cinema. It’s a collection of 20 restored feature and short films by early black American filmmakers, picked from the box set of the same title released last year by Kino Lorber—very much a labor of love. For the history of race films, as movies meant for black audiences were once called, survives as a collage of fragments, like one of those paper découpage folding screens that you will sometimes find in an antique store. Come to think of it, isn’t it interesting that we call the viewing surface of films a “screen”? Because the original function of screens is to obscure or block.
My own interest in race films started almost exactly 10 years ago, when I used to go weekly to a lecture and screening series by one of the curators of the Pioneers Of African-American Cinema set, Jacqueline Stewart. Maybe it’s been stoked by that mix of pride and dissatisfaction that defines Chicago, the city I’ve called home for almost half my life; for a time in the 1910s and 1920s, the Second City had the best claim to the title of “the black Hollywood,” but any trace of that legacy is long gone. I find myself thinking of race films a lot lately, as I’ve been working for months on a long and perhaps too ambitious piece of writing that deals a lot with the first decades of cinema. Some of the films I’ve watched for research are reminders of the fact that part of what makes racism so toxic is that it is, among many other things, a form of entertainment.
You can’t have a thorough discussion of either the history or the present state of American movies without getting into the institution of race. The fact is that black Americans played a disproportionate role in creating the culture that is unique to this country—from its music to the way it understands athletes—but were thoroughly excluded for one of its main cultural industries: film. And the thing that can’t be overlooked is that, for decades, they weren’t only kept out as artists or businesspeople, but as audiences. You probably already know this. But let me briefly direct your attention to the image up top. It’s an advertisement for The Homesteader, the first film by Oscar Micheaux, the founder of the Chicago-based Micheaux Book & Film Company and the most prominent director of race films. The ad ran in The Kansas City Sun, the newspaper of record for Kansas City’s black community at the time.
The Homesteader is long lost, as are so many historically important early films by black filmmakers, though we do know that it was based on a novel Micheaux had published a few years prior, and that like much of his surviving work, it was partly autobiographical. Little information remains about the New Center Theater, where it played in Kansas City in 1919. It sat about 1,400 people, huge by today’s standards. I’ve found an archival photograph that shows it sharing an eight-story building with a Murphy’s five-and-dime store. George Garner Jr., the operatic tenor advertised a pre-show attraction, had sung Verdi at The Homesteader’s Chicago premiere and would become the first black vocal soloist to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Evelyn Preer, The Homesteader’s female lead, is all but forgotten now, but she was once the most prominent black film actress in America. She was Micheaux’s leading lady, starring in nine of his films, of which only one, Within Our Gates, survives. All of these details paint a picture.
So does the prominence that the ad gives to the words “Colored people seated anywhere in the house.” This is not shocking; the “colored balcony,” often with its own separate entrance on the side of the movie theater, has become a well-known image of Jim Crow. But what often gets lost today is that the once-widespread segregation of movie audiences wasn’t just a question of second-class access. It was a screen before the screen. The definition of a race film wasn’t that it was a movie made by black filmmakers—not all of them were. At least two important white directors made race films: Edgar G. Ulmer, the premier artist of the shoestring-budgeted B-movie, and Alice Guy-Blaché, the most important female director of the early decades of cinema. Rather, a race film was a movie meant for a black audience, because other movies weren’t.
Chicago was initially the epicenter of this parallel industry. The Homesteader is believed to be the first feature-length effort by a black cast and crew for a black American audience, but Micheaux was hardly the first to make race films in the city. There was also Peter J. Jones Photoplay, founded by a successful portrait photographer. This is the company that made The Return Of The “Fighting 8th,” the film advertised as playing before The Homesteader, also lost. There was The Foster Photoplay Company, possibly the first African-American production outfit. It was founded by William D. Foster, who was a sports writer for The Chicago Defender and a press agent for the Pekin Theater, the first black-owned vaudeville theater, which once stood near the eventual site of the Dearborn Homes housing project and the since-demolished Harold L. Ickes Homes—the notorious “Ickies.” And there was the Ebony Film Company, run by brothers Luther and Fritz Pollard. Fritz, the younger brother, became one of the first black pro football players and the first black head coach of an NFL (then called APFA) team, with the 1921 Akron Pros, whose lineup included the great singer and actor Paul Robeson. The site of the Pollard brothers’ once-thriving film company is now the highway ramp where I sometimes get on if I’m driving north of the city. All of the films made by these companies are lost.
There were like-minded outfits around the country, the most famous of which was the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which was founded in Omaha but soon relocated to Los Angeles. It was founded by Noble Johnson, who was an interesting character in his own right. Johnson was a relatively successful actor and the only black performer I know of to have been occasionally cast as white characters; he plays Ivan, the Russian manservant, in 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game. Micheaux had originally proposed The Homesteader to Johnson’s company, but during negotiations decided to strike out on his own. The son of a former slave, Micheaux had been a worker at Chicago’s stockyards, a Pullman porter, and a homesteader in South Dakota. The people who made the first generation of race films, often in direct response to the success of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation, were multi-hyphenates for whom film was just one enterprise in what was understood to be a larger cultural project. They were making movies about accomplished and middle-class black characters as mob attacks against black communities were sweeping the country—about 25 of them in the summer of 1919, with one of the most violent being in Chicago. In most cases, nothing survives of these film outfits except newspaper clippings and the titles of lost films.
One film that was new to me in the Pioneers Of African-American Cinema set was an all-black version of Ten Nights In A Bar Room, a popular Temperance-era novel and play that was adapted to film several times during Prohibition. It was produced in 1926 by the Colored Players, based in Philadelphia. There was also a movie that I had been looking forward to seeing for some time: The Flying Ace, made the same year. It is mildly notorious for the fact that, despite the title and prominence of crashing aircraft on the poster, it features very little flying and is actually about a former pilot who works as a mystery-solving railroad detective. The restoration work on both is superbly sharp. Neither is a very good movie, but they have substantial charms; like so many of the race films I’ve seen, they attempt to make up for a shortage of effects, sets, and technical means with an overabundance of subplots, incidents, and characters.
There’s some agreement that race films—a category that existed in some form from the 1910s into the late 1940s—saw a drop in quality and ambition after the advent of sound. Micheaux’s surviving talkies have a bizarre, Ed Wood-ian quality. (Personally, I’ve always been a little more partial to the Z-grade movies of Spencer Williams, who played Amos on the Amos’n Andy TV show; his films The Blood Of Jesus and Dirty Gertie From Harlem U.S.A. are included in Pioneers Of African-American Cinema set.) A film like The Flying Ace represents the approximate midpoint between the early, Booker T. Washinton-influenced race films and the bawdier later ones. These two phases were sold on the same thing: the spectacle of seeing black people on film. There’s a reason these movies often have large, unwieldy casts of characters.
Actual, flesh-and-blood black people are a relative rarity in early American movies, and they appear more often than not as the butt of gags. If you go digging into the forgotten corners of early film, as I’ve had to, you sometimes come across examples of racist humor so obscure that they resemble private jokes. In the first decade of film as a commercial medium—an era of many fads—there was a whole subgenre devoted to footage of black people engaged in everyday activities that were seen as funny by white audiences. These were marketed as gag films, “especially pleasing to children,” per one catalog description of the time.
One briefly popular category included films of small black children being bathed, with titles like Colored Boy’s Morning Bath, The Pickaninny’s Bath, and Whitewashing A Colored Baby—the joke being that no matter how hard they were washed, the complexions of the babies didn’t change. This is part of the culture of American film in its infancy. The necessity of race films, the preponderance of racist caricatures in early motion pictures—all of these speak to something. It is a dark fact that American film, despite its potential as a great mass art, developed in an environment where it was understood, under the same unspoken but inviolable codes that governed much of segregation, to be a medium for a white audience.