Black Cinema in the USA: A Brief History
When anti-racism demonstrations erupted last summer in the US and beyond, following the killing of George Floyd by the police, Hollywood was quick to offer its support, but soon faced a moral dilemma when the demonstrators demanded wiping out all symbols and traces of racism from America’s history and culture, including the films that depicted racial stereotypes.
Warner Bros. streaming network, HBO Max, led the way, pulling the 1939 epic, Gone With The Wind, from its library after it was criticized for romanticizing and glorifying slavery and racism in the antebellum south. In addition to being considered the highest-grossing film in history, Gone With The Wind won 10 Oscars, including a first for an African American, Hattie McDaniel, who took the award for Best Support Actress for her role as maid Mammy.
“She won the Academy Award but was not allowed to come to the ceremony,” exclaims Golden-Globes nominated director Spike Lee, who was born in 1957. “I was in the fifth grade when they reissued Gone With The Wind and our class went to see that film. I remember sitting in that theatre and cringing every time Butterfly McQueen cries: “I know not’ing about babies,” or when Hattie MacDaniel came on the screen (shaking her head). Only later on I had the understanding that they had to play these roles. Hattie McDaniel famously said: ‘I rather play a maid than be a maid.’”
Indeed, Black actors could play few roles in the early days of cinema. Black characters were routinely portrayed by white actors in blackface, as was the case in David Griffith 1915’s Reconstruction-era epic, Birth Of A Nation, which presents Black people as unintelligent savages and rapists, confronted by the heroic white saviors of the Ku Klux Klan.
In spite of Black protests against the film across the United States, the film topped the box office until was unseated by Gone With The Wind and was screened at the White House, where President Woodrow Wilson described it as writing history with light. To this day, the film is considered a landmark in American cinema and culture. And when Lee discredited it in his student short film The Answer, he nearly lost his scholarship at NYU Film School, which he attended in the early 80s.
“We were never told that this film revitalized Ku Klux klan and led directly to many Black people, men and women, castrated, hung, whipped, and murdered because of this film. That was never talked about, ever!” Lee protests.
Ironically, Birth Of A Nation also contributed to the rise of African American Cinema. When the campaign to ban it failed, African American author, Oscar Micheaux, responded in 1920 by making his own epic, Within Our Gates, which highlights whites’ violent aggression towards Blacks.
Micheaux, who is considered the most important Black director in the first half of the 20th century, inspired other Black directors to make movies, known as “race films’, with Black casts for Black audiences, who couldn’t attend white cinemas because of the Jim Crow apartheid laws.
Those films were made with meager budgets and nonprofessional actors and were often shot in Black neighborhoods rather than grand Hollywood studios. Meanwhile, professional Black actors, like McDaniel and a few others, took stereotypical supporting roles in mainstream movies. “They didn’t even give them Tarzan,” exclaims Lee. “Tarzan was played by a white actor. How is that possible?”
Ironically, the ending of official racial segregation in the fifties led to the demise of race films and Black cinema because Black audiences flocked to white cinemas to see Hollywood epics. Those films did not have Black stars except for one. Sidney Poitier was the first Black actor to play lead roles in Hollywood mainstream movies and get award recognition. In 1958 he was the first African American to gain a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his role in The Defiant Ones, then he became the first African American to win both awards for his role in Lilies Of The Field in 1964.
‘The business was all white,” says Eddie Murphy, “the only Black actor you saw in movies was maybe Sidney Poitier. They were not making movies for Black folks or about Black stories.’ ‘My parents would talk about some of the stuff in film or on television, and I remember my mother telling me: Cleopatra didn’t look like Elizabeth Taylor. It made me realize that a lot of the stuff I see on television is not the truth,” adds Lee.
Once again, Hollywood’s snub of African Americans spurred them to create their own cinema, in which the heroes were Blacks confronting white villains. It became known as Blaxploitation cinema, and its appeal reached audiences beyond its intended Black one. Hollywood realized the potential profit of expanding its audiences across racial lines, and started making them, using Black actors to star in low-budget movies that were derided for their lack of artistic and substantive merit. Nonetheless, Eddie Murphy, who recently explored that era in his movie Dolemite Is My Name, regards it a triumph to Black filmmakers.
‘That period was the first time African Americans saw themselves on the screen,” explains the veteran actor. “I don’t like the term exploitation because we were not exploited; we were given work for the first time, and the audience were just happy to see Black people on the screen.”
Blaxploitation cinema would also eventually vanish by the late seventies without bearing a Black Hollywood star. Nonetheless, it inspired new Black talent. ‘You wouldn’t get me or Denzel or others unless you had that period. It was crucial,” Murphy adds.
Murphy was the first Black actor to emerge in mainstream Hollywood after the Blaxploitation era. Among a generation of pioneering Black comedians which include Richard Pryor, he was the one to achieve bona fide stardom in the early eighties. He quickly became the highest-grossing star as his movies, such as Beverly Hill Cop and Trading Places, topped the box-office.
“The doors were shut when I showed up but I slipped through the cracks that other actors didn’t slip through,” Murphy says. “I got to do stuff that was not there. Then the success of those movies, 48 Hrs, Beverly Hills Cop and Trading Places, opened up the doors for everything that followed, like Denzel, Sam Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Hart. It changed people’s perceptions. Oh, you can have a Black lead in a $100 million movie. That all started in the movies I did in the early 80s.”
Black New Wave
But African Americans wanted more than starring in white directors’ movies; they wanted to tell their own stories from their own perspective. Building on seminal African American indie auteurs like Ivan Dixon, Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, William Greaves. and Charles Burnett, a “Black New Wave” was coming to the fore in Hollywood.
It began in 1986 with Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have it, starring only Black actors. Lee followed it with his masterpiece, Do The Right Thing, which in turn. inspired a new generation of Black directors, like John Singleton, who became the first African American to get an Oscar nomination for Best Director for his Boyz N The Hood. Once again, Black Cinema faded in the mid-90s, but some of its stars achieved stardom and reached the pinnacle of Hollywood, like Denzel Washington, who won two Golden Globes for acting, Will Smith, Samuel L Jackson, Morgan Freeman, and Halle Berry, who became the only woman of color to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. She is also a Globe Globe winner and a six-time nominee.
“I have been in this business for 40 years and things have changed a lot,” says Denzel Washington. “Things have been changing for the better. I wouldn’t be sitting down with you here at the Four Seasons Hotel in 1957 unless my name was Poitier. It’s all thanks to the people who sacrificed so I can be here. Each generation pushes the next generation.”
In 2008, Black cinema witnessed a resurgence, offering critically acclaimed and commercially successful films by Black filmmakers about the Black experience like Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ Precious, and George Tillman Jr’s Notorious. ‘Black cinema now is mainstream,” says Murphy. “It’s not only for Black people. Black filmmakers are making movies now for everybody.”
Nonetheless, Black talent was still unfairly represented at Hollywood’s big awards. Their absence in the 2015 Oscar nominations sparked the #OscarSoWhite campaign, which forced the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to boost its membership of people of color and start initiatives to improve racial diversity on and behind the screen. The resulting impact on Black cinema was unprecedented.
In 2017, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight became the first film, with an all-Black cast to win the Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Film. And in 2018, Marvel Studios released the first Black Superhero blockbuster, Black Panther, which topped the US Box office and garnered three Golden Globe nominations and seven Oscar nominations, winning three, in a ceremony dominated by Black films and talent.
“Someone like me has grown up watching white characters all my life,” says Jenkins. “I was given the tools to empathize with them and understand (what it means) to be a suburban white Mom or a suburban white Dad from a suburban neighborhood. There is a white audience who haven’t had the chance to empathize with characters who look like me. Now that people like me are making these stories, I believe it will shift people’s perspectives towards me.”
Yet, in spite of the remarkable achievements of Black cinema, African Americans face racial discrimination and subjected to police harassment and shootings. Recent academic studies have shown that they are still poorly represented in front of and behind the camera. Furthermore, They rarely hold executive positions or partake in decision-making in Hollywood major studios.
“The struggle continues…,” Spike Lee exclaims.