Fade to Black
A look back at African-American film
By Devin D. O’Leary
Black History Month is upon us. Sadly, many of us tend to think of history in the most somber of terms. To us, Black history means riots and marches and speeches and the struggle for freedom, integration and voting rights. But men and women of African descent have contributed to all segments of our society--not just the political. Given just 28 days (29 this year!) to reflect upon the whole of Black history, most Americans tend to just hit the highlights, ignoring the subtler gifts Black people have given America in the form of literature, dance, art and film.
Hollywood’s connection to Black filmmaking has been, at times, controversial. In 1903, an Edison Company shot a short adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popular antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although the main actors were white people in blackface--as was the style at the time--the film was the very first to portray Black characters on the movie screen. By 1919, Oscar Micheaux became the first African-American to produce a feature-length film. Overcoming short budgets and long odds, Micheaux became a pioneer of independent film, writing, directing and/or producing more than 40 features in his long career. His works were notable for their psychological and social examination of race in America. In 1920, for example, he wrote and directed Within Our Gates, a direct, impassioned response to D.W. Griffith’s incredibly popular 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the creation of the Ku Klux Klan and perpetuated many crude racial stereotypes.
At times, the relationship between Hollywood and Black film has been complementary. Until the advance of the modern civil rights movement in the ’50s, Black moviemakers were relegated to the seperate-but-not-quite-equal category of “race pictures.” Race pictures had their own directors, their own writers, their own stars and even their own movie theaters. Though this kept Black film from the mainstream, it allowed many African-American filmmakers to develop their own self-contained system of filmmaking. Today, few moviegoers are aware that Westerns (1939’s The Bronze Buckaroo), horror films (1940’s Son of Ingagi) and dramas (1946’s The Girl in Room 20) featuring all-Black casts were part of a thriving industry.
“People are so caught up with modern technology and moving ahead. People are forgetting about looking back.” Those are the words of Rene Carson, a Northern New Jersey graphic designer and film lover who found a way to combine his career, his avocation and his passion by creating the Visual History of African American Oscar Nominees 2008 Calendar. Carson researched, wrote, edited, designed, art directed and photo edited the calendar, which is considered to be the most complete list of African-American Academy Award nominees ever compiled.
“I chose a subject matter that is close to me. I decided I wanted to inspire people and came up with the concept of a calendar of every person of African descent who has been nominated for an Oscar. At first I thought, Surely this has been done before. Not only hadn’t it been done, I couldn’t even find a complete list.” With months of research under his belt and a compilation of stunning vintage photography at his fingertips, Carson turned to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “I called the Academy and spoke to them. I said, ‘Are you gonna sue me?’ They said, ‘No, it sounds fine!’ ”
Based on the grateful response from film lovers, educators and even politicians, Carson is considering turning the calendar into a book and has ambitious plans for his website (www.blackfilmhistory.com). He hopes, within a few months, to have an interactive timeline on the site, documenting the complete history of Black film. Proposed categories include Early Black Cinema, Black Cowboy Films, African Americans on TV and Blaxploitation Films. “My larger goal is to become the IMDB of Black film,” states Carson with some enthusiasm.
So, given that this is Black History Month, what are some of Carson’s favorite films with Black casts, Black directors or Black themes? What would he suggest sticking in your Netflix cue to celebrate Black history over the next 29 days? Asked to name names off the top of his head, Carson offers the following 10 films in no particular order:
1. Dreamgirls (2006) “Directed by Bill Condon. Academy Award winner.”
2. In the Heat of the Night (1967) “I’m a huge fan of Sidney Poitier’s early work. This is one of the first films that came to mind, because of storytelling. Rod Steiger is absolutely amazing in that film.”
3. Do The Right Thing (1989) “Spike Lee. Ossie Davis. What can you say?”
4. Dead Presidents (1995) “Keith David--he’s one of my favorite genre actors.”
5. American Gangster (2007) “I try to mix it up as far as time periods.”
6. Carmen Jones (1954) “Otto Preminger’s film [an updating of Bizet’s opera Carmen with an African-American cast]. It’s probably one of his most popular. It’s one of my favorite films. I’m not a big fan of musicals, but I was so amazed by the storyline and powerful acting. It literally took my breath away.”
7. Fear of a Black Hat (1994) “A really obscure indie comedy by Rusty Cundieff that did the genre stuff a lot of Black filmmakers aren’t doing today. [Cundieff] also did Tales From the Hood. I still hope to see more from him with bigger budgets.”
8. Hoodlum (1997) “I’m a huge fan of genre action films. I grew up watching James Bond. When I saw Hoodlum, I was struck by it. I love the action sequences. Plus, I’m a big fan of Laurence Fishburne.”
9. Sankofa (1993) “This is one of those cult films that show at smaller film festivals. It’s an interesting story [about a Black American fashion model spiritually transported back to a slave plantation in the West Indies]. It’s an important film because of the storyline and the brutality of certain scenes.
10. Blacula (1972) “I’ll admit I’m a big fan of Sheba Baby, Coffy, films of that era. What is the seminal Blaxploitation film? Blacula is probably it--although everybody just puts Shaft on their list. I like Blacula.”
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