The Movement of Black Filmmakers in the Early 1900s
I must take a moment to back pedal for the sake of chronology in my discussion of pioneering black filmmakers and the struggles in which they persisted. I began this project from a spontaneous desire to watch more films that connected with me on a cultural level. I wanted to view films that explored the black experience in a variety of ways from the historical issues of disenfranchisement to simply capturing slice of life moments within black life. In that desire, I quickly researched and spouted the basic knowledge readily available online along with what I had learned as an undergrad in film school. With that knowledge I addressed Oscar Micheaux as America’s first black filmmaker. I even believed Micheaux to be the sole figurehead of black filmmaking in the first half of the 20th century. However, after further research with S. Torriano and Venise Berry’s impressively, exhaustive The 50 Most Influential Black Films and Mark A. Reid’s Redefining Black Film, I must correct this misconception that Micheaux was the first to pave the road for black filmmakers everywhere. A false notion of this magnitude is a great disservice to the African-American pioneers before him who had already laid the groundwork and began the movement of black filmmaking in the early 1900s.
William D. Foster and Noble Johnson were just a few of the many African-Americans cited for their involvement in the birth of filmmaking as the novelty of moving pictures evolved from nickelodeons to feature length films. Foster founded Foster Photoplay Company in Chicago in 1910. He was the first black man to found a film production company and two years later became the first black director when he directed a short two reel comedy, The Railroad Porter in 1912. Beginning his career as a sports writer for a local black newspaper, Foster proved temporarily fruitful as a producer quickly churning out three short films in 1913 that were directed, written, and starring all black members.
After Foster’s company faded due to distribution issues, a group of enthusiasts followed in his footsteps in 1915. Actor Noble Johnson and his brother George founded The Lincoln Motion Picture Company in with intentions similar to Foster: to make black films, by black people, starring black actors. In 1916, the brothers relocated from Omaha, Nebraska to Los Angeles where they joined forces with fellow actor Clarence Brooks, and local entrepreneurs, Willies O. Tyler, Dr. James Thomas Smith and Dudley A. Brooks. Together the group began to manage and produce “race films” or films for black audiences usually meant for distribution through “Midnight Rambles,” segregated midnight showings of films to black audiences. The Lincoln Company produced socially conscious films like The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916) and the ambitious The Trooper of Company K (1917), which depicted a story of the real life troops K and C of the all African American Tenth Calvary in the Mexican-American war.
Films in the creative control of blacks existed well before and around the time of Oscar Micheaux, a fact that history has glanced over leaving many clueless to the origins of black filmmakers. Overlooking the achievements of forerunners like Foster, among others, ignores the fact that a movement was taking place in American history in the early 1900s of blacks longing to take representation of themselves into their own hands. Initially starting with novels like Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery and W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folks, this desire gradually seeped into filmmaking predating the Harlem Renaissance as African-Americans set their eyes on making their own films. This need for change further begs for more historians to delve into this subject’s beginnings and inner workings instead of lazily singling out one man as its cipher.
Micheaux’s triumphs aren’t any less admirable despite the social dramas and comedies made by black filmmakers before him. Micheaux managed to sustain a successful film company and direct films over a span of years that portrayed blacks in a positive light calling for social equality among the turbulence America experienced at the time. In fact, a year before Within Our Gates was released, the “Red Summer of 1919” was in full effect; a period in which a number of race riots broke out all over America stemming from cultural and economic tensions that arose starting with clashes between Irish whites and African-Americans in Chicago. Micheaux’s reign at the time is astounding, but to ignore the deeds of those before him is disheartening.
The very reason Black History month exists is due to fact that the history of blacks were falsified, destroyed, and disregarded when Africans were first brought to American under slavery. Our folk tales, religions, cultural practices, customs and accomplishments were blatantly erased from public awareness leaving the black race with no beginning or knowledge of self. Sadly, that suppression of achievements is still experienced today as the knowledge of filmmakers before Micheaux, or Spike Lee for that matter, is absent from common knowledge. My ensuing reviews over the next few weeks will attempt to detail the slow crawl of advancement black filmmakers persevered from in the former half of the 20th century due to systematic racism and hurdles. My goal is to deconstruct the idea that black filmmaking started with Oscar Micheaux and then took a break until Melvin Van Peebles and Spike Lee arrived. By the 1920s, more than 30 film production companies had been set to create films for and about African-Americans, a fact that should be known to cinephiles everywhere and celebrated to the high heavens!