Thanks to filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux and Noble Johnson, University of Chicago Cinema and Media Studies professor Jacqueline Stewart says, there was a Black presence in the U.S. film industry from its very beginnings. Stewart, who is the new (and first Black) host of Turner Classic Movies’ “Silent Sundays” explains. “The activities of Black filmmakers started much earlier than most people imagined,” she said in an interview. “Before Spike Lee or the Blaxploitation period of the ’70s. Even before some of the iconic performances of the classic Hollywood era like Lena Horne, or Nicholas brothers, or Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. The first, Black actors and directors and writers really got started in 19-teens.”
The first film company devoted to the production of “race films” was the Chicago-based Ebony Film Company, which began operation in 1915. The first Black-owned film company was The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, founded by actor Noble Johnson in 1916.
“Silent Sundays,” which airs movies from the silent era as well as forgotten gems and international classics, resumed its 2019 season in early September after a summer hiatus. Says Stewart about the current vision for the series, “We’re hoping to really showcase the diversity of contributions to filmmaking, going back to the earliest days.”
This season’s slate will include films such as Rex Ingram’s “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Master of the House” and “Passion of Joan of Arc,” F.W. Murnau’s “Faust” and Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Chorus.” Stewart explains, “Ozu is renowned as a world cinema pioneer and auteur. After World War II, he really developed a signature and uniquely Japanese style of filmmaking that’s unparalleled, so here viewers get the opportunity to see the early days of his career.”
Stewart cites the recent discovery of another so-called “race film” of the era to make the point that Blacks were involved from the very beginning. “Recently, the archivists at the Museum of Modern Art in New York discovered footage from a film made in 1913 that had never been completed and released. It contains a who’s-who of New York Black theater and this is before ‘The Birth Of A Nation’ was released. African-American artists, both working on screen and behind the scenes, always knew how powerful film could be, and they were participating in the development of film as a medium.”
Stewart feels Micheaux can rightly be called the first really big Black filmmaker. “We can say that he is the first really significant African-American filmmaker because his films reached so many audiences and have such profound national presence.”
Part of the reason for the lack of information on early Black filmmakers is because many of those films weren’t preserved. A lax attitude to film preservation marks silent films as a whole and Black silent film in particular. Much of what is known about some of them is due to the existence of archival content in the Black press. “We know about many of these films because they were written about in the Black press. I’ve done so much research through historical African-American newspapers,” Stewart explains.
The Klu Klux Klan appears in both “The Symbol of the Unconquered” and “Within Our Gates,” both made in 1920 and very much in conversation with D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” which many saw as anti-Black, white supremacist propaganda. Stewart said, “‘The Birth of a Nation’ made the Ku Klux Klan as heroes of the narrative. ‘The Symbol of the Unconquered’ is doing exactly the opposite, giving us the point of view of Black characters to achieve the same kinds of freedoms and opportunities that white people are authorized to achieve. And Micheaux shows us that motivations of people who put on the Klan mask aren’t righteous.”
One of the takeaways from viewing Micheaux’s work is that Blacks were eager to use film from its earliest days as social critique. Micheaux’s film style was influenced by the day-to-day realities of African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. Said Stewart, “Micheaux was not subtle in his messages and I think that’s because he felt tremendous urgency to respond to the ongoing oppression that Black people were facing. He wanted to use the medium to combat white supremacy and empower Black audiences.”
Stewart admits the issue of respectability dogged Black filmmakers during the silent era as well. Silent era Black filmmakers such as Noble Johnson and his brother George are most associated with trying to leave their productions with the veneer of Black respectability. Micheaux, despite using film to object to racism and stereotypes, was less concerned with doing so. For that, he incurred the wrath of many in the Black community. “Of course to tell a story that would be of interest to audiences, you can’t just have a whole bunch of good guys,” Stewart begins. “But when you’re speaking to an audience so desperate for more positive images, how do you balance that with the demands also for kind of realism? How do we showcase the ways African-Americans are not just struggling against a white power structure, but some of the ways that we might be hurting ourselves and our own foibles and flaws. For storytelling, that needs to be there too.”