about us

this is our story

image

Black Folks Make Movies is committed to the examination of Black film history through images portrayed in film via education, the promotion of past & current independent filmmakers of color and the preservation of contributions by Black and other artists of color. Through this prism of Black movie history we examine the emergence and impact of Black Americans, the creative reaction to widespread racism during the first half of the 20th century, and the vitality of Black entertainment and culture across the country inclusive of this period and beyond. By revealing the powerful relationship between popular art and ethnic attitudes, BFMM chronicles the creation and expansion of alternative Black representation in the mass media.

RACE MOVIES

The 'race movie' industry began in 1910 when William Foster, a show business publicist, made the first Black produced movie, a comedy called, The Railroad Porter. Ebony Films produced slap stick comedies out of Chicago, featuring Black vaudevillians. Lincoln Films produced dramas. By 1920, there were more than 100 race movie companies across the country. By the early twenties, the race movie industry was flourishing, distributing films to more than 300 theaters serving Black audiences.

Race movies grew out of the Black Community's desire to use the newly invented motion picture technology to provide alternatives to demeaning stereotypes of African Americans prevalent in American popular culture. In the early days of cinema, the "coon" and "darky" caricatures of the vaudeville stage and print media, took on powerful animation. But a "New Negro" was emerging, encouraging progressive use of the new medium of film. "Movies," said one early race movie director, "were the best way for a Black man to make some money and set the race right with the world."

Without a doubt the Dean of early Black cinema is Oscar Micheaux, the most prolific and controversial race movie producer, whose life parallels the history of race movies. Making approximately 40 films, many of them dealing with issues of class, color and social concerns, Micheaux tackled subjects no other filmmaker, Black or White, would broach at the time, including interracial romance. Several of his films such as Within Our Gates, which told the story of lynching from the Black perspective and was released during the period of great racial unrest, were banned, only to resurface many years later.

Beginning his career as a novelist, Micheaux turned to cinema in 1918 when he made, The Homesteader, the first feature length race movie. A shrewd businessman, entrepreneur and self-promoter, Micheaux organized an effective distribution network using the same door to door sales techniques he had developed for the novels he wrote and published. Paul Robeson made his film debut in an Oscar Micheaux production, Body and Soul in 1925.

The race movie industry was dealt a near fatal blow with the Depression. Financial backing - always difficult - became even more so with the advent of sound. Hollywood producers realized that money could be made from all black-cast talking pictures. Production costs skyrocketed. Race movies tried but could not duplicate the song, dance and entertainment values of Hollywood films with a minimum of money. As Hollywood produced more black-cast films, and began to control theaters and distribution, the race movie industry began to fade. More important however, the race movie industry existed and flourished because of segregation. With the demand for and institution of integration in the 40's, race movies lost their captive audience and eventually disappeared altogether. In 1951, while on the road promoting a film, Oscar Micheaux died.