Beginnings of the Race Film Movement: From Blackface to Black Cinema
As noted in the overview, the early movies featured African Americans in an extremely negative and racist way. Most representations were either of a white actor in blackface with makeup on, or on the rare occasions a minority was able to get a role in a film, their roles were extremely limited. However, it was not only the African American race that whitey sought out to marginalize in its productions, as usually played greasers and bandits; Asian-Americans played waiters, tongs and laundrymen; and blacks usually played bellboys, stable hands, maids or simple buffoons. Everyone who did not belong to the Caucasian race was stereotyped in favor of appealing to a white audience.
– While not exactly from the time period discussed, this example shows a general idea of how blackface actors portrayed African Americans in performances.
Naturally, this did not go over too well with the rest of the population, and it did not take long before action was taken.
According to an article on Amoeba.com, the revolution of race films began in 1915. “The first film company devoted to the production of race movies 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 the famous actor Noble Johnson in 1916. However, the biggest name in race movies was and remains Oscar Micheaux, an Illinois-born director who started The Micheaux Book & Film Company in 1919 and went on to direct at least forty films with predominantly black casts for black audiences. Also in 1919, seeing how lucrative the growing race movie market was, Jacksonville, Florida’s Norman Film Manufacturing Company switched tracks and began making race films, starting with an all black remake of one of their earlier films.” (1)
-one of the Race Films that came about after civil unrest due to the negative portrayal of African Americans in cinema.
The stage is set for a much more respectable portrayal of African Americans in films, and next we will take a look at the 1930s and 1940s and what developments came about from this time.
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1 – Brightwell, Eric. “Black Cinema Part 1 – Race Movies – The Silent Era.” http://www.amoeba.com/blog/2010/01/eric-s-blog/-black-cinema-part-i-race-movies-the-silent-era.html, 31 January 2010. 25 September 2013, website.