We’re in Oscar season, once again, and one of the most talked about films this year is
“Hidden Figures”, featuring strong performances from black actresses. Other films starring African-Americans were also nominated: “Moonlight” and “Fences”. After the controversy over the absence of black faces from last year’s nomination lists, the Academy of Motion Pictures changed its membership procedures to include more African-American members in recognition of their long participation in movie-making.
African-American movie-making actually goes back to the silent era; the first film featuring an all-black cast was made by a French studio in 1912. The first of what film historians call “race films” made by an American company was in 1915 (the same year D.W. Griffiths released his controversial epic “The Birth of a Nation”), and over five hundred movies starring black actors and actresses would be produced into the 1950s. Before the modern civil rights movement would put pressure on many institutions to open new opportunities, most of the major film studios in Hollywood would not cast African-Americans in anything other than stereotypical roles (think servants – cooks, maids, chauffeurs, and “mammies”), knowing that movie houses in much of the nation – particularly in the South- would refuse to show such films.
Yet, there was a huge demand among African-Americans around the country for films starring black actors and actresses, and some white investors quietly formed film companies to produce “race films”. Yes, there were some black-owned studios, the most famous being the Micheaux Film Company of Chicago, but most of the race films were financed by white-owned companies such as Million Dollar Productions. But while the money came from white entrepreneurs, the films themselves were written and directed by blacks, and of course had black casts.
The focus of most of these films was “racial uplift”; writers carefully avoided the issues of poverty, crime, and social injustice. Many of the characters were solidly middle-class, and the genres were similar to those found in mainstream movies: romance, westerns, comedies, and musicals. Many black comedians such as Moms Mabley, who would appear on the Johnny Carson Show and Laugh-In, got their first national exposure in these race movies. Black musicians, such as Duke Ellington, also were highlighted in these films. Singer/dancer/actress Lena Horne made her film debut in 1938’s “The Duke is Tops” (the Duke is of course Duke Ellington) when she was only 20 years old.
Another black actress whose career was launched in race films was singer Dorothy Dandridge, whose first credited role was in “Four Shall Die” in 1940. She, like Lena Horne, would crossover into mainstream films shortly after this role, appearing in numerous movies until her premature death in 1959.
Just as major movie studios had white singing cowboys (Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers among them), race films had singing cowboys as well. Perhaps the most famous was Herb Jeffries, who starred in several westerns, including “Harlem on the Prairie” and “The Bronze Buckaroo”. Jeffries eventually left acting to focus on a variety of other ventures, particularly singing with various jazz bands.
Black audiences flocked to these movies. In the South, of course, these films only were shown in black-owned movie theaters, and while many northern theaters were still segregated, race films were regularly scheduled in larger cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia, where there were large populations of blacks, most of whom had migrated North during the Great Migration. In search of better jobs, good schools, and no Jim Crow laws, more than one million African-Americans fled the South after 1914, and found jobs in the automotive industry and steel mills. They established black-owned businesses such as beauty parlors, barbershops, restaurants, newspapers, and radio-stations, and also opened up movie theaters that could show race movies. Seeing black faces, in often complex roles, was important to a population largely ignored by the media until the 1960s.