The motion picture industry most likely began in Los Angles in 1902 when Thomas L. Tully opened the first theater exclusively for moving pictures. From its earliest days, when movies were thought of as peep shows, the Negro was presented in an unfavorable light.
The year 1915 is a significant date in motion picture history. This is the year of the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the film version of Thomas Dixon’s pro South, Ku Klux Klan, novel, The Clansman. In terms of advancement of the medium, it must be regarded as one of the most significant films ever made. Subsequent to its release, movies were crude at best, with uneven lighting and quick jerky movements, the acting, melodramatic and exaggerated. From an artistic and technical outlook, it was a masterpiece of conception and structure. Though much has been written about it’s overt racism, it gave rise to the modern narrative film.
The Reconstruction scenes in The Birth of a Nation are especially harsh. The black members of Congress are portrayed as arrogant, lustful, and are shown drinking heavily right on the House floor. They are depicted going about the business of the country coarsely reclining in their congressional chairs, with bare feet plopped upon their desks. When the film was released small riots broke out in Boston, and other cities. A fledging NAACP (formed in 1910) sought in vain to have the film banned. The Nation magazine declared it “improper, immoral, and injurious. . . a deliberate attempt to humiliate ten million American citizens”. The Birth of a Nation was popular for a decade and doubtlessly did much damage to race relations.
Existing as early as 1918 were small studios such as the Norman Studio and Lincoln Pictures. They made dignified pictures in an attempt to shatter the abrogating stereotype of Black Americans. The films they produced came to be known as —Race Movies. Lincoln Pictures, especially was noted for the quality material upon which its films were based. In 1918 Lincoln Pictures released a film entitled The Homesteader, written by a Midwesterner named Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux, sometimes referred to as the Cecil B. De Mill of race movies, went on to produce over 40 films, and was active until his death in 1951. In 1987 he received a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame.
Except for a hand full of players, the star system had not yet been developed. Black parts, let alone black stars were not favored in the current order. That was all about to change however, as the decade of the 1920s, and the Jazz age approached.
Between The Birth of a Nation, and The Jazz Singer (1927), there were about two dozen films with important black characters or scenes. None were as openly anti-Negro as The Birth of a Nation, but except for one or two, most adhered to the established stereotypes. The decade of the 1920s did however, see a decline in the number of Blackface white actors that dominated the pre-talkies. It should be said here that for reasons unknown the Blackface roles of Al Jolson, (arguably the most famous entertainers of the first half of the twentieth century), were acceptable to black performers1. Moreover, Jolson demonstrated a genuine respect to black artists.
Interestingly it was The Our Gang comedy series about the adventurers of a group of children produced by Hal Wallis beginning in 1918 that begin to crack the pre-World War I anti-Negro stereotype. Comparatively speaking their record of fair play was well above the average. The original cast included Allen Clayton Hoskins (Farina), who became one of the most popular child stars in Hollywood. He and Sammy Morrison (Sunshine) stood equal and were as much a part of the gang as were the white children.
With the coming of sound, the talking and singing voice of the Negro, would most distinguish him or her from white society. The period from 1927 to 1939 (when the next great anti-Negro film was released) the number of black parts greatly increased.
Hearts in Dixie (1929), was film of major importance for two reasons. First, it was the first Hollywood film to feature an all black cast. Second and more importantly, the film introduced to wider audiences, one of the film industry’s most polemical figures ever —Stepin Fetchit. Born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Perry in Key West Florida in 1902, he took the name Stepin Fetchit from a race horse on which he had won money. Fetchit had been seen earlier in bits, but this was his first starring vehicle. His great talent was used, by the majority to reinforce the stereotype of the lazy good-for-nothing Negro. He was active in films until 1976, and died in 1985. Stepin Fetchit was and continues to be one of the most mystifying characters in motion picture history.
Also released in 1929 was Hallelujah about a black cotton worker who accidentally kills a man and then decides to become a preacher. It too featured an all black cast. Released by MGM, it was director King Vidor’s first talking picture. Hallelujah was the second all-Negro feature produced by a major Hollywood studio. It was vital in the it gave black performers significant roles. Hallelujah had a freshness and truth that was not attained again for thirty years.
An exceptional though controversial film of the early 1930s was The Emperor Jones (1933). The screen version of Eugene O’Neill’s play tsarring Paul Robeson, it’s about a train-porter who becomes emperor of a Caribbean nation. Mainstream critics praised it as one of the best films of the year, while black critics were divided. Some thought it well that a black monarch be chronicled, and for the first time, a white character be presented as his lackey. Others, however emphasized the dubious Pullman-porter, chain-gang, and voodoo scenes as particularly trite. They pointed to the finale which has Robeson, the emperor, groveling on his belly in the spirit-infested jungle.
Another exceptional film of the early 1930s was Imitation of Life (1934), based on the book by Fannie Hurst. The story contains a sub-plot about a beautiful light skinned black women (Fredi Washington) who tries to pass for white. She is the daughter of a black “mammy” type servant played by Louise Beavers. The two principals were caught in the middle of a journalistic controversy between Fannies Hurst, and Sterling Brown. Brown was professor of the history of the theater at Howard University and film critic for the magazine Opportunity. He charged that the characters of the two women were outrageously slanted. Hurst, on the other hand claimed that she portrayed them with “integrity and accuracy”.
The same period saw films favorable to blacks, Arrowsmith (1931), in which Clarence Brooks portrays a dignified doctor in the West Indies. A reviewer of the Associated Negro Press termed it ”the best legitimate part ever allotted to a colored actor in the history of the movies”2. Another was The Singing Kid (1936), where Cab Calloway and Al Jolson pal around as equals. Flying Down to Rio (1933), has Etta Moten singing and dancing the Carioca. The Spirit of Youth (1938), a thinly masked autobiography of Joe Louis did much to propel his popularity among white audiences. With the acceptation of Arrowsmith though, these films must be considered lightweight. Though they at least did nothing to further the prevailing stereotype.
The 1930s also witnessed the further impetus of Oscar Micheaux and the Black independents. A notable film of this group was Dark Manhattan (1937), a gangster film produced by George Randol and Ralph cooper. Beautifully photographed by Roland Price, it was the first all-black cast motion picture with modern story, settings, and costumes. There immediately sprang up a number of companies attempting to make all-Negro pictures in the fashion of Dark Manhattan. However, owing to their lack of experience with the craft and subject matter, these independent efforts blanched in comparison.
So much has been written about Gone With the Wind (1939), suffice is to say that while The Birth of a Nation was openly anti-Negro, GWTW, was at best clandestinely anti-Negro. Some black critics maintained the where The Birth of a Nation ended, Gone With the Wind began. The latter finished the job of removing from the public mind the Northern view of slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction, and replacing it with the traditional Southern view. Evidence of final victory was the awarding of the Oscar to Hattie McDanial for her role as Mammy in the Margaret Mitchell epic. When asked about her character, McDanial replied, “I’d rather get $7000 a week for playing a maid, than $7 a week for being one!”
Dooley Wilson’s (Sam) in Warner Brother’s Casablanca was probably the beginning of the end of the preponderant Negro stereotype that had dominated Hollywood since its inception. After Rick’s meeting with Ilsa, Sam senses trouble, and his sage advice to the heartbroken Rick, “lets take the car and drive all night, get drunk, go fishing and stay away until she’s gone”, suggests an equality in status. Moreover, it confirms Rick’s deference to Sam, and to Sam’s convictions.