Obstacle and Opportunities
“Race movies” were films by, about, and for African-Americans that were exhibited in segregated theatres, churches, public halls, and other venues. The films were popular in the South and in Northern urban areas from the late `teens to the late twenties, although some African-American filmmakers hung on until the early forties. The shift away from African-American-produced films occurred because Hollywood realized there was money to be made in the genre, and started releasing bigger-budget “all-black” films of its own.
In 1963, the gifted Bahamian-born actor Sidney Poitier won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Lilies of the Field. It was a breakthrough moment in American media: Hollywood bestowing its highest honor on an actor of African descent who embodied intelligence, decency, honor, and personal initiative.
What kind of reactions did Oscar Micheaux's films provoke? If the trailblazing filmmaker set out to attract controversy, he often succeeded; religious leaders in Chicago, for instance, attempted to cancel showings of Within Our Gates in 1920. Many feared that the film would stir up racial violence of the kind the city had endured during the riots of 1919.
In the five decades before that breakthrough, however, racist stereotypes abounded in mainstream American media, with portrayals of servants, maids, and other subservient types prevailing, and with broad, unflattering generalizations about the sexuality, intelligence, and work ethic of African-Americans as a whole quite common.
There was, however, one media channel in which a less abusive portrayal of African-Americans often carried the day, however: the so-called “race movies,” features created by and intended specifically for African-Americans.
Here's a look a two remarkable figures from the (now largely forgotten) period of the “race movie.” Two of them went on to achieve recognition in other media; the third is now almost entirely overlooked, although there is every reason to regard him as one of the most important independent voices in the early history of American cinema. The name of this trailblazing filmmaker: Oscar Micheaux.
Hollywood's First “Oscar” Challenges and Stereotypes
Submissive African-American characters were the order of the day mainstream Hollywood films between 1920 and 1950. An early Little Rascals short, for instance, made a point of finding a flimsy reason for Buckwheat to absent himself from the group before the rest of the gang confronted a white bully; no African-American child could be shown challenging a white male. Members of a popular jazz orchestra once had to use black makeup in order to be granted a screen appearance in a Hollywood feature; they were light-skinned, and studio executives feared that audiences would mistake them for an integrated band.
There was, to all appearances, a complete absence of screenplays addressing racial issues from a African-American point of view during the American cinema's so-called “Golden Age.” You'd be forgiven, then, for assuming that there were no American films during this period that were built around strong African-American protagonists, or that dealt frankly with themes like lynching, white sexual predators, or white-dominated political systems. But you'd be wrong.