Definition

“Race film” was never a rigid category; it was flexible, capacious, and contested. This ambiguity helped foment a vibrant artistic community — but it also made our job, as data-recorders, quite difficult. Our definition of a race film is a film with African-American cast members, produced by an independent production company and discussed or advertised as a race film in the African-American press. But read on to learn more about some caveats and how we settled on this definition.

Spread across the country…these race movie pioneers were aware of each other and kept up a rivalry in the black box office throughout the twenties. They often corresponded and compared notes. Actors such as Lawrence Chenault, William A. Clayton, Jr., J. Lawrence Criner, and Shingzie Howard worked for two or more of these companies. The stars of these companies worked on a circuit that often included the Lafayette Players Dramatic Stock Company. And their films played the same circuit of race theaters and catered to the same audiences. We can thus talk of a circle — a loose federation of production companies and producers who competed with and depended on each other.1

Circular advertising Nobody's Children (Maurice, 1920), held at the Middle Georgia Archives.
Circular advertising Nobody’s Children (Maurice, 1920), held at the Middle Georgia Archives.

How does one set the boundaries of a community of practice?

Our collection amasses a group of works that we’ve classified as early African American race films. The term “race film” however, is, not at all straightforward. Various scholars have used the designation for films with an African-American audience, production executives, actors, or some combination of all three. Others have abandoned the classification altogether. Because this contested term defines the boundaries of our database, we’ve chosen to discuss it here at some length.

Most people agree that race film is, at some level, about African-American self-determination: race films are those in which African-Americans articulate their own identities. Closely bound up with the notion of the “race man,” race films emerged with the uplift movement and were the work of a community of practitioners who tended to see themselves as working for the advancement of the race. But how these qualities articulate as recordable properties is less clear.

In surveying secondary literature, we found that scholars have defined race film through some combination of the following:

  • An African-American cast (either in part or whole);
  • Produced by an African-American-owned company;
  • Intended for exhibition to African-American audiences;
  • Produced outside the Hollywood system; and/or
  • Designed to counter prevailing caricatures of African-Americans on film.

Yet, as every historian of race film also acknowledges, one can find counterexamples to each of these criteria. It was perfectly possible for a film to have an African-American cast — even an entirely African-American cast — and not be designated a race film. Moreover, as the Reol and Norman companies demonstrate, white-owned companies could certainly make productions that “counted” as race films, insofar as they were described and discussed that way in the contemporary press.

The notion that race films are those produced for African-American audiences seemed to come closest to what we meant, but how could we judge the intended audience from the scant evidence we had to work with? After all, African-American theaters showed not just race films but mainstream films as well. Moreover, what should one do with a production company like Ebony, whose films contained some of the worst imaginable stereotypes of African-Americans, yet were widely shown at “race” theaters? Film historian Jacqueline Stewart wrote, “Perhaps Ebony films speak in two voices,” one for white audiences and one for African-American audiences. But again: how could that multivocality be captured as data?2

Lobby card for Spitfire (Reol, 1922), via New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Lobby card for Spitfire (Reol, 1922), via New York Public Library Digital Collections.

That “race film” is a meaningful category is evident not only from the secondary scholarship that classifies films that way, but also from the ways that filmmakers and writers of the period talked about themselves: the descriptors “colored film,” “race motion picture,” “race picture,” and “race film” were in wide use among show-business columnists like J.A. Jackson, Eddie Green, and D. Ireland Thomas. Writers like Jackson, Green, and Thomas sometimes used these terms to refer specifically to films produced by African-American-owned production companies — but not always. The white-owned Reol and Norman companies were widely accepted as race filmmakers, but according to Thomas, a film like Tracks (Western, 1922), was explicitly not a race production, even though it featured the well-known African-American actor Noble Johnson.3

Our favorite definition, which opens this page, comes from Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser, in their introduction to Oscar Micheaux and His Circle. While this definition accorded with our reading and research, it nevertheless presented a number of challenges for us in encoding community members as data. Indeed, the challenge of defining this community via properties we could discern in the historical record became central to this project. The criteria for membership in this circle — notes, correspondence, conversation, awareness — were not those immediately available to us; we had only filmographies, publications, and the George P. Johnson collection.

Our solution was to start by casting a very wide net, and then to gradually pare down our data. While we immediately discarded known blackface films, we recorded most of the films from our time period captured in the secondary literature on African-American film, particularly those contained in Larry Richards’s African-American Films through 1959: A Comprehensive Filmography and Henry Sampson’s Blacks in Black and White.4 Sampson’s and Richard’s filmographies are both more capacious than our own, containing not only race films per se, but also films containing African-American actors in prominent roles.

The boundaries of the race filmmaking community are porous, but its actors, directors, producers, and writers did constitute a closely connected community, as this network diagram shows. Click the image to interact with the full version.
The boundaries of the race filmmaking community are porous, but its actors, directors, producers, and writers did constitute a closely connected community, as this network diagram shows. Click the image to interact with the full version.

Then, as we refined our definition of race filmmaking, we considered each film individually, tossing out many of those we’d so painstakingly recorded — specifically those produced by mainstream production houses and those we learned were blackface comedies designed for white audiences. (You can see our discarded data here.) We replaced some of them with films we found in our primary-source research. As we entered data, we used software to visualize our work in progress, noting that as we refined our database, our network diagrams indeed suggested that we were getting closer to the self-constituting community that Bower, Gaines, and Musser described.

The result is necessarily imperfect, but it’s our best effort to capture the current state of knowledge about this community. We would be honored if you’d contribute what you know.