“Race film” is a designation applied to films produced for African-American audiences, between about 1910 and 1950. As we explain in our expanded definition, the borders of the race-film industry are complicated and porous, but race filmmakers nevertheless constituted a distinct community of practice.
Very few of these early films survive, so evidence of this community of filmmakers has to be drawn from the other paraphernalia generated by the industry: posters, newspaper advertisements, theater programs, and, in some cases, only the handwritten notes of these filmmakers’ contemporaries. Nevertheless, in the last 40 years, historians have painstakingly pieced together a thriving community of practice, and our work is greatly indebted to theirs.
The works scholars have generally designated “race films” emerged during the early years of the twentieth century. These first race films, many of them produced by the Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes, were closely aligned with the African-American “uplift” movement and its most prominent exponent, Booker T. Washington. A Trip to Tuskegee (1909), John Henry at Hampton (1913), and A Day at Tuskegee (1913) are all products of this historical moment. Many of these early uplift films were “actualities”: forerunners to today’s documentaries which showed audiences notable events of the day.1
Simultaneously with the Hampton/Tuskegee films, a group of entrepreneurial-minded African-American filmmakers began specializing in films designed with African-American audiences in mind. The Foster Photoplay Company, founded in 1913 by the journalist and filmmaker William Foster (also known as Juli Jones), was among the first of these companies. Foster’s films themselves draw on the uplift movement, telling the story, for example, of a Pullman Porter (The Railroad Porter, 1913), an esteemed position in the African-American community.2
Other production companies, such as the Afro-American Film Company, the Hunter C. Haynes Photoplay Company, and the Peter P. Jones Photoplay Company also specialized in these audiences in the first few years of the second decade of the twentieth century. African-Americans, like everyone else, were avid filmgoers, and since movie theaters were segregated during this period, there were different exhibition circuits for African-American and white audiences. Some production companies were able to capitalize on this separate circuit, marketing films directly to the owners of African-American theaters.
D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) galvanized African-American writers, thinkers, and filmmakers. The film, a box office record-breaker, is also hugely racist, a Civil War story that casts African-Americans as rapists and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. Widely protested by African-American audiences, Birth of a Nation sparked a number of filmic responses — most obviously Birth of a Race (1918), a famously troubled production conceived as a direct response to Griffith’s film — but also, indirectly, a number of other thinkers and filmmakers.3
Birth of a Nation helped give a shared (though certainly not unified) purpose to a growing number of production companies that saw themselves as recuperating African-Americans’ onscreen image, even as they were determined to turn a profit. Among these were the Lincoln Motion Picture Company (founded 1916), and — most famous of all race film companies — the Micheaux Film Corporation, founded in 1918 by author and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.
Oscar Micheaux’s films, beginning with The Homesteader (1918), were some of the most commercially successful race films of the era. Audiences looked forward to the release of these films, with their “all-star colored casts,” and Within Our Gates (1919) is one of the few examples of a “race” film that garnered some attention — and an audience — from the white press.
While Micheaux and Lincoln films found receptive audiences, race films also faced enormous obstacles that were specific to African-American films. While better-funded, white-oriented production companies could send one film out for distribution while simultaneously filming the next, Micheaux and Johnson had to devote their attention and resources to one film at a time. As George P. Johnson, who worked for the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, recalled,
Now, we had to make a picture and then we had to close down everything and take the same man we made the picture with and go out and spend money traveling all over the United States, trying to get money enough to make another picture. But we were out of business all that time.4
Moreover, race films only rarely received meaningful attention from the “mainstream” press. The widespread segregation of the motion-picture industry also meant that many funding channels, exhibition venues, and business opportunities were closed to African-American filmmakers. “Unequal development is a major factor in the construction and development of Black cinema,” writes Clyde R. Taylor: “as much of an invisible hand in the making of the movie as any force of capitalism functioning silently in the marketplace.”5
Despite these and many other challenges, race films articulated narratives of African-American identity that moved audiences then, just as they continue to resonate with audiences now. In the films that survive, such as Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, African-American life in the early part of the 20th century emerges as complex, contested, and fully realized. Rather than the “pickaninnies” and watermelons that populate films designed for white audiences, we see African-American characters deeply engaged in the political and intellectual life of the day, debating racial uplift and waging philanthropic campaigns even as they wrestle with the romantic torments typical of melodramas of the period.
Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951)
What happened to race filmmaking? Our data ends with the development of sound film in 1930, but race filmmaking, as a distinct enterprise, continued until around 1950, when many of the production companies went out of business. With the advent of sound, filmmaking became more technically complex and expensive, and companies, like Lincoln, that always existed on the margins, were increasingly edged out. The fact that so few of these films survive is also partly a function of these companies’ scant funding. Fewer prints existed in the first place, and those that did were heavily screened and circulated, often wearing out or vanishing in the process.
The result of this scarcity of films, combined with a consistent underfunding of African-American film production, is that many people simply don’t know about the existence of race films. In fact, as these early films demonstrate, African-American filmmakers have been practicing the craft since the beginning of the medium.