The 1926 Silent Film The Flying Ace Tells the Alternative Universe Story of a Black Fighter Pilot, Many Years Before African-Americans Were Allowed to Serve as Pilots in the US Army

The ori­gin of dra­mat­ic sto­ry­telling in cin­e­ma is often traced to a sin­gle movie, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. It also hap­pens to be a film that cel­e­brates the racist vio­lence of the Ku Klux Klan, based on a nov­el, The Clans­man, that does the same. The film’s tech­ni­cal achieve­ments and its racism became inte­gral to Hol­ly­wood there­after. Only rel­a­tive­ly recent­ly have black film­mak­ers begun enter­ing the main­stream with very dif­fer­ent kinds of sto­ries, win­ning major awards and mak­ing record prof­its.

This would have been unthink­able in the 1920s, a peri­od of intense racial vio­lence when black WWI vet­er­ans came home to find their coun­try armed against them. “When the sol­diers returned,” writes Megan Pugh for the San Fran­cis­co Silent Film Fes­ti­val, “Jim Crow still reigned supreme and lynch mobs con­tin­ued to ter­ror­ize the South.” Hol­ly­wood pla­cat­ed white audi­ences by only ever fea­tur­ing black char­ac­ters in sub­servient, stereo­typ­i­cal roles, or cast­ing white actors in black­face.

Against these oppres­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tions, black film­mak­ers like Oscar Micheaux and George and Noble Jack­son “used cin­e­ma to con­front Amer­i­can racism,” respond­ing to Grif­fith with films like Micheaux’s With­in Our Gates and the Jack­sons’ uplift­ing The Real­iza­tion of a Negro’s Ambi­tion. There were also sev­er­al white film­mak­ers who made so-called “race movies.” But most of their films avoid any explic­it polit­i­cal com­men­tary.

These include the films of Richard Nor­man, who between 1920 and 1928 made sev­en fea­ture-length silent movies with all-black casts, “geared toward black audi­ences.” He made romances, come­dies, and adven­ture films, cast­ing black actors in seri­ous, “dig­ni­fied” roles. “Instead of tack­ling dis­crim­i­na­tion head-on in his films,” writes Pugh, “Nor­man cre­at­ed a kind of world where whites—and con­se­quent­ly racism—didn’t even exist.”

Though we may see this as a cyn­i­cal com­mer­cial deci­sion, and its own kind of appease­ment to seg­re­ga­tion, the approach also enabled Nor­man to tell pow­er­ful, alter­nate-uni­verse sto­ries that a more real­ist bent would not allow. 1926’s The Fly­ing Ace, for exam­ple, Norman’s only sur­viv­ing film, is about a black fight­er pilot return­ing home to “resume his civil­ian career as a rail­road detective—without remov­ing his Army Air Ser­vice uni­form, a con­stant reminder of his patri­o­tism and val­or.”

Nor­man tells the mov­ing sto­ry of Cap­tain Bil­ly Stokes (see Part 1 at the top), “a mod­el for the ideals of racial uplift,” despite the fact that “African-Amer­i­cans were not allowed to serve as pilots in the Unit­ed States Armed Forces until 1940.” One might say that rewrit­ing recent his­to­ry as wish-ful­fill­ment has always been a func­tion of cin­e­ma since… well, at least since The Birth of a Nation, if not fur­ther back to The Great Train Rob­bery.

Nor­man takes this impulse and dra­ma­tizes the life of an impos­si­bly hero­ic black WWI ser­vice­man, at a time when such men faced wide­spread abuse and dis­crim­i­na­tion in real­i­ty. While he insist­ed that he only made genre films, and avoid­ed what he called the “pro­pa­gan­da nature” of Micheaux’s films, it’s hard not to read The Fly­ing Ace as a polit­i­cal state­ment of its own, and not only for its oblique top­i­cal com­men­tary.

The film cen­ters on pos­i­tive, com­plex black char­ac­ters at a time when stu­dios made quite a bit of mon­ey doing exact­ly the oppo­site. Nor­man gave black audi­ences heroes of their own to root for. In The Fly­ing Ace, Cap­tain Stokes not only returns from fly­ing dan­ger­ous mis­sions for his coun­try, but he then goes on to cap­ture a band of thieves who stole his employer’s pay­roll. The char­ac­ter “nev­er would have made it onscreen in a Hol­ly­wood movie of the time.”

Nor­man estab­lished his stu­dio in Jack­sonville Flori­da, at the time con­sid­ered “the Win­ter Film Cap­i­tal of the World.” Many major stu­dios decamped there from New York until WWI, when they moved west to L.A. Nor­man, who grew up in Mid­dle­burg, Flori­da, made a for­tune invent­ing soft drinks before turn­ing to movies. He returned to his home state to find lit­tle com­pe­ti­tion left in Jack­sonville in the 1920s.

His stu­dio would become “one of the three lead­ing pro­duc­ers of race films in Amer­i­ca,” next to the Micheaux Film Cor­po­ra­tion and the Jack­sons’ Lin­coln Motion Pic­ture Com­pa­ny. In 2016, Nor­man Stu­dios was des­ig­nat­ed a Nation­al His­toric Land­mark. The filmmaker’s son, Richard Nor­man Jr. became a pilot, inspired by The Fly­ing Ace, and has plans to turn the build­ing into a muse­um cel­e­brat­ing Jack­sonville’s, and Nor­man’s, cin­e­ma lega­cy.

via Silent Movie GIFS

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Pio­neer­ing Films of Oscar Micheaux, America’s First Great African-Amer­i­can Film­mak­er

Watch D.W. Griffith’s Silent Mas­ter­piece Intol­er­ance Free Online — It’s the “Ulysses of the Cin­e­ma!”

101 Free Silent Films: The Great Clas­sics 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.