The Black Film Archive: A New Site Highlights 200+ Noteworthy Black Films Made Between 1915–1979

The just launched Black Film Archive is a labor of love for the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion, thanks to audi­ence strate­gist, Maya Cade.

Begin­ning in June 2020, she began research­ing films pro­duced between 1915 to 1979 that are avail­able for stream­ing, and “have some­thing sig­nif­i­cant to say about the Black expe­ri­ence; speak to Black audi­ences; and/or have a Black star, writer, pro­duc­er, or direc­tor.”

Thus far, she’s col­lect­ed over 200 films, span­ning the peri­od between 1915’s Black-pro­duced silent slap­stick short, Two Knights of Vaude­ville and 1978’s star­ry big bud­get musi­cal, The Wiz, a com­mer­cial flop that “major Hol­ly­wood stu­dios used … as a rea­son to stop invest­ing in Black cin­e­ma.”

Cade rea­sons that the rise of Black inde­pen­dent film in the 80s makes 1979 “feel like a nat­ur­al stop­ping point” for the archive. She’s also push­ing back against the notion of Black Films as trau­ma porn:

As debates about Black film’s asso­ci­a­tion with trau­ma rage on, I hope Black Film Archive can offer a dif­fer­ent lens through which to under­stand Black cin­e­mat­ic his­to­ry, one that takes into con­sid­er­a­tion the full weight of the past. Through this lens, it is easy to see that the notion that “Black films are only trau­mat­ic” is based on gen­er­al­iza­tions and impres­sions of recent times (often pinned to the suc­cess of films like 12 Years a Slave) rather than a deep­er engage­ment with his­to­ry, which reveals that “slave films” con­sti­tute only a small per­cent­age of the Black films that have been made. I hope con­ver­sa­tions evolve to con­sid­er the expan­sive archive of rad­i­cal ideas and expres­sion found in Black films’ past.

The col­lec­tion, which Cade will be updat­ing month­ly, has some­thing for every­one — com­e­dy, dra­ma, doc­u­men­taries, musi­cals, silent films, for­eign films, and yes, Blax­ploita­tion.

Some of the titles — To Sir with LoveA Raisin in the SunShaft — are far from obscure, and you’ll find appear­ances by many Black per­form­ers and doc­u­men­tary sub­jects whose lega­cies endure: Paul Robe­sonCice­ly TysonSid­ney Poiti­erJosephine Bak­erDorothy Dan­dridgeBil­ly Dee Williams and Richard Pry­orMuham­mad AliMal­colm XLight­nin’ Hop­kins.…

But the archive is also a won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cov­er direc­tors, per­form­ers, and films with which you may be utter­ly unfa­mil­iar.

Black Girl, 1966, was the first fea­ture of Ous­mane Sem­bène, the father of African cin­e­ma, and the first fea­ture made in Africa by a sub-Saha­ran African to attract inter­na­tion­al notice. It fol­lows a Sene­galese domes­tic work­er serv­ing a wealthy white fam­i­ly on the Côte d’Azur. Ear­ly on Dioua­na is seen work­ing in the kitchen, naive­ly dream­ing of adven­tures that sure­ly await once she’s fin­ished prepar­ing “a real African dish” for her employer’s din­ner guests:

Maybe we’ll go to Cannes, Nice, Monte Car­lo. We’ll look in all the pret­ty stores and when the mis­tress pays me, I’ll buy pret­ty dress­es, shoes, silk undies, and pret­ty wigs. And I’ll get my pic­ture tak­en on the beach, and I’ll send it back to Dakar, and they’ll all die of jeal­ousy!

One of sev­er­al adap­ta­tions of Tim­o­thy Shay Arthur’s pop­u­lar 1854 tem­per­ance nov­el, The Col­ored Play­ers Film Cor­po­ra­tion of Philadelphia’s 1926 melo­dra­ma, Ten Nights in a Bar Room, fea­tures a star turn by the mul­ti-tal­ent­ed Charles Gilpin, the most suc­cess­ful Black stage per­former of the ear­ly 20th Cen­tu­ry.

The Emper­or Jones may have pro­vid­ed Paul Robe­son with his icon­ic, break­through role, but the part was first played onstage by Gilpin, who was fired by play­wright Eugene O’Neill after it was dis­cov­ered he was repeat­ed­ly swap­ping out the script’s many instances of the N‑word for gen­tler terms like “Black boy.”

As Indy Week’s Byron Woods notes in a pre­view of N, Adri­enne Ear­le Pender’s play about O’Neill and Gilpin:

A 1921 review in Negro World con­clud­ed, “We imag­ine if Mr. Gilpin is an intel­li­gent and loy­al Negro, his heart must ache and rebel with­in him as he is forced to belie his race.” When the work was staged in Harlem, Langston Hugh­es recalled that the audi­ence “howled with laugh­ter.”

The Oscar nom­i­nat­ed The Qui­et One, from 1948, was the first major Amer­i­can film to posi­tion a Black child — 10-year old non-actor Don­ald Thomp­son — front and cen­ter.

Osten­si­bly a doc­u­men­tary, it took an unflinch­ing look at the emo­tion­al­ly tur­bu­lent exis­tence of a neglect­ed Harlem boy, and offered no easy solu­tions, even as he begins to come out of his shell at the Wiltwyck School for Boys.

The cast, includ­ing a num­ber of stu­dents from the Wiltwyck School, is almost entire­ly Black, with Ulysses Kay’s jazz score pro­vid­ing an urgent pulse to real life scenes of mid-cen­tu­ry Harlem.

The white pro­duc­tion team fea­tured sev­er­al high pro­file, social­ly con­scious names — nov­el­ist and film crit­ic James Agee con­tributed poet­ic com­men­tary and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Helen Levitt was one of two prin­ci­pal cam­era peo­ple.

Cur­rent­ly, the Black Film Archive is orga­nized by decade, though we hope one day this might be expand­ed to encom­pass gen­res, as well as a search option that would allow view­ers to dis­cov­er work by direc­tor and per­form­ers.

For now, Cade’s cura­tor picks are an excel­lent place to begin your explo­rations.

This mam­moth under­tak­ing is a self-fund­ed one-woman oper­a­tion. Dona­tions are wel­come, as are paid sub­scrip­tions to the Black Film Archive Sub­stack.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch Free Films by African Amer­i­can Film­mak­ers in the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion … and the New Civ­il Rights Film, Just Mer­cy

Watch the First-Ever Kiss on Film Between Two Black Actors, Just Hon­ored by the Library of Con­gress (1898)

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

Watch Lime Kiln Club Field Day, One of the Ear­li­est Sur­viv­ing Fea­ture Films with an All Black Cast (1913)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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