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 Love, A Raisin in the Sun, Shaft — are far from obscure, and you’ll find appearances by many Black performers and documentary subjects whose legacies endure: Paul Robeson, Cicely Tyson, Sidney Poitier, Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Lightnin’ 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.
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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