BLACK CAST FILM GENRE :
The black cast (or race film) genre was born in the early days of the film industry when several enterprising businessmen made the decision to begin making films specifically for black audiences. These men were aware of the potential audience that was being excluded from many theaters in the United States, either due to segregation or theater locations outside of their neighborhood, and were also dissatisfied with the stereotypical portrayal of African Americans in early films. Of these early film companies some were black-owned, and some were white-owned.
Black cast films are not the same as blaxploitation films, a genre which came into being in the 1960’s (see Exploitation genre).
These films, mostly produced in the 1910's and 1920's, were being made in the era just fifty years past the American Civil War, and roughly fifty years prior to the civil rights movement and the cultural influence of Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960's.
Thought by some to be the earliest independent African-American film company, Foster Photoplay was formed in 1910, and in 1912 the company produced “The Railroad Porter”, a black cast film that was a takeoff of the Keystone Kops comedic chase films. In 1915, the Ebony Film Company was the first to devote itself to producing race films. It is believed that The Lincoln Motion Picture Company was the first black-owned film company, a production company founded in Nebraska and incorporated in Los Angeles in 1917, owned by George and Noble Johnson (Noble was an actor working for Universal). It has been said that one of their main goals was to show blacks and black culture more realistically, avoiding the stereotypes that had been prevalent in earlier mainline studio produced films.
Another company, Norman Film Manufacturing Company, based in Jacksonville, Florida, had been making films since 1912, began making feature length films in 1916, and switched to making race films in 1919. One of their films, “The Green Eyed Monster” (1916), was remade in 1919 with an all-black cast. Some of their other race films include “The Crimson Skull” (1921), and “The Flying Ace” (1926).
One of the early companies working to gain their share of the black audience was Sack Amusement Enterprises, a Texas-based company formed in 1920 and owned by Alfred N. Sack, which produced and distributed race films. Other companies making black cast films in the 1920's include the Kansas City, Missouri based black-owned film companies of The Andlauer Film Company, Progress Picture Producing Association, Gate City Feature Films and Turpin Films. The industry also included Monte Brice Productions and The Christie Film Company in the late 1920's and early 1930's.
Producing more than forty feature-length films from 1919 to 1948, Oscar Micheaux has been called by The Producers Guild of America "The most prolific black - if not most prolific independent - filmmaker in American cinema." An author, Micheaux formed his own publishing company to sell his books door-to-door, and later formed his film production company, the Micheaux Book and Film Company. In his novel, ‘The Homesteader’, he wrote, "[The] race needed examples; they needed instances of successes”, but he was also careful to present his characters as real people, showing both the good and the bad sides, and not idealizing them. Micheaux’s filmography includes “The Homesteader” (1919), “Within Our Gates” (1919), “Deceit” (1923), “Harlem After Midnight” (1934), “The Notorious Elinor Lee” (1940), and “The Betrayal” (1948).
After returning from World War I, Spencer Williams (perhaps most recognized as Andy of television’s “Amos 'n Andy”), began playing small parts on film, and in 1929 he was hired by Al Christie at the Christie Film Company, to write dialogue for a series of black cast comedy films. While working for Christie, Spencer Williams was a sound technician, wrote scripts, and was assistant director for some of their films. Impressed with Williams’ screenplays, Alfred N. Sack hired him to write and direct a feature film, and the result was Williams’ “The Blood of Jesus” (1941), which Williams wrote, directed, and starred in. “The Blood of Jesus” is the first race film to be added to the U. S. National Film Registry. Williams would go on to direct several more black cast films, including “Brother Martin, Servant of Jesus” (1942), “Go Down, Death!” (1944), “The Girl in Room 20” (1946), and “Juke Joint” (1947).
Between 1910 and 1920 the audience base for race films grew as an estimated 2 million blacks left southern, rural areas, migrating north and west to bigger cities, seeking opportunities for better education and better jobs. Approximately 500 black cast films were produced between 1910 and 1948, with many of them proving to be commercial successes. This success in turn fed the expansion of the race film industry, which included its own stars, its own distribution system, and its own exhibition venues.
By 1930, the mainstream studios were taking notice of the potential commercial success of black cast films, and began making movies with better parts for black actors, and, with the advent of sound, many black musicians were also being cast in mainstream films. As the larger, more established studios expanded their use of the talents in the black film community, providing better roles, they drew the fan base back to their films and the separate industry slowly dwindled.
One of the earliest survivors is “The Emperor Jones”, produced in 1933 and directed by Dudley Murphy. The film tells the dramatic story of Brutus Jones (Paul Robeson), a railroad porter who gets into trouble with his lying and swindling ways and winds up on a chain gang after murdering his friend Jeff (Frank Wilson). He escapes to Haiti and becomes partners with Smithers (Dudley Digges) and becomes rich. He then convinces the natives that he is immortal and declares that he is their emperor, ruling them with cruelty. When the locals eventually revolt and drive him into the jungle, he meets his fate.
“Paradise in Harlem” is a 1939 crime drama, directed by Joseph Seiden. The story is about Lem Anderson (Frank Wilson), a club performer dreaming of becoming a great actor. When he witnesses a mob hit involving Rough Jackson (Norman Astwood), he is forced to leave town and he moves from town to town and becomes an alcoholic. Hearing that there is an opportunity to play Othello in Harlem, he returns despite the risks. Other characters include Madame Mamie (Mamie Smith), Doll Davis (Edna Mae Harris), Ned Avery (Merritt Smith), and Desdemona Jones (Francine Everett).
Another black cast crime drama is 1940’s “Gang War”, directed by Leo C. Popkin. Fighting to gain control of the Harlem underworld, Bob ‘Killer’ Meade (Ralph Cooper) and his gang are involved in bar fights, car chases and shootouts with rival gangs led by Lew Baron (Lawrence Criner) and Bull Brown (Maceo Sheffield). Killers love interest, Maizie ‘Sugar’ Walford, is played by Gladys Snyder.
Released in 1941 and set in a small, rural town in the southern part of the United States, “The Blood of Jesus” is a film directed by Spencer Williams and produced by Sack Amusement Enterprises. A young woman, Sister Martha Ann Jackson (Cathryn Caviness) is accidentally shot by her husband Ras Jackson (Spencer Williams). As the congregation of her church gathers to pray for her, Martha is transported by an angel (Rogenia Goldthwaite) to the Crossroads between Heaven and Hell, but on their journey Martha is tempted by Judas Green (Frank H. McClennan), an agent for Satan (James B. Jones). The story progresses to its conclusion as Martha must make her choice between good and evil.
“Go Down, Death!” is a 1944 dramatic film directed by Spencer Williams and starring Myra D. Hemmings, Samuel H. James, Eddye L. Houston and Spencer Williams. Big Jim Bottoms (Williams) is the owner of a lucrative juke joint whose business is threatened when a new preacher comes to town and begins converting his customers. When Big Jim sets the preacher up to be photographed with women of bad reputation and blackmail him, Big Jim’s mother interferes and gets her hands on the photos. Big Jim and his mother, known as Aunt Caroline, struggle and she dies from her injuries, causing Big Jim to be haunted by his guilty conscience.
Produced by Josh Binney, “Hi-De-Ho” is a black cast musical drama released in 1947. Bandleader Cab Calloway (himself) is just starting out in the business when his jealous girlfriend Minnie (Jeni Le Gon), suspecting a romance between Cab and his manager Etta (Ida James), sets a rival club owner/gangster against him. Minnie changes her mind at the last possible moment though, and is shot, taking the bullet meant for Cab. The film also stars William Campbell, Virginia Girvin, George Wiltshire, Edgar Martin, and Cab Calloway’s Orchestra.
“Juke Joint” is a black cast comedy directed by Spencer Williams and released in 1947. In the film down on their luck con men Bad News Johnson (Spencer Williams) and Cornbread Green (July Jones) arrive in Dallas, Texas, with only two-bits to their name. Soon though, they are posing as Hollywood types and are given free room and board in Louella ‘Mama Lou’ Holiday’s (Inez Newell) boarding house in exchange for their promise to teach Mama Lou’s daughter Barbara ‘Honey Dew’ (Dauphine Moore) poise to help her win a beauty pageant. Troubles arise when Mama Lou’s other daughter, Florida (Katherine Moore), gets tangled up with the owner of a juke joint.
In 1947, “Reet-Petite and Gone” was released, directed by William Forest Crouch. This musical film tells the story of Schyler Jarvis (Louis Jordan), a successful musical star who dies and bequeaths his fortune to his son Louis (also by Louis Jordan) and Honey Carter (Bea Griffith), the daughter of his lost love. A crooked lawyer, Henry Talbot (Lorenzo Tucker), swindles the money away from Louis and Honey, but soon thereafter is found dead, and Louis is the prime suspect. The movie includes lots of great music by bandleader Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five.
Based on his 1943 novel ‘The Wind from Nowhere’, “The Betrayal” is a black cast dramatic film directed by Oscar Micheaux and distributed in 1948. The movie is about Martin Eden (Leroy Collins in his only acting role), a successful farmer in South Dakota, and his entanglements with two women; Deborah Stewart (Myra Stanton), who he loves but believes he cannot marry because she is supposedly white; and Linda (Verlie Cowan), a woman he meets and marries in Chicago.
It is thought that approximately 500 black cast films were made in the beginning of the 20th century, and that barely 100 have survived. Many of those films are available here on Matinee Classics. For a glimpse of how life was being lived and seen on the big screen you are invited to browse the selection available here and enjoy the work of these early artists.