Black History Month is a time where we reflect on the Black pioneers of the past and celebrate the Black change-makers of today and tomorrow. Today, Black film and TV is thriving: Filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins, Dee Rees, and countless others are creating art across genres, in theaters, and for TV that centers on people and communities that look like them. As they forge new ground in this space, we’re taking a look back at the forebears who paved the way for their work. These Black filmmaking pioneers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries helped shape the modern film industry and often challenged the cartoonish, tired, and racist stereotypes pushed out by those who held the most power in Hollywood in its earliest years.
You will know the names of some of these writers, directors, and performers, while others are mostly hidden figures in cinema’s history, with much of their work tragically lost. These are our folk heroes, and this month we speak their name, celebrate their work, and honor the contribution they made to the movies and to culture.
Williams is known as the first Black female film producer, and had worked as secretary and treasurer of the Western Film Producing Company (the company that distributed her first film and of which her husband was president). It’s debated whether or not Williams directed Flames of Wrath, which has been attributed to her – “director” and “producer” were often interchangeable in the silent film era – but she did write, distribute, and act in the 1923 film. Prior to filmmaking, Williams was an activist and author, writing a book in 1916 on her activism entitled My Work and Public Sentiment. On the book’s first page she writes that 10 percent “of all money received from the sale of this book will go to create a fund to be used for the suppression of crime among Negros.”
Black actors found work during the silent film era, but were often confined to racially stereotypical roles. Through his work as an actor and president of his own film company, Johnson sought to change this. Making his film debut in 1915, he was a successful character actor who appeared in 144 films, including 1925’s The Thief of Bagdad and 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game (both 100% on the Tomatometer), 1932’s The Mummy (93%), and 1933’s King Kong (98%). But steady acting gigs weren’t enough: Johnson (born Mark Noble) founded the all-Black–owned and Black-run production studio Lincoln Motion Picture Company with his brother George in 1916. The birthplace of the “race film” genre, the studio sought to produce positive films starring Black actors. Johnson was president of the company from its inception until its closure in 1921, funding the studio with checks from his acting work. The company only produced five films – most of which are lost – but it is often praised as an inspiration for Black-owned film companies that followed.
Where would the storied history of Black film be without the inclusion of the voices of Black film critics? Walton began his expansive career at the St. Louis Star, becoming the newspaper’s first full-time Black reporter. He then moved to New York, becoming the theatrical editor and manager for the New York Age, and began writing about representation of Black people in film. As a Civil Rights activist, diplomat, songwriter, theater owner, and film critic/essayist, Walton wore many hats. He also served as Vice President for the Negro Actors Guild of America, where he lobbied for integration in film, TV, and radio. Always connecting art to politics, Walton – in partnership with the Associated Press – also lobbied to have the word “negro” spelled with a capital “N.”
“Race film” was a genre during the Jim Crow era, referring to movies created for and by Black people partly as a way to commit to screen the discrimination they faced. Micheaux began as a novelist and then transformed into a prominent voice within the genre. Hailed as the first major Black filmmaker, Micheaux directed and produced 42 feature films from 1919 to 1948, beginning with 1919’s The Homesteader, adapted from his first novel. His vision centered on Black life during Jim Crow, tackling subjects such as racial violence, rape, economic oppression, and discrimination. Most notably, Michaeux directed, produced, and wrote 1925’s revered Body and Soul, which was Paul Robeson’s debut. The film was included in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2019. Through his work, Micheaux embodied the words he became famous for: “We want to see our lives dramatized on the screen as we are living it, the same as other people, the world over.”
McDaniel was a trailblazing actress, becoming the first Black performer to be nominated for and win an Oscar, winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. (See her moving speech here.) Wind was a boost to an already strong career as a songwriter, musician, touring stage performer, and radio actress. She appeared in 97 films, including 1934’s Judge Priest and Show Boat with Paul Robeson, and was among the first Black entertainers to star in her own radio and TV series, Beulah. While her Oscar was revolutionary, McDaniel’s career was burdened by being typecast in the Mammy-style roles before and after her win – roles such as Mammy Lou in her first film, 1932’s The Golden West, Malena in 1935’s Alice Adams, and Hilda in 1938’s The Mad Miss Manton. It’s notable that at the 1940 Academy Awards – the peak of Jim Crow – McDaniel had to sit at a separate table in the back of the ballroom, separate from her Gone With the Wind co-stars. McDaniel did not show remorse for playing these stereotypical roles, famously commenting, “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7.” (Eighty years later, as Rotten Tomatoes’ Jacqueline Coley has detailed, Black actresses still struggle to be awarded for performances that break from the “Mammy” caricature.)
Like Oscar Micheaux, Williams (above right) was known as one of the most prolific Black filmmakers of the first half of the 20th Century. As a pioneering director, screenwriter, and actor, his work pushed the “race film” genre forward. Of the 13 films he directed, 1941’s The Blood of Jesus is considered his masterpiece, depicting Southern Baptist religion through a Black lens. In 1991, The Blood of Jesus became the first “race film” to be included in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Williams also enjoyed a successful acting career. After working as a character actor in a series of Black-cast westerns in the 1930s, Williams became known as Andy in CBS’s Amos ‘n’ Andy TV series. Williams didn’t receive the full accolades his storied career warranted until after his death, when most of his films were found in a Texas warehouse in the 1980s.
Men weren’t the only ones sharing their perspectives on contemporary Black life in film in the early 20th Century – Black women also created work to have their voices heard. Souders is notably known as the first Black woman to direct a feature film, A Woman’s Error. The film was distributed by Afro-American Film Exhibitors’ Company in 1922, but unfortunately no version of the film has been recovered. The director and writer is as elusive as the film itself, with little biographical information about her available beyond reports of the movie and census records.
As a Civil Rights activist, concert artist, author, professional athlete, and star of stage and screen, Robeson was one of the most important cultural figures of the first half of the 20th Century. He started his phenomenally successful acting career in Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 film Body and Soul, and went on to star in the likes of 1933’s The Emperor Jones, 1936’s Show Boat (100% on the Tomatometer), and on stage in productions of Othello and The Emperor Jones. But his success in Hollywood didn’t curb his voice. The outspoken Robeson caught the eye of the FBI due to his support of the Civil Rights movement and favorable view of Communist policies, the latter of which got him blacklisted. When McCarthyism waned, Robeson made strides to come back in the spotlight, but eventually retired to a quiet life.
Washington (above right) performed in nine films and a number of Broadway productions throughout her career, which coincided with the Harlem Renaissance. She’s best known for playing Peola Johnson, a fair-skinned Black woman who passes as white, in the 1934 Academy Award Best Picture nominee, Imitation of Life. After her film career ended, she became a Civil Rights activist, working closely with NAACP President Walter White and becoming a founder of the Negro Actors Guild of America. Washington kept a foot in the industry as the entertainment editor for The People’s Voice, a progressive Black newspaper founded by Adam Clayton Powell Jr., as well as working as a casting consultant for the musical productions of Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess.
Thumbnail image courtesy the Everett Collection