African American Cinema

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African American Cinema


Traditional film scholarship has often attributed the emergence of African American cinema to the need for a response to the racial stereotypes prevalent in mainstream films. Indeed, the early representations of African Americans, as in Chick Thieves (1905) and the Edison shorts The Gator and a Pickanninny (1903), in which a fake alligator devours a black child, and The Watermelon Contest (1908), relied on staid and pervasive stereotypes common in literature, vaudeville, minstrel shows, and the culture in general. Though cinema would progress, as an industry and as an art form, the stereotypes of African Americans, rooted in slavery and used to justify racist ideologies and acts of discrimination, remained, though often adapted to fit changing cultural contexts. The most common archetypal forms, as identified by Donald Bogle, include: the mammy (a dark, large-bodied, asexual woman whose role is to provide maternal comfort for whites); the coon (a sexless comic figure, dull-witted, lazy, and cowardly, used for comic relief); the Uncle Tom (servile and overly solicitous to whites); the buck (defined by his physicality, a brutish and hypersexual black man who lusts after white women); the tragic mulatto (a mixed-race woman who, as a symbol against miscegenation, is caught between the races and denied access to the privileges afforded by a white identity), and the jezebel (an amoral temptress, promiscuous and oversexed).


Hollywood rarely, if ever, offered depictions of African American life and culture with humanity, and as a response, many African American entrepreneurs ventured into filmmaking to "correct" the negative images. Pioneers included Bill Foster (1884–?), founder of the first black film production company, the Foster Photoplay Company, established in Chicago in 1910; Noble Johnson (1881–1978), the Hollywood character actor who, along with his brother George, led the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Los Angeles established in 1916; and Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951), a noted novelist who formed the Micheaux Film and Book Company (1918). Their companies led the production of "race movies," films that featured all-black or predominantly black casts and were marketed to black audiences. Another important figure who would emerge as a writer, producer, and director, though decades later, is the actor Spencer Williams (1893–1969), who made the most popular race movie ever released, Blood of Jesus (1941).

This sound film, and the silent films that preceded it, like Lincoln Picture's The Realization of a Negro's Ambition (1916) and Micheaux's The Homesteader (1919), the first feature film by an African American, presented themes in concert with the racial uplift movement, an effort by African Americans to combat the unrelenting ideological and physical assaults aimed at their communities. During the period in which these film companies were formed, African Americans had to contend with lynchings (the practice was at its height between 1880 and 1940), race riots, the philosophy and practices of eugenics (pseudoscientific theories of racial inferiority), and psychological theses that rendered African Americans deviant and pathological. Ideologies of racial uplift based their opposition in the assertion of African Americans as civilized humans deserving of equality and social justice through an emphasis on education and morality. In films this was realized in narratives that valued temperance, adherence to the tenets of Christianity, and social mobility through education. Characters who engaged in criminal acts, gambling, infidelity, and substance abuse received punishment by the end of the film. The Realization of a Negro's Ambition, for example, is centered on James Burton (played by Noble Johnson), a civil engineer who leaves his rural surroundings to seek out his fortune in the oil industry of California. Using the knowledge he gained while attending Tuskeegee Institute (a black college founded in 1880), he surmounts a series of obstacles, including employment discrimination, and eventually discovers oil and returns home with newfound wealth.

Several films are also linked to racial uplift through the references made to actual community leaders and places of importance. For example, the schoolteacher Sylvia Landry (played by actress Evelyn Preer), the protagonist of Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1920), travels north to Boston in order to raise funds for the Piney Woods School, historically the largest black boarding school in the United States, located in rural Rankin County, Mississippi. By referring to the school in the film, Micheaux used his film as a publicity tool, aiding the institution's goal of providing for young black students a "head, heart, and hands education."

With the popularity of race movies also emerged an entire industry, virtually a separate cinema with its own stars, distribution system, and exhibition venues, such as the Howard Theater (1910) in Washington, D.C., and the Madame C. J. Walker Theater (1927) in Indianapolis. The development of this industry, in addition to its formation as a "counter cinema," should also be considered a logical outgrowth of already established forms of African American expressive culture. Bill Foster, for example, had a background in theater and vaudeville, and Paul Robeson (1898–1976), the noted stage actor, made his film debut in Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul (1924). The films often highlighted African American forms of dance, fashion, and literature.

The Great Migration between 1910 and 1920 was also a significant factor in the development of African American cinema. During this period close to 2 million African Americans moved from the South to northern cities, such as Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and Detroit, and west to Los Angeles, to escape feudal tenant farming, the lack of gainful education and employment, and Jim Crow laws, searching for what they imagined would be better opportunities. Though their choices remained limited and they were still subject to racism, the access to greater education, factory jobs, and positions of skilled labor and professional employment led to the growth of a black middle class. Films provided not only a reflection of their striving but also, for many, a way to engage in an urban form of modernity.

It is estimated that more than five hundred race movies were produced and distributed between 1910 and 1948, the most prolific era of black-directed and black-themed films (though not all race movies were directed by African Americans). Eventually, though, this separate cinema was crushed by a number of industry shifts, including co-optation by Hollywood and the coming of sound, and by the Depression. Interestingly, the introduction of synchronous sound and the genre that would develop with it, the musical, are grounded in African American popular culture, and it is this link that helped lead to the end of the race movies.


Though not thoroughly synchronous, Warner Bros.' The Jazz Singer (1927) is considered the first commercially released feature to make use of the new technological development of sound. The conflict in this drama centers on the struggle of a Jewish singer, Jakie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson), who wants to perform as a jazz artist, despite his father's wish that he become a cantor. Though in his nonreligious persona Jack Robin is not actually singing jazz, his performances (in blackface) draw from the blues tradition and black spirituals, capitalizing on the appropriation of black expressive culture. Hollywood's affinity for black musical forms continued with the production of the early musical Hallelujah (1929), an all-black cast feature, directed by King Vidor, that featured black folk music and spirituals. The industry's incursion into sound race movies with this film and others, including The Green Pastures (1936) and Bronze Venus (1938), had a dramatic effect on the independent producers. Increasingly, the stars of the race movie industry migrated to the Hollywood studios, lured by the offer of higher salaries, despite the reduction in their roles to performers in item numbers or supporting characters, often as servants to white protagonists. Though some directors like Micheaux would continue to work in the sound era, the talent drain and the inability to invest heavily in sound equipment led to the collapse of many of the independent studios. To make matters worse, the devastating collapse of the US economy that began in 1929 ravaged a community whose economic stability was tenuous at best. African American audiences had less money to spend on entertainment and sought out the better-financed, high production value spectacles of the Hollywood oligopoly.

The restricted roles offered to African American actors in Hollywood expanded with the US entry into World War II. As participants in the war, in the armed forces and on the home front, African Americans could not be ignored by the culture industry, certainly not when the country was engaged in a war to ensure freedom and democracy. In films like Casablanca (1942), Sahara (1943), and Lifeboat (1944), African American characters were constructed with greater complexity and humanity. The actor Rex Ingram (1895–1969) plays a pivotal role in the war film Sahara, as a sergeant in the Sudanese army who fights alongside British and American troops. He performs heroically in the fight against the German Afrika Korps and takes charge of Axis POWs.


Postwar liberalism led to even more change, as dramas directly addressing issues such as race and power emerged from the studios in films like Intruder in the Dust (1949), Home of the Brave (1949), and Pinky (1949). By the 1950s, the "separate cinema" had ended, and African Americans no longer had creative control over their images. Hollywood had sought and highlighted black talent in front of the camera, but continued exclusionary policies in the unions and administrative offices. Social change brought by the civil rights movement saw changes at the box office, as the first group of African American movie stars emerged in the 1950s. Prominent among them were Sidney Poitier (b. 1927), the first black superstar; Harry Belafonte (b. 1927), the first African American male sex symbol; and Dorothy Dandridge (1922–1965), the first African American screen siren. Though in hindsight their films are somewhat problematic, the roles performed by these three talents brought new images to the screen, often challenging society's precepts about race and "proper" social roles. Island in the Sun (Robert Rossen, 1957), for example, contains what has been identified as the first real interracial kiss in a Hollywood film (previous films usually involved two white performers, with one in blackface). In the film, a political scandal erupts when a family in the West Indies is found to have "mixed blood." The situation is further complicated by the presence of two interracial romantic couples: one played by Dorothy Dandridge and John Justin, and the other played by Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine. Of course, the times would dictate that the kiss occur between the former couple, not the latter. Hollywood may have been transgressive with this film, but it would not go so far as to have an African American man kiss a white woman.

b. Metropolis, Illinois, 2 January 1884, d. 25 March 1951

One of the most renowned African American directors, Oscar Micheaux produced and directed forty-three films over three decades. Though he was not the first African American director or the first to head an African American motion picture company, he was the first to direct a feature-length film.

Born in a small town in southern Illinois to a schoolteacher mother and an agriculturist father, the influence of his parentage can be seen in themes that would emerge in his films: the importance of landownership, an appreciation for those that work the land, and the value of education. In 1910 he became a homesteader in South Dakota. His skills as an entrepreneur were revealed when he prospered as a novelist, selling his works first to his fellow South Dakotans, white farmers whose land surrounded his own, and later nationally. His third novel, The Homesteader (1917), attracted the interest of the Los Angeles–based Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which wanted to adapt it into a film. Micheaux agreed, under the stipulation that he be hired to direct. When Lincoln refused, he founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company, which would later grow to include distribution offices in three locations: Chicago; Roanoke, Virginia; and Beaumont, Texas. His first film, the first feature film directed by an African American, was The Homesteader (1919), financed through the selling of shares. Micheaux earned enough profits from that film to finance his second production, Within Our Gates (1920), a provocative film that challenged the racist ideologies of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Micheaux's Within Our Gates presents African American characters who seek education, despite poverty, as a means to social mobility, while it critiques the failure of the judicial system to afford racial minorities equal protection under the law. Even more controversially, it blatantly portrays racial violence as it more commonly occurred—not committed by African Americans against whites, but just the opposite—through a tense scene of lynching. Within Our Gates was released during the height of lynching in the United States and immediately following the "Red Summer," when twenty-six race riots erupted across the nation.

Throughout his career, Micheaux would include such sensational elements in his work. His Body and Soul (1925), the first film to star Paul Robeson, was a scathing critique of corruption in organized religion. It was perhaps this element that would separate Micheaux's films from those of his "race movie" counterparts, since the Foster Photoplay Company specialized in comedy and the Lincoln Motion Picture Company on middle-class melodrama.


Within Our Gates (1920), Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), Body and Soul (1925), Murder in Harlem (1935), Underworld (1937), Swing! (1938), Lying Lips (1939)


Bowser, Pearl, and Louise Spence. Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, His Audiences. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Green, J. Ronald. Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

——. With a Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Frances K. Gateward

Dandridge's career was impeded by typecasting. More often than not, she was offered roles that took advantage of her physical appearance, casting her as a sexual siren and object of desire. The exception was a film earlier in her career, Bright Road (1953), a low-key drama in which she plays a small-town schoolteacher trying to reach a troubled student. Ironically, the same can be said of Harry Belafonte, who played the principal in the same film. His films also exploited his good looks and physique, often placing him in competition against his white male costars. In The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), Belafonte plays one of three survivors of the nuclear apocalypse. The struggle for survival is made more difficult by the contest of masculinity between

Belafonte's character and the white male survivor (played by Mel Ferrer) over the sole surviving woman (Inger Stevens), who is white.

Of the three new black stars, only Poitier would enjoy a long and varied career, one that would last for decades. Dandridge's was cut short by her death in 1965. Belafonte, frustrated by the lack of roles, turned his energy toward music and a more involved role in the global human rights movement. Poitier became a Hollywood icon and a popular star with audiences. He was the first African American to receive an Oscar® nomination for a leading role, in 1959 for his work in The Defiant Ones (1958), and he would eventually win the award for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963). His groundbreaking performances in films like In the Heat of the Night (1967), in which he plays a Philadelphia police detective who, in Mississippi to visit his mother, works with the local racist sheriff to solve a murder, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), in which a seemingly liberal father is introduced to his daughter's fiancé, played by Poitier, foregrounded issues of racism in American and the need for progress.

It was not until 1962 that an African American director would be accepted in Hollywood, when the renowned photographer Gordon Parks (1912–2006) was contracted by Warner Bros. to direct the adaptation of his autobiography, The Learning Tree. The film, a sensitive and poetic drama completed in 1969, chronicles the coming of age of a black teen in 1920s Kansas. It influenced the theme of most subsequent African American coming-of-age films, which, unlike their white counterparts, do not focus on sexual initiation. Rather, they center on the emergence of racial consciousness.

Melvin Van Peebles (b. 1932), noted for his work in the independent realm, is also one of the earliest African Americans to work within the Hollywood studio system, securing a three-picture deal with Columbia Pictures after the success of a film he made in France, Story of a Three Day Pass, in 1967. His second film, his first in Hollywood, was Watermelon Man (1970), a comedy examining racism and its stereotypes. In the film, the comedian Godfrey Cambridge plays a white bigot who wakes one morning to discover his race has changed—to black. That same year, United Artists released the first film by the actor/playwright/activist Ossie Davis (1917–2005), who would go on to direct four more feature films. Cotton Comes to Harlem, an adaptation of the Chester Himes crime novel of the same name. It is unfortunate that this film and those by Parks and Van Peebles are often misidentified, commonly assumed to be a part of the film movement known as blaxploitation (black exploitation). The movie-viewing public often assumes incorrectly that all black-themed films of the 1970s, regardless of origin, style, or content, can be categorized as such. A close examination of the period, however, reveals that there were three major trends of African American filmmaking during the 1970s: films produced within the Hollywood system; films produced by exploitation studios, such as American International Pictures (AIP); and another independent movement—an aesthetically challenging cinema politically grounded in issues of civil rights and the global pan-Africanist movement.


The decade of the 1970s represents a unique period in American film history: it was the first time since the race movies of the silent era that such a high volume of blackthemed films played in commercial theaters, many of them helmed by African American directors. The reception of the early works by Parks, Van Peebles, and Davis, by both critics and popular audiences, resulted in a new acceptance of African American talent in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera. Films moved beyond the usual social problems to treat African American communities more broadly, from comedies about everyday life, teen films, and romance to biopics, period films, and action thrillers. Though many noted films that featured black actors and themes, such asSounder (1972), Claudine (1974), and The Wiz (1978), were not directed by African Americans, a great many of them were. Several of these directors would go on to develop significant careers, lasting decades and expanding into television.

b. Miami, Florida, 20 February 1927

Sidney Poitier remains the most highly recognized African American actor in the history of American cinema. His triumphs on stage, television, and in film countered the typically demeaning stereotypes of African Americans. The first African American superstar, he entered Quigley's "Top Moneymaker's Poll" in 1967, and ascended to number one the following year, beating the popular icons Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and John Wayne. His dramatic characterizations brought dignity, complexity, and depth to African American depictions during one of the most tumultuous periods of social change in US history, the civil rights movement.

Born in Miami to Bahamian parents, Poitier was reared in the Bahamas but returned to the United States in 1943. After a brief stint in the army at age sixteen, he moved to New York, working odd jobs until he discovered an interest in acting. After training at the American Negro Theater, he appeared in several plays, the most noted being Lorraine Hansberry's Tony-nominated A Raisin in the Sun, the first work by a black playwright produced on Broadway. He received a Tony nomination for the role he would reprise in the 1961 film. His film debut was in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's No Way Out (1950).

Despite positive reviews of his performance as a doctor confronted with racism, he struggled for years to land significant roles. He hit his stride in the mid-1950s, gaining momentum with a number of highly touted films. With his role in The Defiant Ones (1958), he became the first African American nominated for an Academy Award® in a leading role. He would win five years later for Lilies of the Field (1963).

In an acting career that lasted more than fifty-one years, he accumulated numerous accolades, including the Cecil B. DeMille Award by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (1982), a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute (1992), the Kennedy Center Honors (1995), and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actor's Guild (1998). In 2002 he was awarded an honorary Oscar® for his "extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style, and intelligence."

Poitier's success as an actor often eclipsed recognition for his work as a director on nine feature films. One of the first African American directors in Hollywood, he reworked genres such as the western in Buck and the Preacher (1972) to reflect the contribution and struggles of African Americans. In addition to his work in cinema, Poitier has served as a dedicated activist in the fight against apartheid in South Africa and in the US civil rights movement.


As Actor: Blackboard Jungle (1955), Defiant Ones (1958), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Lilies of the Field (1963), A Patch of Blue (1965), To Sir with Love (1967), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967); As Director: Buck and the Preacher (1972), A Warm December (1973) Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let's Do It Again (1975), Stir Crazy (1980)


Goudsouzian, Aram. Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Poitier, Sidney. Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.

——. This Life. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981.

Frances K. Gateward

The actor Sidney Poitier directed his first Hollywood film in 1972: Buck and the Preacher, a film that would allow him to break out of his usual persona and bring his fellow 1950s star Harry Belafonte back to the screen. This western restored African Americans to the history of the settlement of the West, as it concerned the journey of African American homesteaders from the South to what they imagined as new opportunities after the Civil War. Accosted by white landowners who want to return them to tenant farming, the settlers seek the aid of a wagonmaster, Buck (Poitier), who is assisted by Preacher

(Belafonte). The film revised the implicit ideology of the all-American genre of the western, providing a critique of US expansionism. Poitier formed his own production company, E and R Productions Corporation, and when in creative control of his films, he insisted that the crew include people of color as technicians. His career as a director spanned eight films, across twenty years.

Michael Schultz (b. 1938) is another important African American director, one of the most prolific of the era. He is most noted for Cooley High (1975), a coming-of-age film set in 1960s Chicago; Car Wash (1976), a "day in the life" film about an ensemble of workers at a Los Angeles car wash; and Greased Lighting (1977), based on the story of Wendell Scott, the first African American stock-car champion. Though his films are considered comedies, they contain moments of profound sadness and despair. For example, the slapstick and verbal play in Car Wash, provided by the pranks and jokes the workers play on each other, reveal an attempt to counter the monotony of their dead-end, working class jobs. Further, the viewer gains access to the workers' outside lives and dreams, made difficult by the social circumstances of their lives.

Gordon Parks followed up The Learning Tree with Shaft (1971), introducing the first African American private detective film and a new treatment of African American masculinity. Considered the first African American film hero, John Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree (b. 1942), was the epitome of cool. Equally comfortable in the underworld and the mainstream, he was very popular with the ladies. His persona as a man of action and power is communicated brilliantly at the film's opening, when Shaft emerges from the subway to walk the streets of New York as if he owns them, accompanied by the funky grooves of Isaac Hayes's Oscar® -winning score.

Parks's son, Gordon Parks Jr. (1934–1979), would continue in his father's tradition, directing some of the most well-received films of the period. His works include Aaron Loves Angela (1975), a tender story about the romance between an African American teen and a Puerto Rican girl living in the slums of New York, and Thomasine and Bushrod (1974), starring Max Julien and Vonetta McGee as a bank-robber couple in the early 1900s. He is best known, however, for Superfly (1972), starring Ron O'Neal (1937–2004). A highly stylized film that made great use of Curtis Mayfield's original music, Superfly highlighted the protagonist's decadent lifestyle as a successful pimp and drug dealer—fashion, cars, jewelry, recreational drug use, and promiscuity. It is perhaps for this reason that this film in particular would be identified with blaxploitation film. Because young people became infatuated with the surface details that overwhelmed the underlying social critique, it was at the center of controversy in the African American community. While middle- and upper-class African Americans saw the film as sensationalist, promoting the lifestyle of the main character, others championed the film for its presentation of an African American protagonist, Youngblood Priest, who stands up to "the Man," and for its treatment of police corruption. Looking deeper into the film, Superfly provides an insightful commentary on the lack of opportunity for African American youth and the ways they may be driven to achieve the American ideal of consumerism. The legal system is presented as corrupt, and through its imagery, the film reveals the devastation the drug trade has wrought on urban communities. It also presents criminality as a dead-end profession, as Priest is working to remove himself from prostitution and drug trafficking.

The new forms of masculinity represented in the films noted above—in which African American men function in narratives to benefit themselves and their communities, rather than the white communities in which they were usually socially isolated in earlier Hollywood films—were accompanied by a different kind of physicality. Previously, actors with large, muscular physiques were seen as threatening, drawing on the stereotypes of the black brute. With former athletes such as Fred Williamson and Jim Brown (b. 1936) becoming actors, and with characters like John Shaft, African American men were no longer sidekicks in action films, supporting the heroism of the white lead actor; they became heroes themselves. Changes were also due African American women, and the desire for more complex female characters was met in films like Mahogany (1975), featuring the singer Diana Ross (b. 1944), who received an Oscar® nomination for the costume designs she created for the drama. Directed by the Motown music mogul Berry Gordy (b. 1929), the film focused on the development of an impoverished girl who becomes an international fashion model. Five on the Black Hand Side (Oscar Williams, 1973) reflected the ideological tensions between African American middle-class conservatives and more progressive feminist and black nationalist liberals.


As these films were being produced within the Hollywood system, some filmmakers, unwilling to compromise their artistry or ideology, chose to work independently, as too often the Hollywood studios demanded changes in their scripts or denied them final edit power. Others saw entry into the industry as a sell-out, bowing to a capitalist oligarchy that had historically denigrated their communities. Melvin Van Peebles abandoned his deal at Columbia to independently produce, direct, and star in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). The film represented a radical break from Van Peebles's earlier work. Dedicated in the opening credit sequence to "All the brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Man," it is a touch-stone example of African American counter cinema, utilizing a loose shooting style, experimental editing, and a discourse rooted in Black Nationalism. Sweetback, played by Van Peebles himself, starts out as a politically naive and uninvolved sex worker who has his consciousness raised and becomes a folk hero. While in police custody, he witnesses the beating of a community activist by the police. Sweetback uses his handcuffs to fight off the two policemen, saving the activist's life, then spends the rest of the movie a wanted man, evading the authorities with the help of the local community. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which was produced with a budget of only $500,000, earned more than 10 million dollars, and secured for Van Peebles the sobriquet "Father of Soul Cinema." The film won praise in the United States and Europe, and its success provided the impetus that would lead to the blaxploitation movement.

Ossie Davis, like Van Peebles, would remove himself from the "Hollywood plantation" to work independently. In 1972 he helped create the Third World Film Corporation, a New York–based company that functioned both as a film training center for people of color and a distribution house for their works. Two of Third World's most well known productions are Greased Lightning, starring Richard Pryor (1940–2005), and Claudine (1974), with Diahann Carroll (b. 1935), who garnered an Oscar® nomination for the lead. With his second film, Kongi's Harvest (1970), Davis became the first African American director to shoot films on the continent of Africa. Adapted from a work by the Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), who also played the starring role, the film is set in the Congo and concerns the attempt of an African leader to modernize and unite his nation (made up of different tribes), while at the same time keeping the country's cultural roots intact. Davis's last effort as a director, Countdown at Kusini (1976), was financed by Delta Sigma Theta, the largest African American women's service organization in the United States. Written by Davis and his fellow African American thespian Al Freeman, Jr. (b. 1934), the film, shot in Nigeria, is an anti-neocolonialist action/drama that encouraged coalitions and solidarity between Africans and the Diaspora.

Another actor turned director Ivan Dixon (b. 1931), memorable for his roles in film and television—one of the most notable as the lead in the groundbreaking feature Nothing But a Man (1964)—began directing television shows in 1970. In 1973 he directed the film that took him five years to get off the ground: The Spook Who Sat by the Door, adapted from Sam Greenlee's famous 1969 novel. The funds were raised through private investments—not from corporations or wealthy individuals, but from supporters in African American communities across the country. Despite its initial success, the film was withdrawn in several cities because it was deemed too controversial; its plot involves a former African American CIA agent who uses his knowledge and skills to train guerrilla fighters, building a network across the country to lead a revolution.

In this fashion, African American directors regularly employed established Hollywood genres, such as the action film, western, crime thriller, romance, and spy film, to reveal the contradictions and ideologies on which they were based. The formulaic conventions and iconographies were recoded to work as tools of social criticism. The horror genre was no exception. Ganja and Hess (1973) by the writer Bill Gunn (1934–1989), an experimental vampire film in the mode of art film, is a complex treatise on race, addiction, and assimilation that violates conventional Hollywood norms of linear temporality, characterization, and causation. Despite having won the Critics' Choice prize at Cannes and favorable reviews, the producers withdrew the film from distribution, claiming the writer-turned-director had failed to deliver a commercially viable film.


As these veterans of the cinema created socially significant feature films that were aesthetically grounded in African American (and in some cases African) cultural forms, a new group of filmmakers would emerge, trained in university film schools located primarily in Los Angeles. Their educations in graduate programs went beyond technical training. Their "coming-of age" coincided with the push for ethnic studies programs on campuses around the country, nationalist movements in the Asian/Pacific American, African American, Latino, and Native American communities, and global struggles against neocolonialism and for independence. Armed with a knowledge of "traditional" film history now infused with an introduction to the Third Cinema movement and exposure to revolutionary films from Latin America and Africa, these filmmakers took advantage of their "outsider" positioning, reinvigorating the push for a politically driven cinema, in a movement that became known as the "L.A. Rebellion." The first group of graduates from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) included Billy Woodberry, best known for Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), and Larry Clark, director of Passing Through (1977). The two most noted, Charles Burnett (b. 1944) and Haile Gerima (b. 1946), became leaders of the contemporary African American independent cinema movement.

Charles Burnett, who started his career as a cinematographer and camera operator for his contemporaries, is considered to be one of the most important American filmmakers. Burnett has made more than fourteen films, both within and outside the Hollywood industry, as well as several works for television. His most acclaimed film, Killer of Sheep (1977), is considered the first neorealist masterpiece of African American cinema. Selected into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and recognized internationally, the film, completed in 1973 as his MFA thesis for UCLA but not released until 1977, uses poetic imagery to detail the day-to-day struggle of the working poor who, despite their efforts and dreams, are caught by a social structure that benefits from their oppression. When not writing and directing, Burnett often supports the work of other progressive filmmakers, among them the New York–based Korean American Dai Sil Kim Gibson, Julie Dash (b. 1952), and Haile Gerima (from Ethiopia).

Haile Gerima, also a professor at Howard University, remains one of the most politically committed African American filmmakers. His films do not just depict oppression, they theorize historical and global conditions, interrogating not only what, but why. His works genuinely function as "counter cinema," linking the storytelling function in film with African cultural and aesthetic traditions to advance consciousness and politicize audiences. As was the case for Burnett, it was Gerima's MFA thesis film at UCLA, Bush Mama (1979), that brought him wide attention. Like Killer of Sheep, Bush Mama focuses on poverty in the Los Angeles area. Using a dynamic visual style paired with a powerful use of sound, Gerima presents a challenging narrative that raises the consciousness of the audience simultaneously with that of the film's protagonist.


Despite these two concurrent trends of African American filmmaking—filmmakers within the Hollywood system and filmmakers without, both creating ideologically and aesthetically thoughtful films—most people associate African American cinema of the 1970s with blaxploitation, a series of extremely low budget, sensationalist features of which there were more than two hundred. Produced from the early 1970s through the middle of the decade, these films capitalized, or exploited, the desire of African Americans (and others as well) to see transgressive characters in urban settings. Many attribute the birth of this movement to the success of Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which was released with an X rating, and Park's Superfly, exciting films that featured characters involved in "underground" economies, the sex and drug trades.

Of the ultra-low budget, campy, violent films that followed, about pimps and drug dealers in stack shoes, bell bottoms, and furs, very few were written or directed by blacks, financed and produced by black production companies, or reached theaters through black-owned distribution businesses. Those that were, such as Blacula (William Crain, 1972), were often politically relevant, but they fell victim to the designation of blaxploitation because of their lower production values. Nevertheless, the power of the movement was a significant one, as it influenced more mainstream productions. For example, the 1973 installment of the James Bond series, Live and Let Die, makes use of the established iconography. Though the movement was relatively short-lived, ended by both public protest and falling profits—attributed to its over-reliance on formula—it did create some opportunities for African Americans in the film industry, creating a new galaxy of stars, including Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly.


The end of the 1970s saw a great diminution of films by African American directors. This was particularly the case in Hollywood, for the industry had committed to the blockbuster model of filmmaking, more or less abandoning the production of low-to-middle budget films—the range in which most African American movies were placed. Many of the established directors moved to television, while still others worked on direct-to-video releases. A few directors capitalized on the newly developing youth subculture of hip hop with films like Beat Street (Stan Lathan, 1984) and Krush Groove (Michael Schultz, 1985), films centered on the music industry. Another link to popular music was Under the Cherry Moon (1986), a black and white feature directed by and starring the musical artist Prince.

The course of African American filmmaking was redirected, literally, by the newcomer Spike Lee (b. 1957), who in 1986 saw great success with his independently produced first feature film, She's Gotta Have It, an irreverent look at an African American professional woman and her romantic relationships. Well-received by critics and audiences, She's Gotta Have It, along with Hollywood Shuffle (Robert Townsend, 1987), a comedic treatment of Hollywood's racist production practices, and I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (Keenan Ivory Wayans, 1988), a parody of blaxploitation films, heralded a new era in African American filmmaking. The popularity of these three films, as well as the ascendancy of rap music, opened the door for a new generation of directors. In 1991 sixteen African American–directed movies were released theatrically, the most since the era of the race movie. Those titles included Jungle Fever, New Jack City, True Identity, The Five Heartbeats, House Party II, Talkin' Dirty After Dark, Hangin' with the Homeboys, A Rage in Harlem, Chameleon Street, Strictly Business, Living Large, To Sleep with Anger, and Up Against the Wall.

It was also the year of release for Boyz N' the Hood by John Singleton (b. 1968) and Straight Out of Brooklyn by Matty Rich (b. 1971). Both films were tense coming-of-age dramas about male teens trying to make it out of the ghetto (South Central L.A. and Red Hook, Brooklyn) and its pervasive cycle of poverty. While Singleton's film was supported by a major studio (Columbia Pictures), Rich's film was funded by family credit cards and an address on a local radio station for investors. Both went on to receive widespread attention. Singleton became the youngest person ever nominated for an Oscar® for Best Direction, as well as a nominee for Best Original Screenplay. A number of movies followed in their wake, all featuring young men in urban locales and focusing on crime, such as Juice (1992) and Menace II Society (1993), causing many critics to wonder if it was a case of blaxploitation revisited. In addition, cultural critics lamented the masculinist perspective of the films, concerned that the films perpetuated the stereotype of young urban African American males as crack-dealing gangsters pervasive in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There was also the issue of presenting a singular construction of African American communities—ignoring the true diversity of African American populations.

One film that did diverge from the urban male hegemony was Daughters of the Dust (1991) by Julie Dash. The first feature-length film by an African American woman to be released theatrically, this unique vision, which took more than twelve years to bring to the screen, is a hypnotic period drama, set in 1902 on one of the Sea Islands off the East Coast of the United States. It is a celebration and remembrance of Gullah, a distinct African American culture that developed during slavery. Because of the islands' relative isolation, the inhabitants were able to build a culture more closely linked to that of Africa than were those enslaved on the mainland. Dash uses this setting and rich cultural tradition to tell the story of a family that gathers for what may be their last meal together.

Toward the end of the 1990s, African American filmmaking was no longer typified by the narrow parameters that defined its renaissance. Haile Gerima provided a harrowing, much-needed lesson on slavery in Sankofa (1994), the most successful self-distributed independent feature of African American cinema, while Spike Lee with Malcolm X in 1992 brought the slain activist to the consciousness of a generation with no experience of the civil rights movement. This was also the decade when several women directors came into their own. With JustAnother Girl on the I.R.T. (1992), Leslie Harris provided a female perspective on teen life in an urban locale. I Like It Like That 1994) by Darnell Martin (b. 1964), the first film directed by an African American woman to receive studio funding, provides an interesting tale of a woman who, driven by a family crisis, finally comes to full selfrealization. Other women directors who would emerge in the 1990s include Bridgett M. Davis, Alison Swan, DeMane Davis, Cauleen Smith, and Neema Barnette. Cheryl Dunye directed Watermelon Woman, the first African American lesbian feature, in 1996, and in 1997 Kasi Lemmons delivered a haunting, atmospheric drama, Eve's Bayou, the most successful independent film of that year. Chicago-based George A. Tillman, Jr. (b. 1969),

b. Shelton Jackson Lee, Atlanta, Georgia, 20 March 1957

The most prolific African American director since Oscar Micheaux, Spike Lee is credited with heralding a renaissance of African American filmmaking, initiating a radical break from Hollywood's neo-minstrelization in the 1980s, and reestablishing the commercial viability of "political" cinema. As one of the few African American directors considered an auteur, his films concern the dramatic tensions of personal conflict informed by social hierarchies of power—particularly of race and class, encoded in a highly expressive and recognizable style.

Lee graduated in 1979 with a degree in mass communications from Morehouse College, and in 1982 with a graduate degree in film from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. His thesis film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983), won an Academy Award®, helping him to secure interest from two talent agencies, William Morris and International Creative Management (ICM). When neither company could find him work in the film industry, Lee went independent, securing financing with the help of friends and the Black Filmmakers Foundation for She's Gotta Have It (1986). The film, produced by Lee's newly formed company, 40 Acres and Mule (a reference to America's broken promise to African Americans during Reconstruction), was shot in twelve days with a budget of $175,000. It went on to earn more than 8 million dollars at the box office and the Prix du Film Jeunesse at Cannes. She's Gotta Have It is considered the catalyst for a resurgence in African American filmmaking, demonstrating the commercial viability of films about African Americans by African Americans.

Similarly, his second feature, School Daze (1988) also did well at the box office, earning more than twice its production costs. It was his third film, Do the Right Thing (1989), that would secure his reputation as a director of artistry and vision. This postmodern masterpiece, concerned with rising tensions in a Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood over the course of a hot summer's day, is a complex and compelling film examining race relations, police brutality, class differences, and gentrification.

Lee expanded his talents, working in the area of music videos, television commercials, and public service announcements. He won an Emmy for a segment of "Real Sports" and he directed two documentaries: the Oscar® -nominated Four Little Girls (1997), about the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, that resulted in the death of four African American girls; and Jim Brown: All American (2002) a feature on the sports icon. Further, his impact on the industry includes the introduction of a number of African American actors to the cinema and the reinvigoration of the careers of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. He has also produced films by other African American directors that have become classics of African American cinema, including I Like It Like That (1994), The Best Man (1999), and Love & Basketball (2000).


She's Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), Clockers (1995), Four Little Girls (1997), Summer of Sam (1999), Bamboozled (2000), A Huey P. Newton Story (TV, 2001), Inside Man (2006)


Fuchs, Cynthia. Spike Lee: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.

Guerrero, Ed. Do the Right Thing. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

Lee, Spike, with Kaleem Aftab. Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It. New York: Norton, 2005.

Reid, Mark. Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Frances K. Gateward

directed Soul Food (1997) and Men of Honor (2000), and produced the sleeper hit Barbershop (2002), its sequel Barbershop 2 (2004), its spin-off Beautyshop (2005), and its television adaptation for Showtime. The Best Man (1999) by Malcolm Lee was a welcome change for many moviegoers, as it was the first ensemble film by an African American director about a sophisticated group of college-educated, professional African Americans.


The new millennium was ushered in by a series of firsts, including the awarding of an Oscar® to Denzel Washington for Best Leading Actor in 2002, the first time the award was given to an African American since it was bestowed upon Sidney Poiter in 1964. And, perhaps even more significantly, it was the first for a performance in an African American–directed film, Training Day (2001) by Antoine Fuqua. MTV, the video music network powerhouse, entered into the realm of filmmaking with Save the Last Dance (2001), a teen film directed by Thomas Carter. And for the first time, African American directors were given the green light to direct big-budget films, films that did not necessarily feature African American characters. Though this was not the first time African American directors worked with non-black subjects—Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Michael Schultz, 1978), The Cemetery Club (Bill Duke, 1993), and Swing Kids (Thomas Carter, 1993) are notable examples—it was the first time they were granted control of tent-pole pictures such as the epic King Arthur (Fuqua, 2004) and the summer blockbuster Fantastic Four (Tim Story, 2005), one of the few summer spectacles that did not disappoint at the box office that year.

This status granted to African American filmmakers holds great promise but also may bode ill. Hollywood's interest in maximizing profits mandates films centered on white protagonists more often than not. If African American directors are to concentrate on the larger-budgeted films, that leaves the untold stories of the African American community without a voice once again.

SEE ALSO Class;Race and Ethnicity


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Bowser, Pearl, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser. Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Early Silent Era. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Cripps, Thomas. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900–1942. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Diawara, Manthia, ed. Black American Cinema. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Green, J. Ronald. Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Martin, Michael T. Cinemas of the Black Diaspora: Diversity, Dependence, and Oppositionality. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995.

Martinez, Gerald, Diana Martinez, and Andres Chavez. What It Is … What It Was! The Black Film Explosion of the '70s in Words and Pictures. New York: Hyperion, 1998.

Massood, Paula J. Black City Cinema. Philadephia: Temple University, 2003.

Reid, Mark A. Redefining Black Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Rhines, Jesse. Black Film/White Money. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Smith, Valerie, ed. Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Watkins, S. Craig. Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Frances K. Gateward

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African American Cinema