Documentary film has played a central role in the longstanding African-American tradition of presenting the lives and struggles of Black people as a means to achieve social justice. As a result, it owes a tremendous debt to African-American slave narratives, journalism, and photography. African-American documentary generally refers to artistically crafted, nonfiction films made by and about people of African descent but may also include films about African Americans by individuals of other backgrounds.
In Klotman and Cutler's Struggles for Representation: African American Documentary Film and Video (1999), Pearl Bowser describes the mission of African-American documentary as "recording the highs and lows of ordinary folk, as well as extraordinary moments in Black history and culture as seen from within" (1999), p. 31. From early twentieth-century newsreels through the 1970s Black documentary film movement to contemporary experimental films, Black America has produced many of the most prolific and masterful documentary filmmakers in cinema history.
Inventing African-American Documentaries
African Americans began to use moving pictures to document their lives as soon as film technology became available in the early twentieth century. Black photographers like Addison Scurlock, Peter P. Jones, Jennie Louise Touissant Welcome, Ernest Touissant Welcome, and Arthur Laidler Macbeth used their photographic expertise to become some of the world's first documentary filmmakers. In addition to making their own films, these artists, along with other Black photographers like James Van Der Zee, created the photographs that continue to enrich African-American documentaries.
Many consider A Day at Tuskegee (1910) the first comprehensive African-American documentary. Political leader and Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington commissioned George W. Broome and the National Negro Business League to document Tuskegee's history. The acclaimed film opened at Carnegie Hall in New York City and was the first to reveal documentary's political potential.
Prior to World War I, several African-American film companies emerged to produce fictional and documentary films, which often screened together in theaters, schools, and churches. Early documentaries, like narrative "race movies," attempted to challenge the growing number of racist films by documenting impressive activities and achievements of African Americans. Peter P. Jones Photo-play Ltd.'s elaborate Dawn of Truth (1915) combined a number of Jones's shorts into one of the earliest historical survey documentaries.
Most early African-American documentaries were newsreels and short subjects that, because they have deteriorated or been lost, are now known to us only through references in written texts. However, these images are still being discovered. Ethnographic film footage by African-American anthropologist/novelist Zora Neale Hurston was recently found, and more lost films promise to emerge.
With the advent of sound in the 1920s and the controlling influence of the Hollywood studio system, the cost of film production became prohibitive for many artists. Despite this, filmmakers like Edward Lewis, William Alexander, and Carlton Moss sustained the emerging African-American documentary industry.
In the 1930s Edward Lewis created a number of documentary series that would foreshadow theme-based formats, like Eyes on the Prize, to emerge decades later. William Alexander founded The All-America Newsreel Company, which generated hundreds of newsreels. Alexander worked with the Office of War and Information, where he created A Call to Duty (1946) and focused media attention on African Americans in the military. After the war Alexander spent several decades in Africa, where he produced documentaries about emerging African nations.
The topic of African Americans in the military was one of the first and most popular in African-American documentaries. During World War II, The Negro Soldier (1944) became one of the most significant African-American documentaries ever produced. The War Department commissioned Carlton Moss to create the film, which was aggressively promoted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and eventually shown to thousands of white as well as black troops. A number of other films about African Americans in the military were created during this period, and Moss continued to make documentaries until his death in 1997.
Many of these early African-American documentary filmmakers struggled in isolation and anonymity. However, their work helped define the medium and proved documentary's political and cultural potential, soon to be realized by their successors.
Visions of a Movement: Documentary Activism
In the 1960s the civil rights movement inspired documentary artists of all races to use film to represent, preserve, and propel impending social change. By the 1970s the ensuing Black Power movement's emphasis on preserving Black history and the emergent Black independent film movement combined with the training and inspiration provided by documentary institutions like Black Journal
and Blackside, Inc. to produce an unprecedented number of African-American documentaries.
Madeline Anderson's Integration Report #1 (1961) documented the nation's first sit-ins and arguably launched the second wave of the contemporary Black documentary film movement. The 1960s also saw documentaries by former actor William Greaves; Gordon Parks, of Shaft (1971) fame; and journalist St. Clair Bourne, who previously wrote for William Alexander's newsreels. All of these men would continue to make significant contributions to cinema throughout the rest of the century.
A steady stream of Black documentaries began in 1969 when Greaves became executive producer of the Black Journal. Following the 1967 race riots, President Lyndon B. Johnson's Kerner Commission mandated improvements in media representations of African Americans. The result was the 1968 Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) program Black Journal, which soon hired Greaves as executive producer. Greaves turned Black Journal into an Emmy-award-winning documentary and news program that set the highest standard for all nonfiction media production and launched a generation of Black filmmakers including Madeline Anderson, St. Clair Bourne, Kathleen Collins, Lou Potter, Jacqueline Shearer, and Tony Brown (who in 1976 turned the program into Tony Brown's Journal ). PBS continues to serve as a home for African-American documentaries, and Greaves, who has made more than two hundred documentaries, has emerged as one of the most prolific filmmakers of any race.
Although it was not broadcast until 1987, the 1970s also set the stage for the Oscar-nominated Eyes on the Prize, a documentary series about the civil rights movement by Henry Hampton, founder of Blackside, Inc. Blackside made many other documentaries in the 1970s while creating Eyes on the Prize, and the company later produced the Emmy-award-winning Eyes on the Prize II (1990). Blackside, Inc., like Black Journal, trained important filmmakers, including Orlando Bagwell, Carroll Parrot Blue, Louis Massiah, and Sam Pollard. Blackside has also created successful documentary series on African-American science, poverty, and faith.
Reinventing African-American Documentary
Changes in society and technology from the 1980s to the present have been reflected in documentaries. Video has made documentary filmmaking more affordable. In the last several decades successes in Black independent film, combined with increased access to university film training, have inspired hundreds of African-American documentaries.
While African-American women and gay filmmakers have always made documentaries, in recent years their numbers and visibility have grown, as have the number of films addressing gender and sexuality. Black artists of all backgrounds are making increasing numbers of personal, essay, and experimental films.
Inspired by Black feminist discourses, African-American women filmmakers created a movement within a movement, documenting black women's lives through innovative combinations of history, poetry, and performance. In the 1970s and early 1980s Camille Billops, Cheryl Fabio Bradford, Ayoka Chenzira, Julie Dash, Zeinabu Irene Davis, Alile Sharon Larkin, Barbara McCullough, O. Funmilayo Makarah, Michelle Parkerson, Debra J. Robinson, Kathe Sandler, and Sandra Sharp were among the first documentary filmmakers to explicitly address the experiences of Black women.
This wave of Black women's documentaries continues to inspire filmmakers of both genders. Suzanne, Suzanne (1982) by Billops and James Hatch initiated a focus on personal family politics. Chenzira's Hairpiece: A Film for Nappy Headed People (1984) made her the first African-American woman animator, Parkerson's films popularized biographies of Black women artists, and Dash applied her documentary training to narrative film, becoming the most successful Black woman independent filmmaker in the world.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, award-winning documentaries like Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied (1989) and Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston (1989) candidly explored the complexity of Black gay identities, a theme also engaged by the films of Cheryl Dunye, Shari Frilot, Donna Golden, Thomas Allen Harris, and Cyrille Phipps.
William Greaves's Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968) was one of the first experimental documentaries in film history, and beginning in the 1980s numerous Black documentaries regularly employed experimental elements. As of the early twenty-first century, hundreds of black experimental film and digital projects were reinventing the style, structure, and content of documentary filmmaking. Documentaries by Isaac Julien, John Akumphrah, and other members of the British Sankofa and Black Audio Film Collective documented African-American subjects and were expanding African Diaspora documentary film.
The late twentieth- and early twenty-first century witnessed the emergence of documentaries about hip-hop culture, including numerous profiles of Tupac Shakur. Several hip-hop documentaries, such as Lauren Lazin's Oscar-nominated Tupac: Resurrection (2003), have enjoyed theatrical releases, which few documentaries receive, and high domestic and international DVD/Video sales to become some of the most successful documentaries ever made.
During this period, cable television networks began to create new distribution avenues for documentaries. However, PBS networks remain the most committed distributors of African-American documentary films. Documentary has always informed the style and content of African-American fiction films, contributing to what Valerie Smith calls the "documentary impulse" in urban cinema (1998). In fact, the narrative film and television careers of important contemporary filmmakers began in the 1970s documentary film movement. In addition to artists already mentioned, these include Gil Noble, Haile Gerima, Warrington Hudlin, Carol Munday Lawrence, Monica J. Freeman, Philip Mallory Jones, Stan Lathan, William Miles, and others. In recent years, successful African-American fiction filmmakers, like Charles Burnett (Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, 2003) and Spike Lee (Four Little Girls, 1997), have reversed this process by making documentaries, further revealing the dynamic relationship between African-American fiction and nonfiction film art.
U.S. president Woodrow Wilson famously described the racist classic Birth of a Nation (1914) as "history writ with lightening." However, it is the work of African-American documentary filmmakers that truly deserve this description for bringing America's complex racial and cultural heritage to cinematic life. For more than a century, the creative activists of documentary film have merged art, history, and politics, and they continue to march for freedom with cameras in their hands.
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dionne bennett (2005)