Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks — for too long, the title of film historian Donald Bogle’s 1973 book accurately described the range of roles open to African-Americans in Hollywood. But a veritable underground film industry once existed apart from Hollywood, producing all-black-cast features — ”race” movies — for black audiences across the country. Discovering these films, now rare video treasures, is an enlightening way to celebrate Black History Month; since the dawn of the screen age, they have been black history.
Noble Johnson and his brother George launched the first black production company in 1916. Eventually around 150 indies, a third of them black-owned, would produce more than 350 race movies between the two world wars. The films were shown at approximately 700 ghetto theaters, as well as at black churches, schools, and social gatherings. Plagued by technical deficiencies, shoddy acting, and contorted plots, race movies nevertheless provided a forum for a vast array of talent: Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters — not to mention Lorenzo Tucker (”the black Valentino”), Bee Freeman (”the sepia Mae West”), and Slick Chester (”the colored Cagney”).
One of the few African-Americans to last the entire span of race-movie production was Oscar Micheaux, who between 1918 and 1948 directed, produced, wrote, edited, publicized, and distributed as many as 48 films (the exact number is in dispute, since he often recut older films to make new ones), including the first all-talking feature made by a black company, The Exile (1931). A onetime Pullman porter, farmer, and novelist, Micheaux would shoot a picture in spring and summer, edit it in the fall, then hawk it to theater owners, in the process raising money for his next film. While his movies have been criticized for dealing with bourgeois problems like ”passing,” he was the first black director to receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
By the late ’40s, Hollywood had begun to take up the race question in movies like Pinky and Home of the Brave. Race movies could not compete, and with an audience that considered the films’ racial exclusiveness passé, the industry collapsed. Most race movies have unfortunately been lost or destroyed, but a handful can still be found on videocassette, including 10 that were discovered in a Texas warehouse in 1983. Micheaux’s mystery Murder in Harlem, two films directed by Spencer Williams (Andy from Amos ‘n’ Andy), and the romantic comedy Souls of Sin (the last race movie ever made) are now available through Phoenix/BFA Films & Video.