Audrey Kupferberg: Lack Of Diversity In American Film History | WAMC

Audrey Kupferberg: Lack Of Diversity In American Film History

Jun 23, 2020

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced that it is expanding its efforts to bring more diversity into its membership an its annual Oscar awards.  For much of the past hundred years, the American film industry establishment hasn’t been particularly welcoming to people of color.  Now that there are many actors, directors, writers and technicians of various races making quality films, it will be interesting to see the results of the improvements the Academy is touting.

The first African-American filmmaker was Oscar Micheaux.  He was a novelist in the early teens and made films from 1919 into the 1940s.  It is doubtful that Micheaux’s films would have garnered the attention of the Academy after its founding in the 1920s.  He produced movies on the cheap. His technique was primitive. No major studio invested resources in his work.

Micheaux did not live in the era of film schools, and odds were strong that he would not have been accepted by one if he had, simply because of his race at the time he was living. People of color couldn’t find jobs on professional film crews because they mainly were segregated. 

In the late teens, Micheaux’s novel, The Homesteader, was about to be licensed for film production by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, likely the first black-controlled movie production company in the United States.  Negotiations broke down, and Micheaux formed his own company.  During the following decades, he produced and directed more than forty films. 

Micheaux’s films are known as race films.  Soon there were a number of companies making these motion pictures.  Race films often were produced and directed by white men, but they feature mainly all black casts. These films were popular with black audiences and were shown particularly where black populations abounded – in large cities and throughout the South. They were screened in social halls, churches, and in theaters that were rented out, “four-walled,” for the occasions. 

Many race films survive and have been preserved in film archives.  Their storylines adhere to popular genres of cinema – cowboy movies, slapstick comedies, murder mysteries, etc….  The stars of race films became famous in their own limited world.  For instance, reflecting the star system of Hollywood, handsome Lorenzo Tucker was called the Black Valentino after Hollywood heartthrob Rudolph Valentino.

Race films are not gems of style, but they often tell entertaining and/or socially significant stories that mirror black culture and racism in America.  Micheaux, in particular, made films that deal with crucial issues.  He stressed the importance of education and church-going morality.  He dealt with lynching at a time when no other filmmakers were doing so.

Today, Micheaux’s productions and other race films are available for streaming on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other online and DVD sources.  They include his film Within Our Gates from 1920, restored by the American Film Institute and the Library of Congress, which I especially recommend for its themes:  crimes of the KKK, lynching, the mixed-race population, and Southern schools for poor black children.

Even fifty years ago, past the age of Jim Crow, Hollywood films that showed African-Americans merely as types were still being made.  Sure, along the way there were liberal studio filmmakers who recognized the talents of Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge and Ruby Dee.  In the past few decades, the list of talented people of color making important films has grown immensely.  Let’s see what the new advancements of the Motion Picture Academy will do to advance diversity.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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