Spike Lee looms large for what amounts to a disrupted, but unbroken, tradition as a filmmaker. In point of fact, African Americans have been a part of the fabric …. Spike Lee looms large for what amounts to a disrupted, but unbroken, tradition as a filmmaker. In point of fact, African Americans have been a part of the fabric of the motion picture industry since its embryonic stages. Film making was launched by the celebrated inventor, Thomas Edison, not in Hollywood, but in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Edison and his laboratory are credited with inventing the reel to reel motion picture. Before the turn to the 20th Century, the motion picture was showing the potential to change popular American culture, thereby changing our sensorial world forever. The image of African people appears in a modest way, in some of these early films. Like so much of American life, Black performers were in, if not of, this new and world changing technology.
By the 1920s, a small coterie of Black film makers had emerged to create stories of Black life, that were independently made silent movies. These films were made by and for Black audiences. Black Americans once owned nearly 80 movie houses across America. More often than not, these fledgling enterprises were understaffed. The key individuals who made these movies wore many hats as scriptwriters, directors, producers, technicians and advance men. One necessarily had to have a hand in many activities, the proverbial jack-of-all-trades, and perhaps master of none. Lincoln pictures was one of the earliest, more successful ventures as an independent Black studio of the era. Two of the most prominent pioneer Black film makers of the pre-talkies era were Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams. Micheax is often cited as the seminal figure in Black film making. With the same verve as Lee has demonstrated in our time, Micheaux wrote, directed, acted in, and raised money for many of his movies. It is noteworthy, that Spencer Williams, a fine actor and director became better known as the “Andy” character in the television series of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” in the 1950s. The preceding (1930s & 40s) radio version of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was the most popular radio comedy show of its day. It was Micheaux who became the most influential and celebrated of all Black film makers. He made films reflecting the dynamic culture of Black people for over 40 years, from the 1920s to the mid 1950s. The content of Micheaux’s works covered a broad cross-section of African American major life activities, covering a vast array of subjects from religion and superstition, sports, romance, trials of the middle and working classes, musicals, comedy and tragedy, gangsterism, and even cowboy Westerns. It seems ironic, that the range, complexity and richness of Black life were dramatized more so in those movies which is absent today.
The great Paul Robeson, a man of many talents appears in Body and Soul, his first movie in 1921. That movie was produced and directed by Micheaux. Films with “all-colored casts” entertained Black communities across America during the years of unvarnished segregation and racial subordination. Few of these pictures were seen by people outside of these Jim Crowed “colored only” theatres. As late as the 1950s, the likes of Mantan Moreland, Dewey “Pigment” Markam, Nina Mae McKinney, Louis Jordan, and even Dorothy Dandrige appeared in some of these low budget, but thematically varied and insightful screen plays. With the onset of “integration”, this little self contained industry gradually met its demise, and has now faded into the shadows of oblivion.
There were a smattering of “Black” films made during the interlocking period of the late 1970s and early 1980s starring well known mainstream performers such as Sidney Potier, Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Judy Pace, Cicely Tyson, and Denise Nicholson, in such screen plays as Lets Do it Again, Buck and the Preacher, Uptown Saturday Night, and Sounder. The ground breaking comedian Richard Pryor appeared in The Lady Sings the Blues in a non-comedic role, giving