We live in a time where some of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood are African American, and some of the most impactful films in theaters and on streaming – as well as the most profitable – are directed by African Americans. It’s the same story in music, pop culture, on YouTube and TikTok, and beyond: In today’s media landscape, the influence of Black creators and of the Black perspective is outsized.
It wasn’t always that way, especially in film. Going back in time, there was generally a deep segregation in the industry – one could argue there still is, but that’s another story – that was reflected on the screen from the earliest days of American cinema. With Black creators largely relegated to the sidelines, and Black performers largely forced to conform to, and thus reinforce, stereotypes in major Hollywood films throughout the 20th century, true representation of Black lives in the country was absent from the screen. But one group of filmmakers pushed back, founding a genre of films made by and for African Americans right back to the medium’s infancy, combating stereotypes and setting the tone for an independent Black cinema right through to today. This genre is called “race films.”
What are “race films”? First, a bit on the history from which they emerged. In the deeply troubled history of American cinema, there has always been a tension between who could play what on screen. For African Americans, the legacy of the “minstrel shows” that had set the groundwork for Black representation in much of American popular culture in the late 19th century would set the stage for how African Americans could and would be portrayed on screen when the technology of the movies came along. Consider one of our earliest cinematic works, 1913’s Edison’s Minstrels, which featured whites in Black face and which is generally considered one of the first films to match sound with a minstrel show. (You can read contemporaneous reviews of Edison’s display below.)
The long tradition of segregation – a.k.a. Jim Crow, a.k.a. “the color line” – further defined what roles African Americans could play on screen for a large part of the century; Hollywood usually cast us as singers or dancers, or as maids, butlers, porters, and other servants. (So much have these representations echoed, even to today, that filmmakers like Spike Lee [with Bamboozled], Jordan Peele [with Get Out], and Ryan Coogler [with Black Panther] continue to resist and hit back at these early stereotypes.)
(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection )
The long shadow of the color line cut through all aspects of movies: not just in typecasting, but in segregated theaters and, of course, the absence of people of color behind the lens. Under the harsh divisions of the color line, the thriving but limited African American cinema suffered – between the late 1940s and 1969, there were almost no movies directed by African Americans released commercially. It’s a pretty shocking fact, but all too consistent with the de facto segregation that limited opportunities.
Race films developed alongside and in reaction to this industry that pigeonholed African Americans or shut them out completely, and date back to as early as 1920 and the works of legendary African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. In a way – and heart on one hand, here – they were a straight-jacket approach to creating Black art that mirrored the segregation of the times, having to generally be produced outside of the Hollywood system. They featured actors who were of African heritage, and the films were significant for showcasing how talented actors could do more than play the stereotyped roles offered to them in major studio releases. And they were produced by independent production companies and focused on the everyday life of what it meant to be Black in America.
While the system was a product and mirror of segregation, it also fostered an entire generation of independent African American filmmakers and helped establish a “Black cinema” in America, an artform and system where Black directors were empowered to be independent – raising money, shooting and editing, and scoring films themselves. These movies gave African American audiences and actors a forum to articulate their own identity outside of the studio system which rarely bothered with the full spectrum of that identity.
Among the most influential players in race films were white-owned film production groups like Reol Productions/Norman Studios, which propelled Edna Morton, one of the first major African American screen sirens, to stardom, as well as the highly regarded studios of African American filmmakers Micheaux (Micheaux Film and Book Company), and Spencer Williams of Amos ’n’ Andy fame, whose Amegro Films produced the classic 1941 race film, The Blood of Jesus.
There are so many films today that show us the complexities of contemporary African American life, from Julie Dash’s poetic Daughters of the Dust and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, to the work of Tyler Perry and on to Ava DuVernay’s films and those from her production company, Array, and beyond. But it’s always good to know that as great as things are now – or at least, as much as they are improving – we should never lose track of where things used to be and the pioneers who worked to create their art within those constraints.
As always in American cinema: It’s complicated.
DJ Spooky, a.k.a. Paul D. Miller, is a composer, multimedia artist, and writer whose work immerses audiences in a blend of genres, global culture, and environmental and social issues. He is the Executive Producer of Pioneers of African American Cinema, a collection of the earliest films made by African American directors, which was released on DVD in 2015.
Read reviews of Race Films
As part of the RT Archives Project, Miller chose the below films to help give readers a historical perspective on race films. The Rotten Tomatoes team sourced (mostly) contemporaneous reviews for each, so you can read what critics and writers had to say about them at the time of their release. Where possible, we have highlighted the reviews of Black film critics.
Additional research by Tim Ryan