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The Stars, the Films, the Filmmakers
By Donald Bogle
Foreword by John Singleton
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The story opens in the silent film era, when white actors in blackface often played black characters, but also saw the rise of independent African American filmmakers, including the remarkable Oscar Micheaux. It follows the changes in the film industry with the arrival of sound motion pictures and the Great Depression, when black performers such as Stepin Fetchit and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson began finding a place in Hollywood. More often than not, they were saddled with rigidly stereotyped roles, but some gifted performers, most notably Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind (1939), were able to turn in significant performances.
In the coming decades, more black talents would light up the screen. Dorothy Dandridge became the first African American to earn a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Carmen Jones (1954), and Sidney Poitier broke ground in films like The Defiant Ones and1963’s Lilies of the Field. Hollywood Black reveals the changes in images that came about with the evolving social and political atmosphere of the US, from the Civil Rights era to the Black Power movement. The story takes readers through Blaxploitation, with movies like Shaft and Super Fly, to the emergence of such stars as Cicely Tyson, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Whoopi Goldberg, and of directors Spike Lee and John Singleton.
The history comes into the new millennium with filmmakers Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Ava Du Vernay (Selma),and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther); megastars such as Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and Morgan Freeman; as well as Halle Berry, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, and a glorious gallery of others.
Filled with evocative photographs and stories of stars and filmmakers on set and off, Hollywood Black tells an underappreciated history as it’s never before been told.
For blacks in American movies, it’s been a long, sometimes turbulent, and often rocky journey throughout the twentieth century, into the twenty-first. Foremost, it is a journey that, surprisingly, is often unknown and rarely explored. Some moviegoers mistakenly assume that African Americans first worked in films sometime in the 1950s, with the emergence of such Eisenhower-age stars as Sidney Poitier and the often-neglected Dorothy Dandridge. Others also mistakenly believe that black filmmakers did not arrive on the scene until Spike Lee in the mid-1980s or—for those with deeper knowledge—in the 1970s, with such bold and daring directors as Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks Sr. and such well-known movies as Shaft or Super Fly. But, of course, these stars and filmmakers are only part of the story.
The history of blacks in American films is long, rich, and extraordinarily extensive, with remarkable achievements stretching back to the era of silent films (before Hollywood was even Hollywood as we now think of it), and progressing with the advent of sound into the late 1920s, through the Depression and the World War II years, right up to the present. There is a whole body of work that has been ignored or glossed over.
Hollywood Black seeks to set the historical record straight. It charts that long journey, examining cinema that is often disturbing but also often compelling and engrossing. This book spotlights the way that films and film stars reflect the social and political attitudes and perspectives of the eras in which they first appeared—and the way those films and film stars looked both in the past and to later generations. Often we may find it hard to fathom how past moviegoers could have accepted Hollywood’s stereotyped view of black America. But while some films and personalities are stuck in the past, others gloriously transcended it. Hollywood Black presents a gallery of important talents, both in front of the camera and behind it—actors, actresses, writers, directors, producers—who struggled against the odds to make unique statements on-screen. More than we might imagine, some fought to overturn stereotypes and to speak to audiences—especially African American moviegoers—in personal and often striking terms: such disparate figures as Paul Robeson, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Hattie McDaniel, Ethel Waters, Puerto Rico–born Juano Hernandez, Ruby Dee, Rex Ingram, Cicely Tyson, Louis Gossett Jr., Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Harry Belafonte, Viola Davis, Spike Lee, John Singleton, Julie Dash, Jordan Peele, and Ryan Coogler.
Having written previously about African American movie history in a series of books, notably Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films as well as in Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography and Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood, I’ve found that writing Hollywood Black has been a unique adventure. The history, while still comprehensive, is told more concisely here. In a manner different from my previous books, I also let an array of photographs illustrate the tale. Some of the photographs here have rarely been published. These seldom-seen photographs serve to bring a movie and an era to startling life. For those who have seen the films, the photographs no doubt will summon up long-forgotten movie-going experiences. In other cases, the photographs may introduce the reader to films or performers they haven’t seen and will very much want to. Seeing such photographs of Nina McKinney, Rex Ingram, Daniel Haynes, Stepin Fetchit, Fredi Washington, Theresa Harris, Eartha Kitt, Cicely Tyson, Lena Horne, Lupita Nyong’o, Will Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, or Eddie Murphy can be an involving, and sometimes enlightening experience. The photographs speak in a voice of their own.
Hollywood Black presents an up-close view of some of the most important cinematic works of the past one hundred–plus years as well as some of the more neglected. Sometimes popular—though not critically acclaimed—movies comment on issues, concepts, and dilemmas in an immediate way, minus fanfare or pretentions. Popular films can strike a nerve that jolts us. A drama like the original 1934 version of Imitation of Life—with its tear-jerker subplot about a submissive black mother rejected by her assertive, light-skinned daughter who sets out to fulfill herself by passing for white—took America by surprise and suggested, without fully examining, a long-festering race problem that most Depression-era movies chose to ignore. In the end, Imitation of Life affected the African American community in a gut-wrenching manner, unlike most other Hollywood film fare of the day.
A movie like the 1943 Stormy Weather, with its array of major black performers, such as Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fats Waller, Katherine Dunham, Cab Calloway, and the astounding Nicholas Brothers, appeared to be rewriting American entertainment history, revealing dazzling talents whose sheer brilliance often went unacknowledged. The same is true of the other black film released in 1943, Cabin in the Sky, with its all-star cast of Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram, Mantan Moreland, Butterfly McQueen, that smooth-gliding dancer John “Bubbles” Sublett, and the stride piano player Ford L. “Buck” Washington. These movies remain vibrant cultural documents.
Other films sent out covert messages. Carmen Jones, starring that underappreciated screen goddess Dorothy Dandridge, was not only a deliciously heady melodrama about a “strumpet” who destroys her lover but rather a bold statement, told through Dandridge’s mesmerizing performance, of a woman seeking the right to make choices as men do, to liberate herself from the chains of a woman’s role in a male-dominated society. Such films as Home of the Brave, Lost Boundaries, Pinky, and Intruder in the Dust, all released in 1949, were Hollywood’s attempts to pick up on the race theme that had been so important to independent director Oscar Micheaux. And later, the Oscar-winning Best Picture hit In the Heat of the Night still stunned audiences, especially African American moviegoers, when Sidney Poitier, after having been called a boy and addressed with the n-word, announced, “They call me Mister Tibbs.” When slapped by a white bigot, he also slapped the man back! Such films still resonate in our imagination and rightly deserve to be a part of our collective moviegoing experience.
In Hollywood Black, I have also aimed to show an equally significant aspect of movie history: from one decade to another, black artists have often taken Hollywood forms, genres, shapes, spheres, and themes and shrewdly reconfigured them with African American points of view, cultural markers, signs, and insights. Race movies—black-cast films made outside the Hollywood studio system—such as The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides the Range—present a contrary view to traditional lily-white Westerns. Within their entertaining stories, they tell us there were indeed people of color on the prairie and the range. Oscar Micheaux films like Within Our Gates and The Symbol of the Unconquered might be viewed as springing from traditional storytelling arcs, but his twists on narratives deliberately and daringly uncover issues of race and racism in America that were of supreme importance to African American moviegoers. Micheaux can be viewed as Hollywood, but no: he is Hollywood Black.
The same was true decades down the road, when Gordon Parks Sr. directed Richard Roundtree as a new-style, hip detective clad in a leather jacket while rhythmically navigating the streets of New York to the beat of Isaac Hayes’s music in Shaft—the kind of brother African Americans had seen many times on city streets but never before seen in a movie. It also happened when black British director Steve McQueen reconfigured the plantation drama with 12 Years A Slave, dramatizing the fierce brutality and emotional pain that previous Hollywood slave stories hadn’t touched; when Jordan Peele both saluted and battered the teen horror film with racial satire in Get Out; and when Ryan Coogler made the entertaining superhero film Black Panther that was influenced by past superhero films as well as James Bond, yet in its own sense was revolutionary. Old-style movie action narrative, coupled with new-style black political perspectives and sometimes humor, made Black Panther again, not Hollywood, but Hollywood Black.
Finally, Hollywood Black seeks to reveal that while we rarely go to the movies to learn anything, we learn something nonetheless. Movies may horrify and enrage us with their distortions. And when it comes to black images, we can have very conflicted feelings. We often like the actors and actresses on-screen even when we feel uncomfortable with what the script has them do. But movies also can amuse, move, and enlighten us. And as we sit there in the dark staring up at that huge screen, we understand, for better or worse, that we will not be quite the same after we’ve seen the picture and left the theater. Hollywood Black reminds us that, thanks to films, filmmakers, and unique stars, we always take something home with us.
THE EARLY YEARS
DAWNING ERA OF FILMS AND STEREOTYPES
The movies started small. Kinetoscopes. Peep shows. Then nickelodeons. Those makeshift theaters in converted storefronts with wooden seats that charged five cents for admittance and were popular from 1905 to 1915. In time, those early venues for exhibiting motion pictures led to the grand movie palaces of the 1920s and ’30s. From the start, budding audiences were excited by the flickering images, by movement itself, and, eventually, narratives that gave shape, form, and dimension to the play of light and movement. Early two- to three-reel shorts, usually crude, often comic, told stories through the use of characters and situations that were frequently stereotyped depictions of various groups, ethnicities, and cultures. No racial group or ethnicity was more blatantly distorted than African Americans.
The history of African Americans in movies would be one in which for decades talented black entertainers struggled against their stereotyped roles to come up with often remarkable, even subversive performances that sent out covert messages. Surprisingly, the early history would also be one in which independent filmmakers working outside the evolving established film industry made entertaining and informative films that often moved away from prevailing caricatures. And in time, more African American filmmakers—working both outside and within Hollywood—would alter the look, the feel, the perspective, and the stories of American movies.
But mostly during the very early years, the movies were a parade of embarrassing, insulting, demeaning caricatures—often offsprings of the rigid stereotypes of the minstrel shows that had been so popular in the nineteenth century. Most offered portraits of the Negro as a comic, childlike, often enough grotesque Dark Other—an oddity in American life and culture. The titles of early shorts often tell a story themselves: The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (1905), The Dancing Nig (1907), Ten Pickaninnies (1908), and the Rastus series: Rastus and Chicken (1911), Rastus among the Zulus (1913), and Rastus and the Game Cock (1913).
Occasionally, there were attempts to tell a story with some meaning. That was certainly the case with Edwin S. Porter’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903). Adapted for the Edison Company from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, the short twelve-minute movie was a sentimental and simplified version with a title character who was supposedly the essence of Christian stoicism without any of the shading or significance of Stowe’s protagonist. Poor Tom looked like a self-sacrificing dolt. Worse, Tom was played by a white actor in blackface (the director himself), as would be the case with the portrayal of other black characters in the early silent period. Still, for better or worse, a black character and a type of black story had come to the infant movies.
Another attempt at a different direction for black movie images in this period was a long-lost 1913 film produced at Biograph (fragments of which were rediscovered in 1976), Lime Kiln Club Field Day. It spotlighted America’s first black mainstream star, Bert Williams, who had performed in all-black Broadway shows and then in The Ziegfeld Follies and later in the 1916 shorts Fish and A Natural Born Gambler. From the fragments of Lime Kiln Club Field Day, there emerges a story of a romance of sorts with Williams, in blackface, courting a young African American woman who also has two other suitors eager for her hand. Interestingly enough, none of the others are in blackface. But apparently the film was never completed, leaving us only with tantalizing bits and pieces.
Otherwise, stereotyped depictions of African Americans flourished and took root in American film, just as they had in American theater and popular culture in general. But nowhere did those distorted and damaging depictions have greater prominence or cultural impact than in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). The epic twelve-reel feature film ran over three hours and was technically innovative with its bold, expressive lighting and editing; imaginative use of the close-up, the iris, and the split-screen shot; and dazzling displays of crosscutting to build suspense and pull the viewer into the story itself. It was a huge hit—the first of blockbusters with patrons lined up to see it around the country. Its leading players, Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall, emerged as stars.
The film dramatized the Old South with its supposedly idealized way of life, in which master and slave knew and accepted their racially designated places in society. Then it moved to the supposed chaos caused by the Civil War, and on the social upheaval and supposed white disenfranchisement of the Reconstruction Era. It ended with the “return” of order to the South with the emergence of “upright,” “stalwart” white Southern men in sheets and hoods. Drawn from Thomas Dixon’s novel and play, The Clansman, as well as his book The Leopard’s Spots, The Birth of a Nation celebrated the Ku Klux Klan and brought to shocking full life basic black stereotypes that would be a part of American cinema for decades to come: the renegade and dangerous black bucks and brutes, often in pursuit of white women; the loyal Southern mammy and tom; the comic coons; the restless, troubled mulatto. Adding to the grotesque distortions was the fact that, while some actual African Americans appeared in minor roles, the major black characters were again played by whites in blackface. Like other early filmmakers, Griffith did not view African American actors as even capable of playing themselves on-screen.
The film won critical praise as “an elaborate new motion picture taking on an ambitious scale” that was “an impressive new illustration of the scope of the motion picture camera,” wrote the New York Times. Upon seeing the film at a private White House screening, President Woodrow Wilson reportedly exclaimed; “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it all is terribly true.”
But while The Birth of a Nation was heralded as a technical masterwork, it would also be remembered as perhaps the most racially disturbing and distorted feature in American film history. Its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan led to an increase in the membership of the organization. Within the African American and liberal white communities, protests sprang up. Seeing the power of the filmic image as propaganda, the NAACP denounced the film and in a major campaign, sought to have it banned. Indeed, The Birth of a Nation was censored in several cities and ultimately banned in other areas.
THE BIRTH OF BLACK FILMMAKERS
In this era, the first black filmmakers appeared, determined to tell stories that saluted African American heroism and achievement, or that presented nuanced expressions of struggle and triumph. Earlier, the black filmmaker William Foster (also known as Juli Jones) had crafted such comedy shorts as The Railroad Porter (c. 1912) and Peter P. Jones had created newsreel-style films. Now other African American filmmakers stepped forward. Among the first to appear was actor Noble Johnson, one of the earliest African Americans to work successfully in Hollywood movies, beginning his screen career in such films as A Western Governor’s Humanity (1915), Kinkaid, Gambler (1916), and later appearing in Intolerance, The Ten Commandments, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and working in the sound era, too. Playing a variety of ethnic roles, he might appear in one film as a Native American and in others as an Arab, Egyptian, or African American. Sometimes his roles were short, little more than walk-ons. Sometimes he received billing in his movies; other times he didn’t. Still, the black press dubbed him “the race’s daredevil movie star” and “America’s premier Afro-American screen star.”
Tall, muscular, dashing, and handsome, Johnson had the stamp of “leading man” written all over him. But he knew that would not happen in Hollywood movies. Instead, he became one of the founders of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Los Angeles, which produced such three-reel black-cast films as The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition, The Trooper of Company K, and The Law of Nature, all emblems of pride, racial uplift, and accomplishments, and all produced for African American audiences. An advertisement in Los Angeles’s black newspaper The California Eagle read:
THE LINCOLN MOTION PICTURE CO.
PRESENTS THEIR SECOND PRODUCTION
“THE TROOPER OF CO. K”
A THRILLING, INTERESTING, AND PATRIOTIC THREE-REEL
MOTION PICTURE DRAMA FEATURING
NOBLE M. JOHNSON
SUPPORTED BY MISS BEULAH HALL AND JIMMIE SMITH
Over 300 people used in making this production, consisting of ex-9th and 10th Cavalrymen, Mexicans, Cowboys and horses.
Colored Persons Shown True to Life On the Screen at the
NEW ANGELUS THEATER
Like later independents throughout film history, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company was ultimately plagued by problems of finance, distribution, and exhibition, and did not last long. Still, it led the way to the emergence of other filmmakers and companies determined to tell stories about African American life and to provide entertainment for black movie audiences.
MAKE WAY FOR MR. MICHEAUX
Interestingly enough, not long after its formation, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company’s search for material to produce led the way to the arrival of one of the most remarkable figures in movie history. His name: Oscar Micheaux. Born in 1884 in Metropolis, Illinois, the fifth of thirteen children of a farmer and his wife, Micheaux moved to Chicago by age seventeen, for a time living with his brother, then setting out on his own, working a series of jobs: a laborer in the stockyards and the steel mills; the operator of his own shoeshine stand in a Chicago suburb. When he landed a job as a Pullman porter, he traveled widely and met a variety of moneyed people who proved helpful to him later. Afterward, he settled as a homesteader in South Dakota. Observing the world around him, absorbed in issues of race and class, power and disenfranchisement, influenced by Booker T. Washington, and committed to the idea of racial uplift and self-advancement, Micheaux set out on a writing career, using his own life and experiences as the basis of his work, including the collapse of his unhappy first marriage. Charismatic and fiercely ambitious, he wrote seven self-published novels, which he financed by establishing the Micheaux Book Corporation and selling stock in his company to whites in the area.
Micheaux’s novel The Homesteader drew the attention of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. It was the perfect vehicle for the studio, with a leading role for Noble. Negotiations began between Micheaux and George Johnson, the brother of Noble, who was Lincoln’s booking manager, but abruptly fell apart when the bold and brash Micheaux decided he’d write, direct, and produce the film himself. It’s doubtful that anyone could take him seriously. Who did this upstart with no experience in film and no knowledge of movie world basics of finance, distribution, and exhibition, think he was? He looked doomed to disappointment and failure—but no one knew Micheaux. He established the Micheaux Book and Film Company, and, against the odds, produced The Homesteader, released in 1919.
Thus began Micheaux’s extraordinary career, in which he daringly tackled serious, unusual themes; developed strong, independent heroines and noble forthright heroes; and created a star and studio system of his own making just as Hollywood was establishing its star system. He was one of the most provocative filmmakers—black or white—of his era, determined to make motion pictures that spoke to African American audiences in the most personal ways.
The Homesteader was followed by the startling and searing eight-reel Within Our Gates. Gathering funds from investors, he shot the exteriors of the film in and around Chicago, with interiors filmed at Capital City Studios. In many respects, Within Our Gates might be viewed as a race uplift drama (as most Micheaux films were in one form or another). In other respects, Within Our Gates was Micheaux’s response to The Birth of a Nation. The film told the story of young schoolteacher Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) who after a visit to Boston leaves to teach at the Piney Woods School for Negroes in Mississippi, only to return to Boston to raise funds to keep the school operating. In actuality, a school with precisely that name existed in Mississippi, which added a certain immediacy to the drama. In telling Sylvia’s backstory, Micheaux dove into the heart of the film as he dramatized the plight of his heroine’s adoptive father Jasper Landry (William Starks), a black sharecropper who has been cheated out of money by his unscrupulous white landlord. When he is falsely accused of killing that landlord, he and his family must flee from a hateful white mob. Ultimately, the farmer and his wife are lynched. Focusing on the family, Micheaux captured the fear and terror that African Americans in the South lived with at the hands of white mobs.
Micheaux also explored other issues in Within Our Gates. He masterfully turns the tables on Griffith’s portrayal of the threatening, bestial black man as rapist. In a gripping sequence, Micheaux’s heroine Sylvia finds herself cornered in a cabin by an older white man (the brother of the landlord), who sets out to rape her. At one point, he rips open her blouse only to see a scar on her chest that reveals to him that she is the child of a black woman he impregnated so many years earlier. He is about to ravage his own daughter. So much comes to mind in this scene, above all, the torturous, debasing history of African American women during slavery who found themselves brutalized by white slave owners.
Intertwined in his story is also Micheaux’s unflagging belief in education as a way upward and out of poverty and despair for Colored America, and his view of contradictory forces in the African American community, as seen in his turncoat black characters who sell themselves out to the whites in power. There is also a love story with a heroic black doctor (Charles D. Lucas) who comes to Sylvia’s defense. Micheaux cast his film with actors from the famed Lafayette Players, notably Evelyn Preer who worked in other films for Micheaux, including The Homesteader and his next film, The Brute (1920). In the end, Within Our Gates was a powerful dramatic social document that captivated and entertained African American audiences. The film, however, ran into problems with local censors in Chicago and afterward disappeared for decades. It was a lost film until the 1970s, when a print was discovered in Spain then restored in 1993 by the Library of Congress.
Then came The Symbol of the Unconquered
- "This book engagingly chronicles the challenges and achievements of African Americans in Hollywood....Bogle's narrative style makes for absorbing reading, and the book's glossy, photo-filled pages will further attract readers."—Booklist
- "Utterly essential and sophisticated..."—-Jeff Simon, Buffalo News
- "The leading scholar and historian on African Americans in film puts it all in one volume in this well-illustrated study."—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
- "A superb and detailed book that both educates and informs. I can't recommend this title enough."—DVDCorner.net
- "No one knows more (or has written more extensively) about the history of African-Americans' contributions to cinema than Donald Bogle."—-Leonard Maltin, LeonardMaltin.com
"Little-known stories, megawatt stars on-set and off, and a sweeping history of Black film—from silent films to the millennium and beyond—make this triumphant tome a must-read for any movie lover.”
—-Lindsay Powers, Amazon Book Review Editor
- On Sale
- May 7, 2019
- Page Count
- 264 pages
- Running Press