African-American Film Pioneers, Racism And The True Origins Of The Movie Business

[J]ust over 100 years ago today, a landmark piece of American cinema was released to the American public.
Many film historians cite D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” as the start of the commercial movie industry in the United States. The drama was originally titled “The Clansman,” when it debuted in February of 1915 in Los Angeles.
“The Birth of a Nation” is based on North Carolina Baptist minister Reverend Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 anti-African-American play of the same title.
To sum it up,”The Birth of a Nation” centers around two families who are divided by the Civil War. African-Americans eventually gain political power in the pro-Confederate film until the KKK comes in to save a white population, which has been overtaken by Union troops.
Millions of white filmgoers enjoyed the patently racist images of African-Americans. But”The Birth of a Nation” also drew protests nationwide.

Birth of A Nation Poster
Poster for D.W. Griffith’s racist film, “The Birth of a Nation.”

Even in 1915, the content was so questionable that “The Birth of a Nation” was banned from being shown in multiple cities around the country.
The images in “The Birth of a Nation” helped boost membership in the KKK in the years following its release while being the catalyst for the stereotypical representations of African-Americans on the silver screen for decades.
The paradox is that the exact opposite was happening to African-Americans when the movie was released in 1915. Thanks to the passage of Jim Crow laws in 1896, which came from the “separate but equal” ruling from the Supreme Court, African-Americans faced intense prejudice in all facets of life.
Despite “The Birth of a Nation” and its barbaric portrayal of African-Americans, many were busy pioneering “Edison’s” machine and the industry it spawned after its debut, also in 1896.
Some of the artists were once slaves while others were former sons and daughters just a generation removed from their former captors.
“A lot of people assume that African-Americans just followed in the footsteps of white filmmakers,” said Cara Caddoo, an Assistant Professor at Indiana University, Bloomington. “That’s really a whitewashing of American film history.”
According to Caddoo, in the years between 1896 and 1915, there were many African-American filmmakers who displayed their films and even built their own theaters.
Her new book Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life detail the earliest African-American filmmakers.

Cara Caddoo, Assistant Professor at Indiana University, Bloomington
Cara Caddoo, an Assistant Professor at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her new book analyzes the early film industry and the earliest roles African-American’s played in revolutionizing the business.

Filmmakers like Charles Pope have been forgotten. But over 110 years ago, this forward thinking creative mind was producing shorts like “In the Devils Kitchen,” which highlighted African-American contributions to American history.
Other topics of early filmmakers included religion and traveling. These pioneers were at work decades before the rise of Hollywood, as well as other well-known black filmmakers in the 1920’s, like Oscar Micheaux.
Thanks to the Jim Crow laws, most of the filmmakers were forced to show their works in lodges, churches, schools, or anywhere possible.
And the ingenuity of African-Americans didn’t just come from producing and creating films. One of the stories Envisioning Freedom highlights is the story of Moses Fleetwood Walker.
Walker is remembered by baseball historians as the first African-American major-league baseball player, long before Jackie Robinson accomplished the feat in 1947.
After Walker’s baseball career had ended, he became a traveling motion picture exhibitor, and eventually invented a process that allowed film projectionists to switch between reels of film seamlessly.
As the motion picture film industry began to develop in the United States, racism and segregation began to limit the opportunities for African-American filmmakers.
The limitations dramatically halted a burgeoning independent industry, which since then, has regularly excluded African-Americans.
“They were fighting to reclaim a form of popular culture that they had helped create,” Caddoo said. “Tens of thousands of African-Americans participated–housewives, gangsters, ministers, and schoolchildren, from Hawaii to Massachusetts, and from the Panama Canal to Canada.”
Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life is published by Harvard University Press and is in stores now.