As the #OscarsSoWhite controversy raged over the dearth of people of color nominated for Academy Awards last year, a group of UCLA digital humanities students were rebuilding the little-known story of silent films made for and by African Americans in the early 20th century.
The result of their efforts, the “Early African American Film: Reconstructing the History of Silent Race Films, 1909–1930” website and database, not only tracks the African-American actors, crew members, writers, producers and other artists who made films during the silent era, but also shows how these artists were deeply entwined in the history of filmmaking.
The project was led by Miriam Posner, program coordinator and core faculty member for Digital Humanities at UCLA. She says that “even though there aren’t that many surviving films, those that do survive show the emergence of alternate narrative structures and modes of characterization — a picture of black life in the first half of the 20th century that’s so much more rich and complex than we’re used to seeing in mainstream film.”
The African-American film community in the early 1900s was vibrant, but struggled to gain mainstream traction. Films like those produced by the Hampton and Tuskegee institutes — A Trip to Tuskegee (1909), John Henry at Hampton (1913) and A Day at Tuskegee (1913) — could be shown only in certain theaters or in African-American churches, to segregated audiences. What’s even more tragic is that the films deteriorated over time because the reels were not preserved in hermetically sealed vaults.
The students worked closely with UCLA Library Special Collections, combing through old journals, production notes and posters to reconstruct what was once a thriving network of African-American writers, directors, actors and producers making what were known as “race films.” These movies featured African-American casts, were produced independently, and were discussed or advertised as race films in the African-American press.
A central figure in the students’ exploration was Oscar Micheaux, author, filmmaker and founder of the Micheaux Film Corporation, one of the most prominent producers of the era’s race films. Micheaux kept copious notes and records of the actors and crew members he worked with, providing material for the students’ research.
“I wanted to be a part of telling the stories of this generation of African-American people and their contributions,” says researcher Shanya Norman ’16. “The fact that the #OscarsSoWhite controversy blew up at the same time made this project feel even more relevant and important.”