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One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World

by Wil Haygood

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-525-65687-6
Publisher: Knopf

A chronicle of the long struggle for Black Americans to matter in movies.

Drawing on interviews with directors, actors, producers, and screenwriters, as well as published and archival sources, journalist, biographer, and Guggenheim fellow Haygood creates an encyclopedic history of Blacks’ film presence, beginning with D.W. Griffith’s scandalous epic, The Birth of a Nation. Aired in Woodrow Wilson’s White House in 1915, the movie, based on a novel about the Ku Klux Klan, soon attracted more than 25 million viewers nationwide, inciting vociferous protests among Blacks. A few years later, the enterprising farmer Oscar Micheaux offered a stark counterpoint to Griffith’s movie when he filmed The Homesteader, based on his own life. Micheaux went on to produce many other movies, casting Paul Robeson in one and, in 1930, adding talking pictures. Other movies, though, depicted Blacks in the stereotypical roles—e.g., servants and maids—that would persist for decades; between 1903 and 1927, for example, nine films were made of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1939, Hattie McDaniel—who already had appeared in more than a dozen films—was cast as Mammy in Gone With the Wind and won an Oscar. Unfortunately, her career stagnated afterward for lack of roles. Haygood provides intriguing capsule biographies of each of his large cast of characters, including superstars Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Denzel Washington; directors Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, Steve McQueen, Jordan Peele, and Spike Lee; and groundbreaking actors Lena Horne, Diana Sands, Diana Ross, and Cicely Tyson. Many were nominated for Oscars only to lose out to their White colleagues. Other episodes from the entertainment world include scandals that erupted over interracial love affairs; George Gershwin’s tireless efforts to stage Porgy and Bess; the advent of Black action heroes in the 1970s; and incremental visibility over the years. In 1949, four movies dealt with anti-Black racism; in 1977, Roots became “the most watched TV miniseries of all time.”

A well-researched history of frustrations, defiance, and bold dreams—good for movie buffs and civil rights historians alike.