Black Cinema Of The Early 20th Century – Talking About The Movies In 1971 – Past Daily Weekend Pop Chronicles
Free Time – Black Films Of The Early 20th Century – Discussion – November 18, 1971 – NET –
Since we’re in the middle of Academy Awards Weekend, I can’t think of a better time to take a look and an examination of film history in the early 20th century, when Movies were amusement and the epitome of high tech -all during the era of Segregation.
This episode of Free Time, an African-American discussion series which aired weekly over NET, before it was PBS, with host Julius Lester featured an episode entitled “Black Films From The Early 20th Century”. The program featured prominent Black film historian Pearl Bowser along with stars from the period of the silents through to the early talkies; Anita Bush, Carl Mahon and Lorenzo Tucker. The discussion is a fascinating glimpse into the early history of cinema and in particular the beginnings and growth of Black Cinema in America during the era of Segregation.
One of the pioneers of this movement was Oscar Michaux, a filmmaker, producer and writer who was instrumental in establishing films by, about and for African-American audiences during a time when mainstream (i.e. White) cinema relegated actors of color to either comedic or incidental roles and was vehemently against black-themed films receiving any sort of wide distribution. It was figures like Michaux and many others (there was a burgeoning Black film community going back as far as 1916) who sought to create their own distribution and even their own theaters in predominately black neighborhoods as a way of combatting the racial division at the time.
But as was discussed in the course of the program, it wasn’t easy – most attempts were met with failure and even a successful figure like Michaux was always struggling from one picture to another just to keep financially afloat.
At the time of this broadcast, it was estimated that 80% of all Black films during the early period of the 20th century are lost. And of those remaining 20%, many are frustrating excerpts or incomplete feature films.
Pearl Bowser, who acts as a sort of guide through this period was at the forefront of the discovery and preservation as well as awareness of the genre to many who thought it had never existed or was simply lost and the stuff of legend. It is a process that continues to this day, and as technology has made it possible for many deteriorating films to be restored, that history is becoming more available to future generations to view, study and understand a vital and important part of Cinema history.
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