We Weren’t Always Toms, Coons, Mammies and Bucks; The Forgotten History of Black Americans In Hollywood

Written by Storyteller

American cinema has never been particularly kind to folks. As blacks moved north into cities with burgeoning movie palaces and industrial jobs and laws designed to keep them impoverished and on the margins, filmic representation of black life—limited for most of the time between World War I and Vietnam to “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks,” as historian Donald Bogle put it in 1973—was the lens through which American society viewed blacks.1 

Anyone who took silver screen representations of blacks at face value would come away with the notion that black folks were, by and large, stupid, cowardly, lazy and worthy of subjugation, censure and plunder. That this is just how America has largely treated its population both before and since is no accident. When the blustery but occasionally insightful critic Armond White said “you have a culture of criticism that simply doesn’t want Black people to have any kind of power, any kind of spiritual understanding or artistic understanding of themselves,” he wasn’t wrong.

 “A Road Three Hundred Years Long: Cinema and the Great Migration,” a series at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that began last Monday and runs through June 12th, provides a much-needed corrective, a narrative of black resistance to the dominant mode of slanderous Hollywood storytelling—both now and, somewhat miraculously, in the days of Jim Crow. Curated by MoMA’s Joshua Siegel and independent curator Thomas Beard of Light Industry, the country’s leading micro-cinema for experimental film, the exhibition is pegged to the Museum’s show of Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration paintings. “A Road Three Hundred Years Long” includes many films that catered to black audiences in the era of their flight from terror, showcasing a significant amount of pre-war black filmmaking as well as movies by contemporary black filmmakers that explore the mysterious legacy of the Great Migration.

Blacks were unable to go to segregated movie theaters in the south except under special circumstances—“midnight rambles,” for example, which were late night screenings of popular films and black-themed movies for black patrons that were barred during the day. But some black owned movie theaters persisted and some of the work shown there, both home movies and narrative features, found appreciative pre-war audiences. MoMA’s program includes many of these films, as well as WPA-style proletarian news reels and avant-garde non-fiction films, to showcase images of black life that—despite the specter of prejudice—highlight unadorned, provincially black, middle class normality in a way that is painfully rare. These spaces have largely escaped Hollywood visions of black American life, obsessed as they are with broad stereotype (see this summer’s Dope) or elegantly rendered historical struggle (Selma, 12 Years a Slave).

But for black experimentalists (like Kevin Jerome Everson, who directedCompany Line) or great, sadly underemployed black narrative directors—like Charles Burnett, who made To Sleep with Anger, and Julie Dash, who did Daughters of the Dust—the forgotten spaces of black American life provide wonderful fodder for exploring the mysterious resilience of black middle class life.

The program’s most interesting discoveries are rooted further in the past. Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams were the only African Americans to make narrative feature films in the years before the Civil Rights Movement and they are very much at the center of “A Road Three Hundred Years Long.”Several works by Micheaux, the most prolific of the black pre-war filmmakers, are on display, including his 1920 film The Symbol of the Unconquered. A rejoinder of sorts to The Birth of a Nation, it remains one of the watershed moments in black film history.

Meanwhile, Williams’s work is the subject of the documentary Juke: Passages from the films of Spencer Williams, a series-opening compilation film by noted found footage documentarian Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself). Williams is known more as the star of the popular early ’50s sitcom the Amos ‘n’ Andy than as a groundbreaking independent filmmaker.


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