A short history of black US indie cinema

From silent pioneer Oscar Micheaux via blaxploitation and Spike Lee to the sensational acclaim for Moonlight, we chronicle the rise of the black American indie film in five chapters.

Ashley Clark

Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight (2016)

There are many reasons to celebrate Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a wonderfully realised cinematic adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Its sensitive, insightful portrait of a young African American working through his identity is a vital riposte to hackneyed portrayals of masculinity on screen. It is beautifully acted – the three hitherto unknown quantities playing main character Chiron at different ages (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) give vibrant breakthrough performances. And it’s also a marvel of craft, with James Laxton’s rich, atmospheric cinematography, Nicholas Britell’s innovative urban-classical score and subtle, sinewy editing from Joi McMillon (the first black woman to be Oscar-nominated for the award) combining to create an immersive whole.

Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight (2016)

Another reason is that it marks the long-awaited return of director Jenkins, whose debut, the gorgeous, micro-budget romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy, was made in 2008 and given a limited release in US cinemas on 30 January 2009, 10 days after the inauguration of Barack Obama. In the insta-jaundiced age of Trump, this feels like a lifetime ago. Given the historical difficulty for black filmmakers working outside the mainstream to build and sustain prolific careers, one might have been forgiven for thinking that we’d heard the last of Jenkins. The magnificent Moonlight firmly puts paid to that idea.

In celebration of Jenkins’ success, this survey aims to track some of the major developments and key figures in black American independent cinema. These films and figures have striven to create diverse stories of black self-determination and provide correctives to the frequently conservative, paternalistic and repressive representation of African Americans that has historically existed in mainstream American cinema.

Before we begin, a double disclaimer: this survey could never hope to be exhaustive. It’s intended as a primer – a window into a rich history of diverse, often sadly underappreciated cinema (the indefatigable Tyler Perry, for example, deserves an entire article devoted his output). Secondly, the meaning of the word ‘indie’ remains nebulous and hotly contested to this day. While a handful of the films mentioned may have benefited from limited studio financing or distribution, the vast majority have been independently conceived and funded outside the Hollywood system. Moreover, they all display an unmistakable independence of vision.

1. Early breakthroughs (1919-55)

The key early black American independent filmmaker was the Illinois-born Oscar Micheaux, who founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company of Sioux City in Chicago. Its first project was the production of his own novel, The Homesteader, as a feature film in 1919. His follow-up, the extraordinary Within Our Gates (1920) was an impassioned response to D.W. Griffith’s racist epic The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Within Our Gates (1920)

Within Our Gates (1920)

Micheaux went on to produce and direct a host of innovative silents and, later, talkies, on his own terms. He was in the minority in that he owned his own production company (most were owned by white entrepreneurs who used unionised white technicians), but there was nevertheless a number of black directors, producers and screenwriters operating in this era. Other important figures included actor-director Spencer Williams (whose jaw-dropping 1941 film The Blood of Jesus is one of the great ‘race’ movies about religion) and William Alexander, who would become a key producer.

Their films drew significant audiences too. The first black independent filmmakers began making films for (de jure) segregated theatres in the south and (de facto) segregated theatres in the north. There were over 1,000 theatres in America that screened black-audience films either exclusively or on a preferential basis. According to archivist G. William Jones (who in the 1980s supervised a major restoration project of early black film), 1921 was a peak year for distribution within this integrated production/distribution/exhibition system. This system lasted until the mid-1950s.

The early black film movement ground to a halt for a number of reasons, one of which, intriguingly, was integration. On this matter, the late actor and director Ossie Davis wrote: “Integration dislocate[d] many of the structures we had in our community by which we expressed ourselves economically, culturally, religiously and otherwise.”

The producer Barbara Bryant has noted: “There were more blacks being included in white films, and there was a promise and a hope that this was going to be a bigger reality as integration progressed.” A further complicating factor in the production of black independent cinema in the era was rising costs: as America became increasingly market-oriented, it grew increasingly difficult to make features on the miniscule budgets exploited by trailblazers like Micheaux, Williams and Alexander.

In recent times, the era’s ‘race movies’ have enjoyed a revival thanks to a major restoration project orchestrated by US distributor Kino Lorber and partially funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign. The resulting box set, Pioneers of African-American Cinema, was recently released in the UK by the BFI.

2. Confrontation, blaxploitation & excitation (1960-73)

Indelibly marked by the titanic struggle for African American civil rights, the 1960s were a tumultuous decade, and hardly a prolific time for black US indie cinema; the Black Arts Movement, an offshoot of rising black nationalist political consciousness, concentrated more on performance, literature and poetry. There were some outstanding exceptions, however. One of the best films of the 1960s – and reportedly a favourite of Malcolm X – was Deep South drama Nothing but a Man (1964). Directed by white Jewish filmmaker Michael Roemer, it is a stark yet tender evocation of racism’s effects on the body and soul.

Nothing but a Man (1964)

Nothing but a Man (1964)

The era also gave rise to a number of independent black documentarians, including St Clair Bourne, William Greaves and Madeline Anderson, whose first film, Integration Report 1 (1960), offered a panoramic overview of the civil rights movement, intimately capturing marches, sit-ins, rallies and boycotts. All three spent time working at Black Journal, the first nationally broadcast black news magazine, launched in 1968. Greaves’s meta-vérité anomaly Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968), meanwhile, was a self-reflexive investigation of the directorial process that remains without obvious parallel, although Greaves, who died in 2014, made a sequel (Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 ½) in 2005.

Narrative fiction cinema needed a key figure to kickstart a vigorous new trend of black independence on screen, and it got one in Melvin Van Peebles. He made an auspicious debut with the French New Wave-inspired drama The Story of a Three-day Pass (1968), about a black GI in Paris. Anyone who watched the final few moments of his wacky follow-up, Watermelon Man (1970), could see there was something in the air. Distributed by Columbia Pictures, it starred veteran comedian Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff, a cocky, racist white man, who one day awakes to discover – to his horror – that he is black. The film ambles along with a combination of smart satire and creaky, dubious humour, but its denouement is jaw-dropping. Jeff, having come to terms with his blackness, is seen practicing martial arts with a group of black militants. The final freeze-frame shows Jeff mid-punch, fury-faced, ready to fight. 

Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (1971)

Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (1971)

Despite Watermelon Man’s radical overtones, Columbia was happy with the finished product and offered Van Peebles a three-picture contract, which he summarily rejected. His next move was to craft the hostile, explicit exploitation film Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (1971). Responding to its fierce, sexy promotion of by-any-means-necessary self-actualisation, Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton dubbed it “the first truly revolutionary Black film ever made… presented to us by a Black man”.

It was Black Power cinema manifest and satisfied a craving among many in the post-civil rights-era black community for screen representation that departed from the saintly, white liberal-friendly likes of Sidney Poitier (which is not to denigrate Poitier’s importance). Van Peebles’ contemporary Gordon Parks would soon become Hollywood’s first major black director. His actioner Shaft (1971), starring Richard Roundtree as a “black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks”, helped to kick off the trend of blaxploitation that would run, prolifically, into the mid-1970s.

Ganja and Hess (1973)

Ganja and Hess (1973)

Another key figure in this volatile era was the maverick multi-hyphenate Bill Gunn, who wrote Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970). Gunn’s most well-known work as a director is the disturbing horror Ganja & Hess (1973). In histories, it is frequently lumped in with the blaxploitation production line, but in fact it’s a rich and complex critique of intra-class tensions in the black community.

Equally bracing that year was Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door, based on the bestselling novel by Sam Greenlee. It starred the charismatic Lawrence Cook as a man recruited by the CIA who learns – and subsequently puts into action – the techniques of urban guerrilla warfare on the streets of Chicago. Though an immediate box office success, it drew the attention of the FBI, who nixed almost all of the prints. This highlighted the strength of establishment resistance to such challenging fare.

For further viewing on this era’s black independent cinema, Howard Johnson’s informative, underrated documentary Black Hollywood: Blaxploitation and Advancing an Independent Black Cinema (1984) is highly recommended.

3. LA stories (1976-84)

Although the term ‘LA Rebellion’ is broadly applicable to the host of young African American and African film students who studied at UCLA film school from the late-1960s to the early 90s, the movement’s most notable work fell within a narrower period. Inspired by the neorealist works of Italian filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, its key members included Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Billy Woodberry, Haile Gerima and Larry Clark. Of their poetic, unorthodox work, historian James Snead wrote: “[T]heir films protest against the form and content of the tradition they were being taught. Their chief ambition was to rewrite the standard cinematic language of cuts, fades, frame composition, and camera movement in order to represent their own ‘non-standard’ vision of black people and culture.”

Killer of Sheep (1978)

Killer of Sheep (1978)

The most well-known film of the LA Rebellion remains Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978), a starkly poetic illustration of the pressures of poverty in a depressed suburb of Watts (an area marked by explosive social unrest in the previous decade). Other key works include Gerima’s polemical Bush Mama (1979), about the political radicalisation of a black woman, and Clark’s Passing Through (1977), a similarly political character study about a jazz musician facing a radical change in circumstances.

Though never mainstream concerns, these filmmakers would continue to create challenging cinema decades into the future, including Julie Dash’s black feminist classic Daughters of the Dust (1991), Burnett’s teasing, tricky To Sleep with Anger (1990) and Gerima’s blistering sci-fi/slavery drama Sankofa (1993).

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

In 2013, Woodberry’s tender family drama Bless Their Little Hearts (1983) followed Killer of Sheep in being selected by the US National Film Registry to be included for preservation as a film that was culturally, historically and aesthetically significant. More recently, following a lengthy period during which the majority of these films were unavailable, a UCLA-authored restoration project has ushered a tremendous body of work back into the light. A retrospective programme, LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, toured widely, while a comprehensive book bearing the same name has also been published. The work of the movement’s leading lights resonates with contemporary artists: for example, the tonal and visual influence of Daughters of the Dust was clearly manifest in Beyoncé’s innovative Lemonade (2016).

(A related note: a brilliant 2015 programme at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, Tell It like It Is: Black Independents in New York: 1968-86, unearthed a panoply of work from unheralded black indie filmmakers working on the opposite coast, including Jessie Maple (Will, 1981; Twice as Nice, 1989) and the late Kathleen Collins, whose stunning 1982 feminist drama Losing Ground is one of the great rediscoveries of the 21st century.)

4. They’ve gotta have us (1986-94)

In his first year studying film at NYU, the young Spike Lee was clearly looking to emulate Oscar Micheaux when he made a 20-minute short called The Answer, about a black screenwriter hired to write the $50m remake of The Birth of a Nation. Lee’s iconoclasm didn’t go down well with his superiors, who recommended he be removed from the course. Yet Lee stuck around, graduated, and became the driving force behind what would come to be heralded by many pundits as the ‘New Black Wave’.

She's Gotta Have It (1986)

She's Gotta Have It (1986)

His feature debut, She’s Gotta Have It (1986), a funny, formally adventurous, sui generis study of love and sex among young black New Yorkers, proved particularly influential, while the political hot potato Do the Right Thing (1989), to misquote Michael Caine in The Italian Job, blew the bloody doors off.

Key films of the post-She’s Gotta Have It era included Hollywood Shuffle (Robert Townsend, 1987), Sidewalk Stories (Charles Lane, 1989), House Party (Reginald Hudlin, 1990), Boyz n the Hood (John Singleton, 1991), Straight out of Brooklyn (Matty Rich, 1991), One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992), Juice (Ernest Dickerson, 1992), Just Another Girl on the I.R.T (Leslie Harris, 1992) and Jason’s Lyric (Doug McHenry, 1994).

Sidewalk Stories (1989)

Sidewalk Stories (1989)

These diverse, energetic films shone a light on a variety of black American experiences and were mostly met with enthusiastic critical and audience responses. The 14 July 1991 issue of New York Times Magazine ran a cover story entitled “They’ve Gotta Have Us: Hollywood’s Black Directors”, which illustrated the extent to which black filmmakers had permeated the popular consciousness. (This notably masculine Murderer’s Row featured Lee, the Hudlin brothers, Ernest Dickerson, Mario Van Peebles, John Singleton, Charles Lane and Matty Rich).

The post-She’s Gotta Have It period also saw the emergence of a few maverick filmmakers – perhaps emboldened by Lee’s breakthrough – making challenging, non-mainstream work. One was Marlon Riggs, who struck an all-too-rare blow for the representation of gay African American life with his documentary Tongues Untied (1989); another was Cheryl Dunye, whose playful The Watermelon Woman (1996) looked at the history of the representation of black women in film through a lesbian lens. Wendell B. Harris Jr’s Sundance award-winning Chameleon Street (1989), a disturbing fictionalisation of the story of a prolific real-life con man, qualifies its director as one of the great one-and-dones in American cinema, alongside the likes of Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter) and Barbara Loden (Wanda).

House Party (1990)

House Party (1990)

However, though the early 90s ostensibly represented a boom time for black filmmakers, Harris became the butt of a spiteful industry gag: “All you have to do to get a production deal in Hollywood today is be black, male and NOT Wendell Harris.” Perhaps his film, like The Spook Who Sat by the Door before it, made people too uncomfortable?

It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact end-date for this so-called ‘New Black Wave’, but the number of sharp, original works seems to have declined by the mid-90s. Few of the cited filmmakers, facing a lack of funding and opportunities, were able to build solid bodies of work and urban-based narratives began to calcify into either the ‘hood movie’ genre or derivative comedies. Still, some of the era’s key figures remain active today. House Party’s Reginald Hudlin became only the fourth black producer to be nominated for the best picture Oscar for his role in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012).

5. Democracy and digital futures (2008-)

As cinema has moved more concretely into the digital realm, the medium has become democratised and new spaces for independent cinematic storytelling have opened up.

At the forefront of contemporary black indie cinema is writer-director Ava DuVernay, who in 2011 founded AFFRM – the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement. Using her prior experience as a film publicist and marketer, DuVernay launched the organisation to connect under-served black audiences with films that played like gangbusters on the black festival circuit but were unable to secure mainstream distribution.

To date, AFFRM has released films including Alrick Brown’s Kinyarwanda (2011), Andrew Dosunmu’s Restless City (2011), DuVernay’s own films I Will Follow (2010) and Middle of Nowhere (2012) and Haile Gerima’s lost classic Ashes and Embers (1982). AFFRM has recently launched a concerted online membership drive, engaging vigorously with the grassroots possibilities offered by social media.

DuVernay has herself forged an impressive career, culminating in a recent Oscar nomination for 13th (2016), her documentary about the deliberate institutional maintenance of American racism.

In the past decade, a number of promising young talents emerged, many of whom exploited the lightweight, cost-effective possibilities of digital filmmaking. Dee Rees’ debut, Pariah (2011), a precursor to Moonlight, was a beautifully observed coming-out story about a 17-year-old black girl. Rees is now on the cusp of graduating to the big leagues with the Second World War race relations drama Mudbound, a hit at Sundance 2017. 

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Terence Nance’s dazzling meta-romance An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012) is one of the most auspicious experimental debuts in a long time. Before Ryan Coogler had a studio hit with Creed (2015), he broke through at Sundance with Fruitvale Station (2013), a wrenching dramatisation of the final days of a black Californian killed by a BART cop. Justin Simien’s satirical film Dear White People (2014) began its life as an online project and will soon be adapted into a show on Netflix, illustrating the fluidity of contemporary mediums. Other names to watch include Ja’Tovia Gary (An Ecstatic Experience), Janicza Bravo (Lemon), Darius Clark Monroe (Evolution of a Criminal), Flying Lotus (KUSO) and the absurdly talented music video director Kahlil Joseph.

Meanwhile, even uncle Spike is getting in on the act. An early proponent of digital filmmaking (see 2000’s Bamboozled), his underrated Red Hook Summer (2012) investigated the role of digital technology as a tool of community surveillance, and in 2014 he completed a successful Kickstarter online campaign to fund his remake of Ganja & Hess, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Ever traversing new ground, Lee subsequently made gun-violence drama Chi-Raq (2015), which became the first original feature to be produced by Amazon Studios.

In this newly democratised climate, there is once again a palpable buzz around black American independent cinema. While we should always be wary of constructing narratives (they can distort thematic diversity, silo filmmakers and create unhelpful expectations), the future looks bright.

An earlier version of this article was published in March 2014

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