A short history of black US indie cinema

From silent pioneer Oscar Micheaux via blaxploitation and Spike Lee to little-known gems like Sidewalk Stories, we chronicle the rise of the black American indie film in five chapters.

Ashley Clark
Updated:

Sidewalk Stories (1989)

Sidewalk Stories (1989)

On Saturday 15 March, as part of the BFI’s ongoing African Odysseys strand dedicated to showcasing films of and about the international African diaspora, there is a rare screening of writer-director-star Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories (1989).

Shot in black and white and almost entirely free of diegetic sound, Sidewalk Stories follows a homeless Greenwich Village street artist (Lane), who winds up caring for  a toddler after her father is murdered. Warm, smart and sprightly, the film reportedly received a standing ovation at Cannes in 1990, and has since been cited by Michel Hazanavicius as a key influence on his Oscar-winning silent film The Artist (2011). The film was recently digitally restored, and this new version (which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2013) will screen at BFI Southbank.

Although Lane’s film is something of an oddity – and couldn’t convincingly be argued to slot into any one particular movement – it nonetheless bears distinct qualities associated with the rich history of black US independent cinema. Created entirely outside the Hollywood system, Sidewalk Stories harks back to the silent works of entrepreneurial pioneers like Oscar Micheaux, bears elements of the unvarnished social conscience inherent in the films of Charles Burnett, and displays the formal innovation and DIY ethic of contemporaneous trailblazers like Spike Lee.

In celebration of the screening of this unusual work, this survey aims to track some of the major developments, and spotlight some of the key figures involved 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 American cinema.

Before we begin, a double disclaimer: this survey could never hope to be exhaustive, and is 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 (1919-1955)

Within Our Gates (1920)

Within Our Gates (1920)

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). 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 operative in this era. Other key 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 which 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 added: “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 that trailblazers like Micheaux, Williams and Alexander had.

2. Confrontation, blaxploitation & excitation (1970-1973)

Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (1971)

Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (1971)

Save for a handful of nonfiction experiments (like William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm [1968]) and the occasional outlier (like white Jewish director Michael Roemer’s magnificent 1964 social realist drama Nothing but a Man), the 1960s were a fairly sparse time for black-themed US indie cinema. The Black Arts Movement, an offshoot of rising black nationalist political consciousness, had concentrated more on performance, literature and poetry. Cinema needed a key figure to kickstart a vigorous new trend of black independence on screen, and it got one in Melvin van Peebles.

Anyone who watched the final few moments of his wacky comedy Watermelon Man (1970) could see there was something in the air. Distributed by Columbia Pictures, it starred veteran comedian Godfrey Cambridge as a 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. 

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, and 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 film is the disturbing horror Ganja and Hess (1973). In histories, it is frequently lumped in with the blaxploitation production line, but is in fact 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, when he is discharged. 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. L.A. stories (1976-1984)

Killer of Sheep (1977)

Killer of Sheep (1977)

Although the term ‘L.A. Rebellion’ is broadly applicable to the host of young African-American film students who studied at UCLA film school from the late-1960s to the late-1980s, its most notable work fell within a narrower period. Inspired by the neorealist works of Italian filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, the movement’s 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 ‘nonstandard’ vision of black people and culture.”

The most well-known film of the L.A. Rebellion remains Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), a starkly poetic illustration of the pressures of poverty in a depressed suburb of Watts (an area that had been subject to serious rioting 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 (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 [1994].)

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Unfortunately, save for a handful of exceptions (Killer of Sheep, for example, was restored and widely rereleased 30 years after its original release), the majority of the 1970s and 80s L.A. Rebellion films are extremely difficult to see today – they have largely been confined to periodical retrospectives, limited DVD/home video runs, or the academic circuit. Still, the movement’s significance continues to resonate: in 2013, Woodberry’s tender family drama Bless Their Little Hearts (1984) 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.

4. They’ve gotta have us (1986-1994)

She's Gotta Have It (1986)

She's Gotta Have It (1986)

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’. 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), House Party (Warrington Hudlin, 1990), Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991), Straight Out of Brooklyn (Matty Rich, 1991), One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1991), Juice (Ernest Dickerson, 1992), Just Another Girl on the I.R.T (Leslie Harris, 1992) and Jason’s Lyric (Doug McHenry, 1994).

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, Dickerson, Mario Van Peebles, Singleton, Charles Lane, and Rich).

House Party (1990)

House Party (1990)

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 Wendell B. Harris, whose 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-done’s in American cinema, alongside the likes of Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter) and Barbara Loden (Wanda).

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 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 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. Lee’s stock as a feature filmmaker has fallen, but he is still an influential public figure. Meanwhile 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-)

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012)

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012)

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 the 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 underserved 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), and DuVernay’s own films I Will Follow (2011) and Middle of Nowhere (2012), which she had been striving to make since 2006. AFFRM has recently launched a concerted online membership drive, engaging vigorously with the grassroots possibilities offered by social media.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Fruitvale Station (2013)

A number of promising young talents have recently begun to emerge, many of whom have exploited the lightweight, cost-effective possibilities of digital filmmaking. Dee Rees’ debut Pariah (2011) was a beautifully observed coming-out story about a 17-year-old black girl; Terence Nance’s dazzling meta-romance An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012) is one of the most auspicious experimental debuts in a long time; Ryan Coogler won big at Sundance with Fruitvale Station (2013), a wrenching dramatisation of the final days of a California teen killed by a BART cop; and Justin Simien’s Dear White People (2014) has recently won positive notices at this year’s Sundance and South By Southwest festivals.

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 investigated the role of digital technology as a tool of community surveillance, and he recently completed a successful Kickstarter online campaign to fund his next film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.

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. DuVernay, Rees, Nance, Coogler and Simien are at the vanguard; let’s hope that they are able to forge prolific, successful careers.

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Available to buy

  • Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

    Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

    Landmark classic of black cinema and independent filmmaking, following a street hustler who goes on the run after fighting back against two racist cops.

  • Killer of Sheep

    Killer of Sheep

    The tender, witty and affectionate tale of a disillusioned slaughterhouse worker, and the solace to be found in the simplest moments of life.

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