Black voices in silent cinema

In a film industry that was not just white but often explicitly racist, Black writers, directors and stars still made their mark.

23 August 2020

By Pamela Hutchinson

Sight and Sound
Bahamian-American vaudeville comedian Bert Williams, described by W.C. Fields as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew”
Getty Images

The earliest Black characters in mainstream cinema reflected the worst stereotypes and caricatures that proliferated elsewhere, in books and on stage. Donald Bogle identifies the first Black character in a silent film as Uncle Tom, in a 1903 adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. In his landmark study Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks (1973), Bogles delineated how between that film and the apotheosis of Hollywood racism that was The Birth of a Nation (1915), the stereotypes of his book’s title became hard-wired into white filmmakers’ use of Black characters.

But there was an alternative. As the artistic and cultural boom we know now as the Harlem Renaissance took off in New York and made its effects felt in Paris and beyond, Black performers, directors and writers created an independent cinema that positioned itself in opposition to the racist messaging coming out of the commercial studios.

Financially, these ‘race films’ were precarious, but they had immediate, and lasting, impact. As the film scholar Jacqueline Stewart has written, in an introduction to Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray box-set of early African-American cinema: “It was a rare and complicated experience for Black viewers to see race movies. These films could be validating because they were made specifically with Black audiences in mind. They could also be endearing, and embarrassing, for their low-budget inability to match the production values of the Hollywood films that served as the norm.”

William D. Foster was the first African American to establish a film company, the Foster Photoplay Company, in 1910, with the express aim of correcting the negative representations that were the norm. Its 1912 film The Railroad Porter is thought to be the world’s first with an all-Black cast and director. The company folded after a few years but it had successors, such as the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, founded by the actor Noble Johnson.

Ten Nights in a Barroom (1926)

There were early Black stars too, such as Bert Williams, a vaudeville comedian who took the lead in films such as A Natural Born Gambler (1916). Later, in the 1920s, revered Black stage actors (and rivals) Charles Sidney Gilpin and Paul Robeson would dip their toes into film, respectively with the temperance drama Ten Nights in a Barroom (1926) and Body and Soul (1925), directed by Oscar Micheaux.

Ten Nights in a Barroom, the Gilpin film, was made by a Philadelphia-based studio called The Colored Players Film Corporation, a producer of silent melodramas with all-Black casts, though white directors. The scholar and filmmaker Manthia Diawara has described the best of its work and that of Micheaux as “a genre of Black independent cinema which puts Black people and their culture at the centre as subjects of narrative development; in these films, Black people are neither marginalized as a problem, nor singled out as villainous stereotypes such as Hollywood constructs in its films.”

Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux was the most famous director of race films in the silent era and probably the most successful Black filmmaker in the first half of the 20th century. He was a multi-hyphenate novelist/director/producer whose mission went further than avoiding typeacting. “It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state,” he wrote, “that we can raise our people to greater heights.”

He was also an astute salesman, who marketed his stars in relation to comparable Hollywood celebrities: Lorenzo Tucker was the ‘Black Valentino’, Bee Freeman the ‘sepia Mae West’.

His films, including The Homesteader (1919) and Birthright (1924), tackle social issues, including racism, head on; they also seem to be in dialogue with popular white-authored plays and films on the same topics. Within Our Gates (1920) has widely been interpreted as a riposte to The Birth of a Nation, for example, and depicts racist violence, including a lynching. In narrative terms, Micheaux’s films are complex and make substantial use of flashbacks and plot reveals.

Micheaux’s success meant he weathered storms many other independent Black filmmakers could not. However, the tradition of the race film continued into the 1950s, and although many of the films are now lost, the work of the silent pioneers who, in Bogle’s words, “kept the faith for as long as they could and for a long time before it was fashionable” has plenty to recommend it, and still serves as a vital and refreshing counterblast to the prevailing winds from Hollywood.


Eight key Black performers and directors of the silent era

1. Bert Williams

Bert Williams

Bahamian-American vaudeville comedian Bert Williams was described by W.C. Fields as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew”. He broke boundaries on Broadway and in cinema, and is said to be the first Black American to play leads, in films such as 1914’s Darktown Jubilee.

2. Ernest Trimmingham

Jack, Sam and Pete (1919)

Bermuda-born actor Ernest Trimmingham (sometimes spelled Trimingham) moved to England to act on stage, but is thought to have made his film debut in 1912, with The Adventures of Dick Turpin for the British and Colonial Film Company. His biggest film role was as Pete in Jack, Sam and Pete (1919).

3. Luther Pollard

Luther Pollard worked at the Ebony Film Corporation, a white-owned outfit making comedies with Black casts, producing films such as Two Knights of Vaudeville (1915). Especially after he became president of the company, he tried to steer the studio away from racist caricatures and prove that “colored players can put over good comedy without any of that crap shooting, chicken stealing, razor display, watermelon eating stuff that the colored people generally have been a little disgusted in seeing”.

4. Ethel and Lucia Lynn Moses

Sisters Ethel and Lucia Lynn Moses are two of the most famous faces in silent race films. Ethel was a sex symbol (the ‘negro Harlow’) who starred in Micheaux’s films; Lucia appeared in Colored Players Film Corporation’s stunning melodrama The Scar of Shame (1929, excerpted above). They also had careers on Broadway and performed at the Cotton Club.

5. Oscar Micheaux

The pre-eminent name among Black American independent filmmakers in the silent and early sound era, Micheaux directed his first film in 1919. The novelist-turned-director made more than 44 feature films – stirring, sophisticated dramas that openly commented on racism within society and in mainstream theatre and cinema.

6. Paul Robeson

Best known for his sound films, his singing voice and his activism, Paul Robeson claimed his film career began in the sound era, but he had already starred in two culturally significant silent features: he took a formidable dual role in Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925) and also starred in Kenneth Macpherson’s avant-garde drama of an interracial relationship, Borderline (1930, excerpted above).

7. Richard D. Maurice

Born in Cuba, Richard D. Maurice moved to Detroit as a child and founded the Maurice Film Company in 1920. It produced two features, the lost film Nobody’s Children (1920) and the daringly experimental Eleven P.M. (1928), considered one of the best and most innovative silent race films, praised for its cinematography, special effects and surrealist style.

8. Josephine Baker

A true icon of the Jazz Age, dancer, actress and activist Josephine Baker found fame in Paris in the mid-1920s. One of her most famous routines was her Danse Sauvage, which she performed almost naked save for a skirt made of bananas. In 1927, she became the first Black woman to star in a major film release, when she took the lead role in Siren of the Tropics (trailed above), directed by Mario Nalpas and Henri Etiévant.

Originally published: 23 August 2020