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Forgotten African American Women of Early Hollywood

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Here’s a really important new exhibition at the California African American Museum; above, Iris Hall as Eve Mason in The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), directed by Oscar Micheaux.

As the notes for exhibition outline, “curated by Tyree Boyd-Pates, History Curator and Program Manager, CAAM, and the Tyree Boyd-Pates, Center Stage [is] an exhibition that considers pioneering African American filmmakers and production companies in the early 20th century that provided African American women the opportunity to participate in front of, and behind, the camera. They challenged disparaging portrayals of black women in Hollywood, and instead conveyed their wit, intelligence, and talent for largely black audiences to admire and emulate. The exhibition runs from June 28 to October 15, 2017.

Produced for American audiences between 1910 and 1950, these motion pictures were commonly called race films. CAAM will screen several rarely seen examples, including Oscar Micheaux‘s Within Our Gates (1920) and The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), extant clips from Lincoln Picture Company’s The Symbol of the Unconquered (1921, dir. Harry Grant), The Scar of Shame (1929), The Scar of Shame (1941, dir. Spencer Williams), and others. Each film features women protagonists and captures the spirit of entrepreneurship and African American upliftment characteristic of race films from this era.”

As Nadra Nittle adds in an article on the series on the KCET website, “Hollywood has long had a problem with representation and diversity, especially concerning anyone female and nonwhite. In the first half of the 20th century, black women were largely relegated to playing mammy and Jezebel roles. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation even depicted African Americans as rapists and imbeciles, leading to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The black woman’s unfortunate standing in Hollywood history is why the California African American Museum’s “Center Stage: African American Women in Silent Race Films,” which runs until October 15, is so significant. It reveals how as early as 100 years ago, independent black filmmakers presented complex portrayals of women of color that major studios never fathomed. These silent gems depict black women exploring their religious faith, fighting for the rights of African Americans and in loving relationships. They underscore how even today Hollywood has much ground to cover in its depiction of black women.”

I have been running these films in my classes for years, way back in the 1970s in the 16mm era, when they were first made available in prints from the original 35mm negatives. But with the passing of time, it seems that people forget, and new generations need to be reminded, of the immense value of these works – films, directors, and actors who made an enormous and indelible contribution to the history of the cinema. Not only are these films an essential part of cinema history; they offer an effective antidote to the evils of D.W. Griffith’s ultra-racist Birth of A Nation, which is still being widely screened while these far superior films are neglected. It’s time to change that – forever.

This is an amazing chance to see these key works; don’t miss it if you’re in Los Angeles.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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