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Early African American filmmakers

30.12.2010

The first African American director was William Foster, whose Foster Photoplay Company opened its doors in Chicago in 1910. Lacking any camera equipment, he borrowed a portable 35 mm camera from a local photography shop and taught himself how to use it. Foster, who used his full-time job as stage manager for the Pekin Theatre to recruit actors, wrote, produced, photographed, and directed eighteen short films in 1910 and 1911. His early films included The Birth Mark (1910), The Butler (1910), and The Railroad Porter (1911), all with financing from white backers. But lacking any real distribution set-up beyond the Midwest, his company was forced to dissolve due to lack of funds. Nevertheless, he remained convinced that African Americans should make films for themselves, and his groundbreaking productions served as a model for better-known black directors who followed.


In the early 1910s, “race” films began to make their appearance throughout the United States, with all-black casts and production crews, and screened in rented halls, churches, and segregated theaters that formed an underground circuit of movie venues that catered specifically to African American audiences. A few theaters on the racially segregated TOBA (Theatre Owners Booking Agency), which specialized in live vaudeville or music hall presentations, would also occasionally run a film as part of their program. These race films, made on impoverished budgets, flourished through the late 1940s, long after the medium had converted to sound, giving blacks entertainment they could directly identify with, rather than the all-white films that Hollywood and other production centers worldwide produced. It was only as mainstream cinema began to belatedly recognize the importance of African American culture in the early 1950s to the present day that the race film market collapsed and with it, the segregated theaters in which the films were presented.


The race film was pioneered by actor Noble Johnson’s Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which he founded on 24 May 1916 with his brother George to produce films of moral uplift for African American audiences. The company’s first film, The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916), was an “up from the bootstraps” film, in which a young man leaves home to find success in the world. This was followed by the wartime drama A Trooper of Cavalry K (1917), The Sage-Brush League(1919), and Lincoln’s final film as a production company, By Right of Birth (1921). However, though these films were produced by and starred African Americans, they were all directed by Harry A. Gant, a white director who continued making all-black films into the sound era, with such productions as the musical Georgia Rose (1930). The Lincoln Motion Picture Company worked hard to gain distribution for its films, but in the end the company was forced to close its doors in 1921, and Noble Johnson went back to work as an actor in mainstream Hollywood films, appearing in numerous films in supporting roles, such as Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932), in which Johnson played a Russian Cossack.


The most prolific and important African American filmmaker in the United States during this period was Oscar Micheaux. Born on a small farm outside of Metropolis, Illinois, Micheaux started his creative career as a writer. Although his novels, such as The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913) and The Homesteader (1917) were self-published with little or no publicity, he managed to make a living for a time selling copies of them from door to door. But when the Lincoln Motion Picture Company tried to buy the rights to The Homesteader for a movie, partly in response to the release of The Birth of a Nation, he held out to direct. The company refused to accept his conditions, so he raised the money and directed the film himself in 1919. Micheaux followed this up with his searing tale of racial prejudice in modern America, Within Our Gates (1920), which he wrote and directed. With a violent story line involving rape and lynching, the film was controversial from the start, but the director kept on making films, often self-financed, and distributed them on a “state’s rights” basis, moving from town to town across the country until he had made enough money for his next production.


Micheaux made many silent films—more than twenty in all—writing the scripts, casting for actors in music halls and cabarets, completing his features in short periods on painfully low budgets, sometimes as low as $5,000. In 1925, he scored a coup with the casting of African American singer-activist Paul Robeson in the silent film Body and Soul, and then produced the first sound film directed by an African American, The Exile, in 1931. Although Micheaux’s films moved away from the then-current stereotypes of blacks as servants and comic buffoons, they failed to acknowledge the existence of black poverty in America and existed in an artificially created world in which all blacks were well off and well educated and lived in a separate-but-equal world of their own. Because of this, they were often criticized by the African American press of the era.


Micheaux’s later sound films, such as The Girl from Chicago (1932), are similarly low-budget affairs, but as time went on his work became increasingly controversial. God’s Step Children (1938) was picketed by pro-Communist groups protesting its theme of “passing for white,” something that Micheaux explored in many of his films. Having actually acquired a mainstream distributor, RKO, Micheaux was heartbroken when the company was forced to cease distribution. The director fell back into obscurity for a number of years afterward, but reemerged in 1948 with his final production, The Betrayal, which was extensively reviewed in both the black and the white press. With the rediscovery of several of Micheaux’s “lost” films—among them the revolutionary exposé The Symbol of the Unconquered (A Story of the Ku Klux Klan), made in 1920—a complete reassessment of his work is now an ongoing project for many film historians. Micheaux is undoubtedly one of the most complex and underappreciated filmmakers, and also one of the most culturally important, in American film history. Though there are many production flaws in his low-budget films, it is a miracle they were made at all in view of the unremitting racism of the period, and they stand as a testament to Micheaux’s unwavering determination as an artist and social critic.


In the wake of Micheaux’s work, several other African American filmmakers also began to enter the field, the most important of which was Spencer Williams. An actor who financed his productions through white backers, Williams broke into the race film market with the religious parable The Blood of Jesus (1941), in which he also starred, and then continued with a wide variety of genre films including Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946), an un-credited version of Somerset Maugham’s short story “Rain,” and Jivin in Be-Bop (1946, co-directed with Leonard Anderson), which served as a showcase for jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, and Ray Brown.


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