A History of Black Cinema: 1915-1969

Lincoln Motion Picture Company

The Lincoln Motion Picture Company

In most American silent films, minorities were generally played by white actors in make-up. When actual minorities were cast, roles were generally limited. Latinos in silent films usually played greasers and bandits; Asian-Americans played waiters, tongs and laundrymen; and blacks usually played bellboys, stable hands, maids or simple buffoons. Early film depictions of black characters were highly offensive, including those in the films Nigger in the Woodpile, Rastus, Sambo and The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon. Not surprisingly, both Asian-Americans and blacks responded by launching their own alternative cinemas. But whilst Asian-American Silent Cinema quickly faltered, black cinema (blessed with a much larger audience) flourished and soon many so-called race movies were being made by both black and white filmmakers for black filmgoers.

Lincoln Motion Picture Company Oscar Micheaux  Norman Studios

The first film company devoted to the production of race movies was the Chicago-based Ebony Film Company, which began operation in 1915. The first black-owned film company was The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, founded by the famous Missourian actor Noble Johnson in 1916. However, the biggest name in race movies was and remains Oscar Micheaux, an Illinois-born director who started The Micheaux Book & Film Company in 1919 and went on to direct at least forty films with predominantly black casts for black audiences. Also in 1919, seeing how lucrative the growing race movie market was, Jacksonville, Florida’s Norman Film Manufacturing Company switched tracks and began making race films, starting with an all black remake of one of their earlier films.


The Realization of a Negro's Ambition Black and Tan Mix Up The Green Eyed Monster A Man's Duty Our Colored Fighters

Aladdin Jones and The Two Knights of Vaudeville (both 1915), Money Talks in Darktown and The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (both 1916), A Trooper of Troop K, Dat Blackhand Waitah Man, Devil For a Day, The Hypocrites, The Law of Nature, Shine Johnson and the Rabbit’s Foot and Wrong All Around (all 1917), Are Working Girls Safe?, Billy the Janitor, Black and Tan Mix Up, A Black Sherlock Holmes, The Bully, A Busted Romance, The Comeback of Barnacle Bill, Firing the Fakir, Good Luck in Old Clothes, Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled, Our Colored FightersA Reckless Rover, Some Baby, Spooks, Spying the Spy, When You Are Scared, Run and When You Hit, Hit Hard (all 1918), The Green-Eyed Monster, The Homesteader and A Man’s Duty (all 1919)


Charles R. Moore Dora Dean Ernest "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison

Charles R. Moore, Dora Dean, Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison,

Evelyn Preer Jack Johnson Noble Johnson

Evelyn Preer, Jack Johnson, Noble Johnson,

Rex Ingram Samuel "Sambo" Jacks Tim Moore

Rex Ingram, Samuel “Sambo” Jacks and Tim Moore

Other actors who got there start in the ’10s but whom aren’t pictured: Anita Brown, Anita Thompson, Beulah Hall, Bert Murphy, Blue Washington, Charles D. Lucas, Clarence Brooks, Cleo Desmond, Ethel Smith, Evon Skekeeter, Florence McClain, Frank L. Wilson, Frank Pollard, Harry Tracey, Iris Hall, Jimmy Marshall, John Wesley Jenkins, Julia Mason, Mattie Edwards, Mildred Price, Robert Duree, Robert Stewart, Rudolph Tatum, Sam Robinson, Steve Reynolds, Walter Brogsdale, Webb King, Will Starks and Yvonne Junior.

Colored Players Film Company Buck & Bubbles

In the 1920s, more film companies sprang up to exploit the black film audience. Royal Gardens Film Company of Chicago made only one race film. In 1922, Blackburn Velde Productions also made just one film, a vehicle for boxer/actor Jack Johnson. In Kansas City, Missouri there were several black-owned film companies: The Andlauer Film Company, Progress Picture Producing Association, Gate City Feature Films and Turpin Films. In 1926, the Colored Players Film Corporation was founded by white producer David Starkman. The Original Lafayette Players was the first major professional black drama company in the country, founded back in 1915, but they didn’t get into film until 1928. From 1929 to 1930, Monte Brice Productions existed as a vehicle for the black duo Buck & Bubbles. In 1929, The Christie Film Country began making all-black talkies. In 1929, Fox made Hearts in Dixie.


Within Our Gates The Burden of Race The Call of His People The Lure of a Woman The Sport of the Gods The Crimson Skull Easy Money Spitfire The Bull Dogger The Flaming Crisis Body and Soul The Flying Ace  Uncle Tom’s Cabin Black Gold Black and Tan The Framing of the Shrew Hallelujah! Hearts in Dixie St. Louis Blues Wages of Sin

Race movies of the ’20s include The Brute, In the Depths of Our Hearts, The Symbol of the Unconquered and Within Our Gates (all 1920), As the World Rolls On, The Black Thunderbolt, By Right of Birth, The Burden of Race, The Call of His People, The Custard Nine, The Gunsaulus Mystery, The Lure of a Woman, Secret Sorrow, The Simp and The Sport of the Gods (all 1921), The Crimson Skull, The Dungeon, Easy Money, For His Mother’s Sake, The Hypocrite, Spitfire and Uncle Jasper’s Will (all 1922), The Bull-Dogger, Deceit, Ghost of Tolston’s Manor, Regeneration and The Virgin of Seminole (all 1923), Birthright, The Flaming Crisis and A Son of Satan (all 1924), Body and Soul and Marcus Garland (both 1925), The Conjure Woman, The Devil’s Disciple, The Flying Ace, The Prince of His Race and Ten Nights in a Barroom (all 1926), The Broken Violin, The House Behind the Cedars, The Millionaire, The Scar of Shame, The Spider’s Web and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (all 1927), Black Gold, Children of Fate, The Midnight Ace, Thirty Years Later and When Men Betray (all 1928), Black and Tan, Black Narcissus, Blue Songs, Brown Gravy, Election Day, Fowl Play, The Framing of the Shrew, Hallelujah!, Hearts in Dixie, In and Out, The Lady Fare, Melancholy Dame, Music Hath Harms, Oft in the Silly Night, St. Louis Blues and Wages of Sin (all 1929).


Allen "Farina" Hoskins Anita Bush Bill "Bojangles" Robinson

Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins, Anita Bush, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson,

Bill Pickett Clarence Muse Daniel L. Haynes

Bill Pickett, Clarence Muse, Daniel L. Haynes,

Ethel Waters Eugene Jackson Eva Jessye

Ethel Waters, Eugene Jackson, Eva Jessye,

Evelyn Ellis (with Gordon Heath) Fredi Washington Gertrude Howard

Evelyn Ellis, Fredi Washington, Gertrude Howard,

John Lester Johnson Laura Bowman (with Sidney Kirkpatrick) Leigh Whipper

John Lester Johnson, Laura Bowman, Leigh Whipper,

Lincoln "Stepin Fetchit" Perry Lorenzo Tucker Mamie Smith

Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry, Lorenzo Tucker, Mamie Smith,

Louise Beavers Madame Sul-Te-Wan Matthew 'Stymie' Beard

 Nelly “Madame Sul-Te-Wan” Conley, Matthew ‘Stymie’ Beard, 

Mildred Washington Nina Mae McKinney Paul Robeson

Mildred Washington, Nina Mae McKinney, Paul Robeson, 

Pearl McCormack Spencer Williams

Pearl McCormack, Spencer Williams, 

Theresa Harris Trixie Smith Zack Williams

Theresa Harris, Trixie Smith and Zack Williams.

Black actors, not pictured, who made their first film appearances in the 1920s include A.B. DeComathiere, A.C.H. Billbrew, Alec Lovejoy, Alfred Norcom, Alice Burton Russell, Alma Sewell, Andrew Bishop, Ardelle Dabney, Arline Mickey, Arthur Ray, Bee Freman, Bernice Pilot, Bessie Givens, Bessie Lyle, Blanche Thompson, Charles Allen, Charles Olden, Claude Collins, Clifford Ingram, Daisy Buford, Dink Stewart, Dorothy Morrison, E.G. Tatum, Edgar Connor, Edna Barr, Edna Morton, Edward Fraction, Edward R. Abrams, Edward Thompson, Evelyn Pope Burwell, F.E. Miller, Fanny Belle DeKnight, Flo Clements, Ford Washington Lee, Fred “Snowflake” Toones, Freddie Jackson, George Edward Brown, George Reed, George Williams, Gertrude Snelson, Grace Smith, Harry Gray, Harry Henderson, Henrietta Loveless, Inez Clough, J. Homer Tutt, J. Laurence Criner, James B. Low, Jimmie Cook, Kathleen Noisette, Kathryn Boyd, Lawrence Chenault, Leo Bates, Leon Hereford, Leroy Broomfield, Lewis Schooler, Lionel Monagas, Lorenzo McClane, Louis De Bulger, Louise Beavers, Mabel Young, Maceo Bruce Scheffield, Madame Robinson, Marshall Rodgers, Mary Jane Watkins, Matthew Jones, Mattie Wilkes, Mercedes Gilbert, Mildred Boyd, Monte Hawley, Nathan Curry, Neva Peoples, Norman Johnstone, Percy Verwayen, Dr. R.L. Brown, Roberta Hyson, S.T. Jacks, Salem Tutt Whitney, Shingzie Howard, Sidney Easton, Susie Sutton, Sylvia Birdsong, Tom Fletcher, Virgil Williams, Vivian Smith, Walter Cornick, Walter Richardson, William B.F. Crowell and William E. Fountaine.

THE 1930s AND ’40s

In the ’30s and ’40s, Hollywood would increasingly make films with all black casts. With their much larger budgets, Hollywood black cinema in the studio era largely appropriated race films’ audience and by World War II, an independent black cinema was no more. It wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that a new generation of black filmmakers emerged, creating what came to be known as blaxploitation. However, just as Hollywood co-opted race movies, so too was blaxploitation co-opted. Over the following decades, as black characters grew less and less common in Hollywood, a black independent film movement slowly resurfaced in the ’80s and continues to grow.

Though yellowface and redface continued to be common practice, blackface began to disappear from the mainstream as Hollywood began efforts to woo the audience it had previously been content to insult. This meant there were many new opportunities for black actors, albeit mainly as musicians, porters, chauffeurs, waiters, hat check girls, maids, bootblacks, convicts, bartenders, bone-through-the-nose Africans or buffoons. Because of the improving but still less-than-satisfying opportunities afforded by Hollywood, many black actors supplemented their Hollywood bit parts with simultaneous careers in race movies.


Dark Town Follies A Daughter of the Congo The Exile The Black King The Girl From Chicago Harlem is Heaven Veiled Aristocrats Rufus Jones is President Bubbling Over Chloe Harlem After Midnight  Imitation of Life She Devil Murder In Harlem Sanders of the River Temptation The Green Pastures The Love Wanga Song of Freedom Bargain With Bullets Dark Manhattan Harlem on the Prairie  All's Fair Gang Smashers God's Step Children Gone Harlem Life Goes On Spirit of Youth Swing Two-Gun Man From Harlem Birthright The Broken Earth  The Bronze Buckaroo The Devil's Daughter Double Deal Harlem Rides the Range Keep Punching Lying Lips Midnight Shadow Moon Over Harlem One Dark Night Paradise in Harlem Prison Bait Straight to Heaven Underworld What Goes Up

Black-oriented movies made in the 1930s include: Dark Town Follies, A Daughter of the Congo, Deep South, Easy Street, Georgia Rose, High Toned, Honest Crooks (all 1930); Darktown Revue and The Exile (both 1931); The Black King, Black Magic, The Girl from Chicago, Harlem is Heaven, Pie, Pie Blackbird, A Rhapsody in Black and Blue, Ten Minutes to Live and Veiled Aristocrats (all 1932); Barber Shop Blues, A Bundle of Blues, Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Phantom of Kenwood and Rufus Jones for President (all 1933); Bubbling Over, Chloe, Harlem After Midnight, Imitation of Life and She Devil (all 1934); Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug Party, Murder in Harlem, Sanders of the River and Temptation (all 1935); The Black Network, Gifts in Rhythm, The Green Pastures, The Love Wanga and  Song of Freedom (all 1936); Bargain with Bullets, Big Fella, Dark Manhattan, Harlem on the Prairie and Underworld (all 1937); All’s FairThe Duke is Tops, Gang Smashers, God’s Step Children, Gone Harlem, Life Goes On, Spirit of Youth, Swing and Two-Gun Man From Harlem, (all 1938); and Birthright, The Broken Earth, The Bronze Buckaroo, The Devil’s Daughter, Double Deal, Harlem Rides the Range, Keep Punching, Lying Lips, Midnight Shadow, Moon Over Harlem, One Dark Night, Paradise in Harlem, Prison Bait, Straight to Heaven, Way Down South and What Goes Up (all 1939).


Amanda Randolph Ben Carter Bill Robinson Billie 'Buckwheat' Thomas
         Amanda Randolph, Ben Carter, Bill Robinson, Billie ‘Buckwheat’ Thomas 

Butterfly McQueen Cab Calloway Canada Lee Carman Newsome
        Butterfly McQueen, Cab Calloway, Canada Lee, Carman Newsome 

Dooley Wilson Dorothy Dandridge Dorothy Van Engle Duke Ellington
                Dooley Wilson, Dorothy Dandridge, Dorothy Van Engle, Duke Ellington 

Dusty 'Open the Door Richard' Fletcher Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson Edna Mae Harris Elisabeth Welch
  Dusty ‘Open the Door Richard’ Fletcher, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Edna Mae Harris, Elisabeth Welch

Emmett 'Babe' Wallace Ernest Whitman Ethel Moses Etta McDaniel
  Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace, Ernest Whitman, Ethel Moses, Etta McDaniel

Eunice Wilson Fats Waller Fayard Nicholas Francine Everett
                         Eunice Wilson, Fats Waller, Fayard Nicholas, Francine Everett 

Georgette Harvey Ira “Buckâ€? Woods Jackie Moms Mabley James Baskett
Georgette Harvey, Ira “Buck” Woods, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, James Baskett

Jeni Le Gon Jess Lee Brooks Jester Hairston Jo Jones
        Jeni Le Gon, Jess Lee Brooks, Jester Hairston,  Jo Jones

Joe Louis Johnny Lee Juanita Hall Lena Horne
            Joe Louis, Johnny Lee, Juanita Hall, Lena Horne

Les Hite Lillian Randolph Louis Armstrong Lucky Millinder
                      Les Hite, Lillian Randolph, Louis Armstrong,  Lucky Millinder

Mantan Moreland Marguerite Whitten Marie Bryant Minto Cato
          Mantan Moreland, Marguerite Whitten, Marie Bryant,  Minto Cato

Napoleon Simpson Nicodemus Stewart Oscar Micheaux Oscar Polk          

Napoleon Simpson, Nicodemus Stewart, Oscar Micheaux, Oscar Polk

Robert Adams  Robert Earl Jones Ruby Dandridge Sammy Davis Jr
   Robert Adams, Robert Earl Jones, Ruby Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr, 

Shelton Brooks Sidney Bechet Vivian Dandridge Willie Best
      Shelton Brooks, Sidney Bechet, Vivian Dandridge, Willie Best

Willie Covan Woody Strode
           Willie Covan, Woodie Strode 

Black actors who made there film debuts in the 1930s but who aren’t pictured include: Al Duvall, Alfred Grant, Artie Young, Augustus Smith, Avanelle Harris, Babe Matthews, Bo Jenkins, Bob Howard, Bud Pollard, Buddy Harris, Carl Mahon, Celeste Cole, Charles Andrews, Charles Hawkins, Cherokee Thornton, Cleo Herndon, Clinton Rosemond, Columbus Jackson, Consuelo Harris, Cora Green, Corny Anderson, Dan Michaels, David Bethea, DeForest Covan, Donald Heywood, Dudley Dickerson, Earl J. Morris, Ecce Homo Toto, Eddie Green, Edward Brandon, Emily Santos, Eugene “Chuck” Thompson, Eunice Brooks, Florence Field, Florence O’Brien, Flourney E. Miller, Frances McHugh, Frances E. Williams, Frank H. Wilson, Freddie Robinson, George Randol, George Wiltshire, Gertrude Saunders, Gladys Williams, Guernsey Morrow, Hamtree Harrington, Harold A. Garrison, Harold Nicholas, Henry Hastings, Herbert Skinner, Herman Green, Hilda Offley, Ida Forsyne, Ida Jones, Ira Hardin, Ivory Williams, J. Louis Johnson, Jack Carr, Jack Carter, Jack Clisby, James Davis, James Dunmore, James Fuller, Jesse Graves, Jessica Grayson, Jewel Smith, Joe Byrd, Joel Fluellen, Josephine Edwards, John Alexander, John Mason, Johnny Taylor, Johnny Thomas, Larry Seymour, Leon Buck, Leonard Christmas, Lester Wilkins, Lillian Fitzgerald, Louise Franklin, Lucille Battles, Lucius Brooks, Mabel Garrett, Mae E. Johnson, Mae Turner, Maggie Hathaway, Morgan Roberts, Myrtle Anderson, Napoleon Whiting, Neva Peoples, Paul Blackman, Paul White, Paulene Myers, Philip Hurlic, Phil Moore, Putney Dandridge, Ralph Cooper, Ray Martin, Raymond Kaalund, Reginald Fenderson, Richard Huey, Rosalie Lincoln, Roy Glenn, ‘Rubberneck’ Holmes, Rudolph Hunter, Sally Gooding, Sam Patterson, Sammy Gardiner, “Slick” Chester, Slim Thompson, Sol Johnson, Stanley Morrell, Tom Southern, Vernon McCalla, Wade Dumas, William Broadus, William James Adamson, Willie Bryant, Willor Lee Guilford and Zerita Steptean.


In the 1940s, American prolific race movie actor Spencer Williams began to making them as well. So did Dewey ‘Pigmeat’ Markham, although just one, at his short-lived Markham & Heckle. In 1946, Missouri-born producer William D. Alexander formed the Associated Producers of Negro Pictures in New York City. Other directors who turned to race movies include Richard C. Kahn, a white, former B-movie director, Canadian Leo C. Popkin and Kansas CityMissouri-native Josh Binney.

At the same time, many black musicians appeared in Hollywood-produced Soundies. Hollywood portrayals of and roles for blacks generally improved and “message movies” attempted to address race more sensitively, for eager, mostly white audiences. Hollywood also produced several big budget black musicals with black movie stars and, for the first time, began eating away at race movies’ traditionally strong fan base.

William D. Alexander
‘s success in the forties was the exception to the rule for race movies. The result was a sudden and almost complete cessation of independent minority-aimed cinema that lasted for the next two decades. Before the arrival of 1950, both Oscar Michaeux and Spencer Williams had directed their final films. Black Cinema struggled considerably during through the 1950s and ’60s. It wouldn’t be until the 1970s, with the advent of blaxploitation, that black cinema truly rebounded.


Am I Guilty? Broken Strings Four Shall Die Mystery in Swing Son of Ingagi Sunday Sinners While Thousands Cheer The Blood of Jesus Lucky Ghost Murder on Lenox Avenue Murder With Music Up Jumped the Devil Brother Martin Mr. Washington Goes to Town Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs Marching On! Cabin in the Sky Stormy Weather Eddie's Laugh Jamboree Go Down, Death! Of One Blood We've Come a Long Way Big Timers Caldonia The Negro Sailor Beware! Call to Duty Chicago After Dark Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A Fight That Ghost House-Rent-Party International Sweethearts of Rhythm 1946 Jivin' in Be-Bop Midnight Menace  Song Of the South Beale Street Mama The Betrayal Ebony Parade The Fight Never Ends 1947 Going to Glory, Come to Jesus Hi-De-Ho Juke Joint Juke Joint Love in Syncopation 1947 O'Voutie O'Rooney The Peanut ManReet, Petite, and GoneSepia Cinderella Boarding House Blues Come on Cowboy Killer Diller Miracle in Harlem Intruder in the Dust Lost BoundariesPinky Souls of Sin

Examples of black cinema of the 1940s include: Am I Guilty?, Broken Strings, Four Shall Die, Gang War, Mr. Smith Goes Ghost, Mystery in Swing, The Notorious Elinor Lee, One Big Mistake, Son of Ingagi, Sunday Sinners and While Thousands Cheer (all 1940); The Blood of Jesus, Carnival of Rhythm, Lucky Ghost, Mr. Washington Goes to Town, Murder on Lennox Avenue, Murder With Music and Up Jumped the Devil (all 1941); Brother Martin, Colored Amerians in the Nation’s Capital, Mokey, Professor Creeps and Take My Life (all 1942); Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, Marching On!, Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather (all 1943); Boogie Woogie Dream, Eddie’s Laugh Jamboree, Go Down, Death!, The Negro Soldier, Of One Blood and We’ve Come a Long Way (all 1944); Big Timers, Caldonia, Harlem Hotshots, It Happened in Harlem, Laff Jamboree, The Negro Sailor, Open the Door Richard and Pigmeat Throws the Bull (all 1945); Baby Don’t Go Away from Me, Beware, Call to Duty, Chicago After Dark, Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A., Fight That Ghost, The Girl in Room 20, House-Rent-Party, International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Jivin’ in Be-Bop, Laugh Jubilee, Mantan Messes Up, Mantan Runs for Mayor, Midnight Menace, Song Of the South, Stars on Parade and Tall, Tan and Terrific (all 1946); Beale Street Mama, The Betrayal, Boy! What a Girl, Ebony Parade, The Fight Never Ends, Going to Glory, Come to Jesus, Hell Cats, Hi-De-Ho, Juke Joint, Junction 88, Look-Out Sister, Love in Syncopation, O’Voutie O’Rooney,The Peanut Man, Pigmeat’s Laugh Hepcats, Reet, Petite, and Gone, Sepia Cinderella, Shut My Big Mouth and Wrong Mr. Wright (all 1947); Boarding House Blues, Come on Cowboy, The Dreamer, Killer Diller, Look-Out Sister, Miracle in Harlem, No Time for Romance, The Quiet One, The Return of Mandy’s Husband and Sun Tan Ranch (all 1948); and Intruder in the DustThe Joint Is Jumpin’, Lost Boundaries, Pinky, Rhapsody of Negro Life, Souls of Sin and Symphony in Swing (all 1949).


Archie Savage Benny Carter Bill Walker Darby Jones
       Archie Savage, Benny Carter, Bill Walker, Darby Jones 

Eartha Kitt Ella Fitzgerald Elliot Carpenter Estelle Evans
                       Eartha Kitt,  Ella Fitzgerald, Elliot Carpenter, Estelle Evans 

Frederick O'Neal Hadda Brooks Harry Belafonte Hazel Scott
         Frederick O’Neal, Hadda Brooks, Harry Belafonte, HazelScott

James Edwards Janet Collins June Richmond Katherine Dunham
            James Edwards, Janet Collins, June Richmond, Katherine Dunham

Kenneth Spencer Kenny Washington Louis Jordan Mabel Lee
              Kenneth Spencer, Kenny Washington, Louis Jordan, Mabel Lee

Nat King Cole Pearl Bailey Ruby Dee Savannah Churchill
             Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey, Ruby Dee, Savannah Churchill

Sheila Guyse Sidney Poitier Slam Stewart Slim Gaillard
                 Sheila Guyse, Sidney Poitier, Slam Stewart, Slim Gaillard 

Spencer Williams Suzette Harbin
        Spencer Williams, and Suzette Harbin

Black actors who embarked on film careers in the 1940s but whose pictures are not included due to lack of availability include: Al Young, Alan Jackson, Albert Smith, Alberta Perkins, Alonzo Bozan, Austin McCoy, Billie Allen, Billy Mitchell, Bobby Johnson, Carmencita Romero, Clarence Hargrave, Davis Roberts, Don Gilbert, Doris Ake, Dots Johnson, Duke Williams, Elwood Smith, Emory Richardson, Frederick Johnson, Gene Holland, George T. Sutton, Harry Levette, Henry “Phace” Roberts, Howard Galloway, Inez Newell, Ivan Browning, Jay Loft-Lyn, Jessie Cryer, Joan Douglas, John D. Lee Jr., John Hemmings, John Marriott, John Murray, July Jones, Katherine Moore, Ken Renard, Lollypop Jones, Lou Swarz, Marcella Moreland, Maude Simmons, Millie Monroe, Milton Williams, Milton Woods, Myra D. Hemmings, Raymond Allen, Rudy Toombs, Russell Morrison, Shirley Haven, Sybil Lewis, Talley Beatty, Wallace Earl and William Washington.

By the 1950s, with its enormous budgets and star power, Hollywood had effectively co-opted and destroyed the independent Black Cinema known as race movies. The result was that there were far fewer examples of Black Cinema in the decade. In the years that followed, as TV chipped away at film’s dominance, a few black actors began appearing on the small screen in shows like Beulah (1950-1953) and The Amos ‘n Andy Show (1951-1953) which, whilst hardly socially progressive, at least offered more acting opportunities for black actors.

The Beulah Show title Amos 'n' Andy Television Show

Though race movies were done and over with, black actors and filmmakers made some in-roads in Hollywood. In 1952, William Walker was elected as a member the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors, where he served until 1971. At the Guild’s meeting the year Walker joined, he and a pre-darkside Ronald Reagan presented a report titled “More and Better Roles for Negroes in Motion Pictures” from the Negro Employment Committee. Although no real changes came about as a result of it, Walker tirelessly continued to use his position to lobby Hollywood’s executives for years. Finally, in 1963, he partnered with the NAACP and successfully negotiated for the SAG’s Theatrical Agreement to include a non-discrimination clause.


The Jackie Robinson Story The Harlem Globetrotters Native Son Cry, The Beloved Country 1952 Crazylegs The Joe Louis Story Burlesque in Harlem Carmen Jones St. Louis Blues 1958Tamango Anna Lucasta Imitation of Life 1959 Porgy and Bess 1959 Take A Giant Step

Harlem Follies of 1949 and The Jackie Robinson Story (both 1950), The Harlem Globetrotters and Native Son (both 1951), Cry, the Beloved Country (1952), All My Babies, Crazylegs and The Joe Louis Story (all 1953), Burlesque in Harlem and Carmen Jones (both 1954), Carib Gold (1957), St. Louis Blues and Tamango (both 1958), Anna Lucasta, Imitation of Life, Porgy & Bess and Take a Giant Step (all 1959)


Al Freeman Jr Billy Dee Williams Billy Preston Brock Peters
               Al Freeman Jr., Billy Dee Williams, Billy Preston, Brock Peters

 Carmen De Lavallade Cicely Tyson Clarence William III Claudia McNeil
  Carmen De Lavallade, Cicely Tyson, Clarence William III, Claudia McNeil 

Coley WallaceDiahann Carroll  Diana Sands Geoffrey Holder
                        Coley Wallace, Diahann Carroll, Diana Sands, Geoffrey Holder 

Haywood Nelson Helen Martin Hilda Simms Ivan Dixon
      Haywood Nelson, Helen Martin, Hilda Simms, Ivan Dixon 

Joe Adams Lou Gossett Jr. Mahalia Jackson Maya Angelou
             Joe Adams, Lou Gossett Jr., Mahalia Jackson, Maya Angelou 

Millie Bruce Nichelle Nichols Olga James Ossie Davis Rosetta LeNoire
        Millie Bruce, Nichelle Nichols, Olga James, Ossie Davis, Rosetta LeNoire 

Not pictured are Charles Swain, Fred Moultrie, Georgia Burke, Ike Jones, John Thurston, Marilyn Clark, Miles Clark, Moses LaMarr, P. Jay Sidney, Rosalind Hayes, Ruth Attaway, Stanley Greene, Thelma Oliver, Vince Townsend and Zelda Cleaver.


Prior to the 1960s, Hollywood’s preferred showcase for black talent was musicals. However, with the decline in their popularity, the industry continued to feature black characters in “problem films. In Sydney Poitier vehicles, the actor routinely played mainstream African-Americans who were articulate and bright and clean and nice-looking guys, leading to his nickname, “The Ebony Saint.” Meanwhile, on TV, a few programs aired that showed black characters in lead roles playing non-stereotypical characters for the first time. On shows like Star Trek, black characters were often featured, although the most prominent was Nyota Uhura, who was given little to do besides show leg. This led to Nichelle Nichols planning to leaving the show until she was urged to stay by a fan named Martin Luther King, Jr.

                 I Spy (1965-1968),  Julia (1968-1971), and The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971)

Meanwhile, a couple of French and French-Italian co-productions and American regionals exploited racial tension in a less tempered manner and were shown in the Grindhouse circuit in the US, including: Les tripes au soleil (Checkerboard) – 1959, This Rebel Breed – 1960, Les lâches vivent d’espoir (My Baby is Black) – 1961, Murder in Mississippi – 1965 and The Black Klansman – 1966.

Nearly all films that dealt with race made in Europe or the US were directed by white directors and made mostly for white audiences. In Africa, Ousmane Sembène‘s 1966 feature-length debut was the first African film made south of the Sahara, and one which dealt with race in a highly intellectual, artistic and original manner. In the US, it wasn’t until Gordon Parks and Melvin van Peebles began making films toward the end of the decade that black American filmmaking resurfaced, with films like one of Van Peebles’s French productions, La Permission (1968), Parks’s The Learning Tree (1969) and Van Peebles’s follow-up, Watermelon Man.

BLACK MOVIES IN THE 1960s             

I Passed For White Sergeant Rutledge Gone Are the Days Raisin in the Sun The Cool World One Potato, Two PotatoThe Black Klansman A Man Called Adam Dutchman  It Won't Rub Off Baby Story of a 3 Day Pass For Love of Ivy The Learning Tree Slaves

I Passed for White and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), Raisin in the Sun (1961), Gone are the Days (1963), Black Like Me, The Cool World, Great Gettin’ Up Mornin’, Nothing But a Man and One Potato, Two Potato (all 1964), The Black Klansman and A Man Called Adam (both 1966), Dutchman and It Won’t Rub Off, Baby (both 1967), For Love of Ivy and Story of a 3 Day Pass (both 1968), The Learning Tree and Slaves (both 1969)


Abbey Lincoln Barbara Ann Teer Bill Cosby Della Reese
                Abbey Lincoln, Barbara Ann Tier, Bill Cosby, Della Reese 

Dick Gregory Dionne Warwick Dionne Warwick Don Marshall
            Dick Gregory, Dionne Warwick, Dizzy Gillespie, Don Marshall  

Esther Rolle Fred Williamson Gloria Foster Greg Morris
          Esther Rolle, Fred Williamson, Gloria Foster, Greg Morris  

Hal Williams Isabel Sanford Jackée Harry Ja'net DuBois,
          Hal Williams, Isabel Sanford, Jackée Harry, Ja’net DuBois  

Jeff Burton Johnny Brown Julius Harris
            Jeff Burton, Johnny Brown, Julius Harris 

Max Julien Paul Winfield,  Redd Foxx
                               Max Julien, Paul Winfield, Redd Foxx

Robert Hooks, Robert Kya-Hill Roscoe Lee Brown Yaphet Kotto
       Robert Hooks, Robert Kya-Hill, Roscoe Lee Brown, Yaphet Kotto        

 Woodie King Jr.

Woodie King Jr.

Not pictured: Gary Bolling, Kyle Johnson, Leonard Parker, Marc Copage, Mark Dymally and Martin Priest.

It was due, in large part, to the efforts of Van Peebles, Parks and the growing number of black actors that had careers in the 1970s, Black Cinema would once again flourish under the banner of Blaxploitation. While at first a vibrant genre which produced several quality films, it too would once again be co-opted by Hollywood and white filmmakers who reduced to formulaic action films about pimps and hos. Black Cinema recovered in the 1980s as an independent alternative to Hollywood, with which it successfully co-existed for the first time — largely, no doubt, because Hollywood for the most part stopped bothering itself with focusing on or casting minorities in substantial roles. Since the ’80s, Hollywood’s preferred method of examining race has been with “Through Blue Eyes” films (e.g. Ghosts of Mississippi, Schindler’s List, Mississippi Burning, Dances with Wolves, Last Samurai, Amistad, Shogun, The Mission, &c), in which members of the oppressors (always white) become accepted by (and then help) the oppressed, who can’t help themselves without white assistance. So, although most modern black cinema titles may have a lower profile than examples in the past, rest assured there are numerous black films being released every week — just check out Amoeba’s enormous and popular Black Cinema section.

Amoeba's Black Cinema Section

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

Art Prints

3 thoughts on “A History of Black Cinema: 1915-1969

  1. Oscar Polk’s last name is not African alone. His ancestor took the name Polk from the master during slavery. His real African family name is lost.


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