The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A panoramic history of Black filmmaking

Sidney Poitier with Ruby Dee in “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway in 1959. In Hollywood, Poitier took on dignified roles that broke racial ground. (AP Photo)
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Movie award season will soon be upon us, and with it more passionate debate over the status of Blacks in Hollywood. Not so long ago, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite swept through social media when for two straight years not a single actor or actress of color was nominated for an Academy Award. In 2016, Oscars host Chris Rock joked: “I’m here at the Academy Awards. Otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards.” Reforms in the demonstrably nondiverse and elderly Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were promised, but the results have been mixed, from the surprise best-picture triumph of “Moonlight” in 2017 to the controversial losses of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” stars Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis this year. While the Oscars provide only one snapshot of progress, and a theater-emptying pandemic has further blurred the overall picture, it still seems like a timely moment for a book that puts this headline-making discussion into historical perspective, as the journalist turned popular historian and biographer Wil Haygood sets out to do in “Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World.”

As one might expect, Haygood begins his overview with the 1915 release of “The Birth of a Nation,” the notorious D.W. Griffith movie about the aftermath of the Civil War in which, as Haygood describes it, “the Klansmen are heroes and the Negroes are sex-hungry villains who conspired with Northern carpetbaggers to destroy the South.” After a White House screening hosted by President Woodrow Wilson, whose racist policies and sympathies have now been well documented, “The Birth of a Nation” became a runaway national hit, revolutionizing the way White people marketed and consumed movies while consolidating the vicious backlash against Reconstruction and encouraging the 1919 race riots that greeted Black soldiers returning from World War I.

From there, however, Haygood turns to the far less well-known story of the man sometimes called the “D.W. Griffith of race cinema”: Oscar Micheaux, a self-taught Black author turned filmmaker. As Haygood recounts in detail, Micheaux wrote, directed and scratched together financing for more than 40 films about all aspects of Black American life, from silent Westerns to Harlem talkies, only to spend his last years in obscurity fighting chronic high blood pressure and staving off poverty by hawking signed copies of his novels.

For anyone who isn’t steeped in film history, Haygood provides a valuable service by recalling the few movies made by White producers and directors in the pre-civil rights era that dealt seriously with race issues. Notable among those are the 1934 and 1959 film adaptations of the Fannie Hurst novel “Imitation of Life,” a story about a light-skinned Black woman who “passes” for White. But mostly, this period of total White control of Hollywood is remembered for perpetuating ugly stereotypes and humiliating potential Black stars. Hattie McDaniel may have been the first Black performer to win a supporting actress Oscar, for her role as Scarlett O’Hara’s maid in the 1939 film version of “Gone With the Wind.” But when McDaniel “played the role of Mammy to the hilt,” Haygood writes, she took “a vaunted position in extending a stereotypical and painful image of Blacks on-screen” — and ended her career playing the same tired maid role in the radio and TV series “Beulah.” Dorothy Dandridge, touted by the White film world as a stunning star in the making after her sultry turn in the 1954 film “Carmen Jones,” 11 years later was found naked on the bathroom floor of her L.A. home, dead of a pill overdose at the age of 42. Of the Black stars who gained any kind of success in the mainstream movie business before the 1950s, only Lena Horne seems to have emerged with her head held high, by maintaining her distinguished singing career and the steely pride that, as Haygood recalls, once led her to bash an ashtray over the head of drunken White diner who called her the n-word at a Polynesian restaurant in Beverly Hills.

Things began to change in the late 1950s and 1960s with the rise of “two cool cats with Caribbean roots,” as Haygood calls Harry Belafonte, the male star of “Carmen Jones,” and his good friend Sidney Poitier. Brimming with self-confidence born of spending their youth among majority-Black populations in Jamaica and the Bahamas, Belafonte and Poitier shone in roles that exuded dignity and quiet sex appeal, and used their fame and wealth to link arms with Martin Luther King Jr. and to fly a medicine bag full of money to young voting rights organizers in rural Mississippi. Poitier broke racial ground with his roles in movies such as “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”; won a best-actor Oscar for “Lilies of the Field”; and by the early ’70s got to direct his own string of crowd-pleasing comedies. But by then, the uplifting fare for which Poitier and Belafonte were known on screen seemed out of touch with the pace of political and social change in the real streets of America. As James Baldwin put it in an essay written in the tumultuous year of 1968, “The industry is compelled, given the way it is built, to present to the American people a self-perpetuating fantasy of American life.”

“Blaxploitation” is the name given to the movie era that came next — coined by a disapproving NAACP official — but Haygood demonstrates that the term is misleading. Far from exploiting them, this superficially over-the-top genre gave innovative Black directors such as Melvin Van Peebles (“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”), Gordon Parks (“Shaft”) and Gordon Parks Jr. (“Super Fly”) the chance to break Hollywood rules and emulate the daring of Europe’s New Wave filmmakers. With their soulful soundtracks from the likes of Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, and celebration of Black Power style and fashion, these low-budget movies became word-of-mouth hits across Black America, grossing more than $100 million at the box office and proving the financial power of Black ticket-buyers. (In a noteworthy aside, Haygood informs us that a third of the original audience for “The Godfather” was Black.) This era also established a fault line through American films about race that has been visible ever since — between the kind of “White savior” movies that appeal mostly to White audiences (think “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Green Book”) and movies that Black audiences recognize as capturing authentic truths about their culture and history.

For more than three decades, the prolific master of this second type of movie has been Spike Lee, from his hilarious 1986 debut, “She’s Gotta Have It,” to the prescient 1989 race riot drama “Do the Right Thing,” the powerful 1992 “Malcolm X” biopic and other films that will stand the test of time far better than some of the movies for which they were snubbed at Oscar season. But while Haygood traces Lee’s rise from his Brooklyn boyhood and NYU film school training, he passes on the opportunity to document the director’s struggles with the big movie studios and other powers that be in Hollywood.

Haygood also offers only passing insight into the hurdles faced by such Lee heirs as John Singleton (“Boyz ’N the Hood”), Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) and Ryan Coogler, the indie director of “Fruitvale Station” who went on to direct the surprise box office hit “Creed” and the blockbuster “Black Panther,” with its stunning $1.3 billion worldwide gross. This dearth of behind-the-scenes reporting is particularly striking in the case of another member of this club, director Lee Daniels, since one of his best-known films was based on Haygood’s own Washington Post profile and book about the real-life story of longtime White House butler Eugene Allen. Haygood devotes only a page or two to each of these films and filmmakers at the end of the book, and in his brief account of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” he doesn’t disclose his personal connection.

Many questions want to be explored when contemplating the future for Blacks in Hollywood. What will be the influence of a new class of Black moguls — among them Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry and Shonda Rhimes — who have amassed a level of financial and producing clout of which Blacks in the past could only have dreamed? Of the move to “over the top” streaming and the rise of Netflix, Amazon and other new Hollywood “studios”? Of #BlackTwitter and other social media outlets in creating and sustaining word of mouth? Of the many new diversity initiatives promised after the summer of racial reckoning following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor?

Rather than looking forward, however, Haygood ends his book by going again into the past, to the story of an enslaved man named Gordon who escaped from a Louisiana plantation during the Civil War and made his way to a Union camp. The soldiers took a black-and-white photograph of Gordon’s back, which was covered with deep welts from years of whip lashings. Published in Harper’s Weekly, which titled it “The Scourged Back,” the photo heightened disgust with the Confederacy and inspired more Blacks to enlist in the Union Army. In Haygood’s elegiac telling, it was a precursor to the kinds of images, from Emmett Till’s open casket to the smartphone video of Floyd’s murder, that have changed the course of African American history. But in a way, the photo is also a fitting fade-out for “Colorization,” which in the end has a decidedly sepia tone.

Colorization

One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World

By Wil Haygood

Knopf.
452 pp. $30

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