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Filmic Biographies and Biographical Films

African-American Film

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Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903, 1910, 1910, 1913, 1913, 1918, 1927)
This 1903 film version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel was one of the first full length films ever produced. It was also one of the first to feature blackface, with each of the film's white cast members playing black characters. Nine versions of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin were filmed during the Silent film era (1895-1927), making it one of the most told stories of the period.
Other adaptations include:
1910, 3-reel Vitagraph Company Production, the first dramatic film released on 3 reels.
1927, a two hour adaptation and the third most expensive film of the silent era.

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The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Based on Thomas Dixon's controversial The Clansmen, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is commonly considered the first Hollywood blockbuster. In its three hours and ten minutes the film exhibits anti-Black views of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and tells a story of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The film is divided in two parts, the first about two families--the Stoneman's from the North and the Cameron's from the South--whose lives intertwine before and during the war. This section ends with a portrayal of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the second section begins with Reconstruction. In Griffith's strikingly biased version of the Reconstruction period, whites are forced away from voting booths while barbarian Black men stuff ballot boxes to create an all-Black legislature. The Ku Klux Klan was founded by the eldest Cameron when, inspired by a boy in a ghost costume who scares away his friends. The newly formed Ku Klux Klan then springs into action to oust the drunken and shoeless black legislators to "by a mere instinct of self-preservation ... protect the Southern country."

The Jazz Singer (1927)

The Jazz Singer is a story about an Orthodox jewish Jack Robins (played by vaudeville
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and broadway star Al Jolson), a performer who to escape his familial roots dawns blackface and becomes a popular jazz singer. The film, produced by Warner, was the first to feature synchronized dialogue and one of the most well known examples of blackface.

While blackface is always controversial, closer analysis may show that the use of blackface in The Jazz Singer was unique. In his essay "Meaning and Value in The Jazz Singer," Corin Willis, film professor at Liverpool John Moores University, points out that "of the more than seventy examples of blackface in early sound film 1927–53 I have viewed (including the nine blackface appearances Jolson subsequently made), The Jazz Singer is unique in that it is the only film where blackface is central to the narrative development and thematic expression." Because the character Jack Robins wears blackface as a means of obscuring his Jewish identity to his family (as well as to himself), blackface in The Jazz Singer can be viewed as part of the plot line and not an issue of blocking black actors from film.

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Hallelujah (1929)

Directed by the acclaimed (white) director King Vidor (The Fountain Head, War and Peace, and parts of--though uncredited--The Wizard of Oz), the musical film Hallelujah was the first major studio film with an all-black cast. Because the the studio considered it to be risky to investment in, executives at Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer insisted that Vidor commit his own salary to the film's production. This is something Spike Lee did 63 years later to help ensure the production of his film Malcolm X.

Gone With the Wind (1939)
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Gone with the Wind was directed by Victor Fleming adapted from the novel by Margaret Mitchell. It portrays an idyllic South during the the Civil War era, including two black characters played by Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen. Often referred to as the happy-slave characters, Malcolm X famously said these performances made him "feel like crawling under a rug." Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor to win an Academy Award for her role as Mammy.

Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959)

The 1959 In Imitation of Life is a remake of the 1934 film, adapted from the novel of the same name. Both the 1934 and 1959 versions are the story of a white widowed mother and a black widowed mother living together and raising their daughters over ten years. In 1959, the white mother, Lora, wants to be a famous actress (while in 1939 she wants to open a pancake restaurant), and in both versions the black daughter (Peola in 1934 and Sarah Jane in 1959)
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is light complexioned, and tries to pass as white. The 1959 version focuses more on the struggles over black identity between Sarah Jane and Annie. The actresses in the roles of Annie and Sarah Jane (Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner) were both nominated for Academy Awards and Imitation of Life remained Universal's highest grossing film ($6.4 million) until the 1970 release Airport.


In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Nominated for seven Academy Awards and won five including Best Picture.

Malcolm X (1992)
Based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In addition to support received from Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Prince, Janet Jackson and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Lee ended up spending $2 million of his own $3 million salary on the film's production.

Bamboozled (2000)
A blackface film for the new millennium, from director Spike Lee.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)
The second film from director Lee Daniels.

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf (2011)
Tyler Perry plans to adapt, direct and produce Ntozake Shange's 1975 play for Lionsgate Films.

It is important to consider the role of Black American culture in the shaping of American Cinema. Film is a unique art form in that it has borrowed from the histories of other media, like painting and photography, as well as aesthetic movements; yet film alone has a very brief history. Over the one hundred fifteen years since the birth of film the medium has undergone countless revolutions in its relationship to Black American culture. Since its beginning, film has had an almost obsessive relationship with Black issues and race in general. The Birth of a Nation (1915 - based on Thomas Dixon Jr.'s The Clansmen) was widely considered the first feature film and focused entirely on tensions between blacks and whites in the Civil War and Reconstruction era; and Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the most-told stories of the Silent Film era. For years, black people were not even allowed to act in films, and were portrayed by white actors wearing vaudevillian-style blackface. In fact, even the first black actor in a major role still performed his role in blackface: Bert Williams in Darktown Jubilee (1914). Through the thirties many of the big stars of cinema wore blackface, including Fred Astair (Swingtime, 1936), Judy Garland (Everybody Sings, 1938), and Mickey Rooney (Babes in Arms, 1939). Black actors with multiple starring roles finally began to appear in this decade, with Stepin Fetchit (Carolina, 1934; Judge Priest, 1934; and Steamboat the Bend (1935), Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (The Littlest Rebel, 1935; One Mile from Heaven, 1937; and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, 1938) and Hattie McDaniel (Anniversary Trouble, 1935; Judge Priest, 1935; and Gone with the Wind, 1939). Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor or actress to win an Academy Award for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. In her historic acceptance speech at the Oscars of 1939, McDaniel proclaimed, "I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry." The first film with an all black cast was Hallelujah (1929) directed by King Vidor, a white director who directed (though he was not credited) half of The Wizard of Oz, as well as film adaptations of War and Peace and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.