In all, approximately five hundred race films were produced. Of these, fewer than one hundred remain. Because race films were produced outside the Hollywood studio system, they have been largely forgotten by mainstream film historians. In their day, race films were very popular among African American theatergoers. Their influence continues to be felt in cinema and television marketed to African Americans.
The term "race film" is sometimes used to describe films of the period aimed at other minority audiences. For instance, the 1926 film Silk Bouquet (also known as The Dragon Horse) starred the Asian-American actress Anna May Wong and was marketed to Chinese-American audiences.
Financing and production
African Americans produced films for black audiences as early as 1905, but most race films were produced after 1915. As many as 500 race films were produced in the United States between 1915 and 1952. As happened later with the early black sitcoms on television, race movies were most often financed by white-owned companies, such as Alfred N. Sack, and scripted by white writers. Many race films were produced by white-owned film companies outside the Hollywood-centered American film industry, making them some of the first financially successful independent films. One of the earliest surviving examples of a black cast film aimed at a black audience is A Fool and His Money (1912), directed by French emigree Alice Guy for the Solax Film Company. The Ebony Film Company of Chicago, created specifically to produce black-cast films, was also headed by a white production team.
Some black-owned studios existed, including Lincoln Motion Picture Company (1916–1921), and most notably Oscar Micheaux's Chicago-based Micheaux Film Corporation, which operated from 1918–1940. On his posters, Micheaux advertised that his films were scripted and produced exclusively by African Americans. Astor Pictures released several race films and produced Beware with Louis Jordan.
The race films vanished after United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., or the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948, which forced the division of motion picture exhibitors from the motion picture production companies. African-American participation in World War II contributed to the casting of black actors in lead roles in several Hollywood major productions, such as Pinky with Ethel Waters; Home of the Brave with James Edwards; and Intruder in the Dust, all in 1949; and No Way Out (1950), which was the debut of the notable actor Sidney Poitier.
In the South, to comply with laws on racial segregation, race movies were screened at designated black theaters. Though northern cities were not formally segregated, race films were generally shown in theaters in black neighborhoods. Many large northern theaters incorporated special balconies reserved for blacks.
While it was rare for race films to be shown to white audiences, white theaters often reserved special time-slots for black moviegoers. This resulted in race films often being screened as matinées and midnight shows. During the height of their popularity, race films were shown in as many as 1,100 theaters around the country.
Produced primarily in northern cities, the target audience consisted primarily of poor southern blacks and southerners who had migrated northward. Many race films, particularly those produced by white studios, expressed middle-class urban values, especially education and industriousness. Common themes included the "improvement" of the black race, the supposed tension between educated and uneducated blacks, and the tragic consequences in store for blacks who resisted liberal capitalist values. The most famous race movie, The Scar of Shame, incorporated all of these themes.
Race films typically avoided explicit depictions of poverty, ghettos, social decay, and crime. When such elements appeared, they often did so in the background or as plot devices. Race films rarely treated the subjects of social injustice and race relations, although blacks were legally disenfranchised in the South and suffered discrimination in the North and South.
Race films avoided many of the popular black stock characters found in contemporary mainstream films, or else relegated these stereotypes to supporting roles and villains. Micheaux depicted his protagonists as educated, prosperous, and genteel. Micheaux hoped to give his audience something to help them "further the race".
Black comedians such as Mantan Moreland, who had played supporting comedy roles in mainstream Hollywood films, reprised his character as the lead in such films as Professor Creeps and Mr Washington Goes To Town. Some black entertainers, such as Moms Mabley or Pigmeat Markham, starred in their own vehicles. Mabley and Markham did not appear in mainstream entertainment until the late 1960s, when both were featured on Laugh-In on American television.
Many black singers and bands appeared in lead or supporting roles in race films; Louis Jordan, for example, made three films.
Race films are of great interest to students of African American cinema. They are historical significant due to their ability to showcase the talents of actors who were relegated to stereotypical supporting roles in mainstream studio films. Hattie McDaniel and Clarence Muse are two of the most striking examples of talented performers who generally were given minor roles in mainstream film. A few stars from race films were able to cross over to relative stardom in mainstream works – for example, Paul Robeson and Evelyn Preer. Hollywood studios often used race movies as a recruiting source of black talent.
Notable race movies
- The Homesteader (1919), Micheaux's first film
- Within Our Gates (1919), inspired by Leo Frank trial
- Body and Soul (1924), Paul Robeson's cinematic debut
- The Scar of Shame (1927)
- The Exile (1931)
- Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Herb Jeffries in the first singing cowboy Western race movie
- Lying Lips (1939)
- The Blood of Jesus (1941), the first race film added to the U.S. National Film Registry, in 1991
- Caddoo, Cara. Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life. Harvard University Press, 2014. ISBN 0674368053
- Diawara, Manthia. Black American Cinema. Routledge, 1993. ISBN 0-415-90397-1
- Gaines, Jane M. Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era. University Of Chicago Press, 2001. ISBN 0-226-27875-1
- "She (Wong) also appeared in a Chinese 'race' film, The Silk Bouquet, released in June 1926 ...." © Anna May Wong - Silent and Sound Film Actress - goldensilents.com
- Caddoo, Cara; Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life: Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014; 24
- McMahan, Alison; Alice Guy Blache: Lost Visionary of the Cinema; New York: Continuum, 2002; 148
- McMahan; 147
- Leab, Daniel. From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975; 45