As centennial commemorations of DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation gear up, a new book by historian Cara Caddoo proves African Americans helped invent the movies a decade before the first Hollywood film. Published by Harvard University Press, Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life uncovers the forgotten history of black inventors, filmmakers, and exhibitors.
"A lot of people assume that African Americans just followed in the footsteps of white filmmakers," says Caddoo, an Assistant Professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, "That's really a whitewashing of American film history."
Years before the 1915 debut of Griffith's pro-KKK film, which is widely credited for inaugurating "modern American cinema," African Americans produced their own films and built their own theaters. Caddoo explains that this began in the 1890s--more than a decade before Hollywood, and long before the rise of better-known black filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux.
The first African American films featured themes like the "American Negro and the Negro abroad." In "The Devil's Cook Kitchen," a minister named H. Charles Pope used movies to highlight black contributions to American history, and to explain the "26 sins" involved in dancing.
Some black filmmakers were former slaves, others just a generation removed. Faced with racial discrimination and shoestring budgets, these black film pioneers relied on their wit. Segregation limited African Americans' access to public space so they turned black churches, lodges, and schools into motion picture theaters during off hours.
Envisioning Freedom is packed with colorful characters such as Fleetwood Walker, the first--and last--major league baseball player before Jackie Robinson. Caddoo writes that Walker became an inventor and traveling motion picture exhibitor after his baseball career. One of his most important inventions was an alarm system that enabled film projectionists to switch seamlessly between reels of film.
When Birth of a Nation debuted, African Americans launched the first mass black protest movement of the twentieth century. By that time, motion pictures were deeply integrated into black life. African Americans had produced films and used them to fundraise, build businesses, construct theaters, and socialize in an era of racial segregation. Caddoo explains, "They were fighting to reclaim a form of popular culture that they had helped create. Tens of thousands of African Americans participated--housewives, gangsters, ministers, and schoolchildren, from Hawaii to Massachusetts, and from the Panama Canal to Canada."
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