A history of Black representation in film
To study the rich history of Black representation in film, Stacker created a timeline of some the most significant milestones in Black contributions to the industry. Selections for the forthcoming gallery come from a myriad of books, articles, and archives. Entries include films about Black, queer, Muslim teens falling in love, early horror stories intended to challenge racism long before contemporary classics like "Get Out," and various directors, screenwriters, and others who landed historic firsts in the awards circuit. There are also experimental documentaries, silent films, musicals, and groundbreaking LGBTQ+ films in the mix.
From the beginning, Black films have been used to challenge stereotypes of race, tell great stories, and create laughs. There have been various eras within Black film history that focused on social and political movements. "Race films," or "race movies" as a specific film classification came to be around 1915 as a means of combatting the Jim Crow South and negative racist stereotypes in the early 1900s. Later, blaxploitation films were developed following victories of the civil rights movement. The genre was geared toward young Black Americans and had many political undertones. As industry leaders driving the progress and development of Black-inclusive film, Black writers, directors, producers, musicians, cast, and crew have created award-winning movie scores, horror films, and comedies.
Many Hollywood films have historically caricaturized the Black experience. Today, even films that aren't overtly racist often perpetuate harmful stereotypes or tropes. However, Black creatives and others have worked tirelessly to combat these views with their own work. This list celebrates various representations both in genre and accolades and contains a number of firsts, including the first Black woman with a movie that earned $100 million at the box office.
If you’re seeking to learn some Black history or add a new film to your watch list, this list is a great place to start.
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1898: ‘Something Good Negro Kiss’
The first depiction of on-screen Black love and possibly the first-known Black film, “Something Good Negro Kiss” was made in 1898. It shows two lovers embracing in a sweet kiss. The silent film reel was lost only to be rediscovered in good shape decades later and added in 2018 to the National Film Registry.
1898: Black Cavalry marching
One of the first depictions of Black people on film was the images of the Black Cavalry marching. The newsreels depict an all-Black cavalry marching during Teddy Roosevelt’s march on San Juan Hill.
1910: First comedies by Black men
In 1910 brothers Peter and Bill Jones began making comedies. They were the first Black men to make comedic films.
1910: Photoplay Company is formed
In 1910 William D. Foster became the first Black man to form a film production company, which he called Photoplay Company. “In a moving picture, the Negro would off-set so many insults of the race—could tell their side of the birth of this great race,” Foster said in 1915.
1912: ‘The Railroad Porter’
“The Railroad Porter” was produced by the Photoplay Company in 1912. It is considered the first film with an all-Black cast.
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1916: Lincoln Motion Picture Company is formed
"Race film" was a genre of film prevalent from around 1915 to the 1950s. These movies featured Black casts and were made for Black audiences. Producers of these films made them as a way to offset the racism of the Jim Crow South and provide inclusionary entertainment for a growing sector of American consumers. In 1916, brothers George Perry Johnson and Noble Johnson formed the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which was a race film production company.
1918: ‘The Birth of a Race’
“Birth of a Nation” was a racist film that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan and which was well-received in 1915. To counter that film's racist stereotypes, Emmet J. Scott began production of “Birth of a Race.” The intended epic, meant to be three hours, was never made. Instead, Scott was forced to accept funding from white investors due to his lack of capital, and the original film was changed to moderate their sensitivity.
1919: ‘The Homesteader’
“The Homesteader” was the first film to be produced by acclaimed filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. The silent film is based on his book and autobiography. The initial book was about a Black man falling in love with the daughter of a Scottish widower. However, the film is noted to have a plot-twist, removing the story line of interracial romance. “The Homesteader” is considered the first African American feature film; the original film has been lost to time.
1920: 'Within Our Gates’
“Within Our Gates” is the silent film directed by early Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux and released in 1920. The film falls under the category of race films and was released during the Jim Crow era.
1929: ‘Hallelujah’ is the first all-Black talking musical
The first all-Black talking musical film was released in 1929. With the introduction of sound to film, “Hallelujah” was a major studio hit.
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