Much has been made about Tyler Perry’s meteoric rise to fame and fortune. Much has also been made about his ever-expanding business empire and the creation of Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta. And yet, Perry’s business model is not new to Black America. Nor is Perry the first Black person to create an independent film studio.
As a scholar in American film history, my research reminds me that the second decade of the 1900s, saw the emergence of a new movie cycle— the so-called “race films.” This cycle peaked around the 1920s and 1930s. The “race films” centered primarily on Black-American characters and were produced by Black filmmakers, specifically for Black audiences. This all occurred within the harsh realities of a system of American apartheid terrorism and white racial animus. And within this brutally hostile environment independent Black filmmakers rose like a phoenix from the ashes to create a vibrant cinematic expansion through self-reliance, community building, and an unflinching entrepreneurial spirit.
Beginning in 1910, with opening of The Foster Photoplay Company by William D. Foster in Chicago, next the Lincoln Motion Picture Company was founded in 1915 by George and Noble Johnson in Omaha, Nebraska, and most notably, the Micheaux Film and Book Company was founded in 1918 by the legendary Oscar Micheaux also in Chicago. The release of William Foster’s The Railroad Porter (1912) along with the backlash in Black communities to the insidious racialized defamation of The Birth of a Nation (1915), set the stage for the materialization of this cinematic movement by Black-American filmmakers and producers to create films specifically for Black audiences. Soon we saw independent Black films spring forth with the expressed intent to counter white hegemony over the Black screen image.
These films included, The Lincoln Motion Picture Company’s, The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916) and Oscar Micheaux’s, Within Our Gates (1920). The emergence of these new films (produced outside of Hollywood’s inequitable infrastructure) by marginalized groups actually catered toward a dissatisfied and disenfranchised audience who were being ignored by the lamestream film industry. Sound familiar?
These filmmakers were remarkably able to achieve the development and execution of an alternative film distribution system (in an era where the price of resistance was often lethal). These bold entrepreneurial pioneers created Black films, for Black audiences that played in Black communities in Black theaters, and even created Black film stars like, Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel, Clarence Muse, and Evelyn Preer. The race film movement ran parallel to its vaudeville counterpart known rather pejoratively as the “chitlin circuit.” Noted scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. describes the old Chitlin Circuit as a “spawning ground for a good number of accomplished Black actors, comics, and musicians… crisscrossing Black America, the circuit established an empire of comedy and pathos, the sublime and the ridiculous: a moveable feast that enabled Blacks to patronize Black entertainers… The productions were for, by, and about Black folks...”[i]
Now let’s put this all in the proper perspective— under some of the most egregiously brutal white supremacy, we saw the organization of several independent Black film studios that created prolifically for their target audience entirely outside of the Hollywood studio system and plugged their films into their own alternative distribution network, while turning a profit! No social media. No cell phones. No Kickstarter. No internet. No TV ads. No public relations experts. Just passion. Vision. And a tremendous will to serve an audience thirsty for entertainment and images that reflected the diversity of their own experiences on the screen. Sound familiar? Ehmmm. (clearing my throat.)
This is why I love history! Malcolm X once said, “Of all of our studies, history is most qualified to reward our research.” That is absolutely true. In fact, it is through my research into this rich (yet, often overlooked) history of American film that I was inspired to design Project Catalystover one year ago.
If these industrious filmmakers could achieve their own studios and distribution networks in the 1900s under the threat of lynching and all manner of violence, imagine what we can achieve with all of the advancements in new technology that has lowered the cost of production, initiated the democratization of information, and created the digital ubiquity that has become our reality!
We must truly begin to celebrate diversity in cinema and media— the audience is there, the appetite is there, the buying power is there, and the time— is NOW.
(PHOTO: Members of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company)
And yes, I know you’re wondering. How come I've never heard of these independent Black studios before? Whatever happened to “race films?” Unfortunately, most of the companies responsible for the production of the over five hundred or so “race films” that we know to have existed were profoundly undercapitalized. In spite of the ground-breaking endeavors of the Foster Photoplay Company, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, and the Micheaux Film and Book Company, by the onset of the Great Depression many Black actors were being poached by Hollywood.
Also, the advent of the “talkies” adversely impacted Black independent filmmakers and the race film category insofar as many Black producers were unable to afford the cost of the new sound and camera equipment.
Notwithstanding, it’s important to shine a bright spotlight on their enormous contribution, and it is my intention to extend their legacies and use the inspiration of their sacrifice to carry forward the liberatory torch of hope that burns bright for our future.
I real(eyes) great ideas can change the world, but it requires great people to make it happen. Please check our website www.projectcatalyst.com and fill out the information to “Become A Catalyst,” and show your support. I look forward to taking this amazing journey with you!
(PHOTO: Oscar Micheaux)
[i] Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Chitlin Circuit,The New Yorker Feburary 3, 1997, 49.