African American Films Through 1959: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Filmography

The films created by African American producers and performers, especially from the obscure silent era, are gaining renewed interest and recognition. One of the latest books on the subject, African American Films Through 1959: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Filmography, will assist this resurgence of cinema study. These films, along with their production records, have been difficult to find. Author Larry Richards has done a commendable job of compiling a useful reference guide. The main body of the book is a filmography of 1,324 films, from 1895 – 1959, listed in alphabetical order. The list was selected based upon the author’s criteria that the films be “created especially for African American Audiences with African American Casts… and has grown to include predominately African American cast films that try to represent the African American race and films that have an African American as its top star.”

Mr. Richards provides detailed production information, lengthy commentary on many of the films including snippets of contemporary reviews and other relevant information. Another added attraction is the display of over 125 beautiful examples of black movie art reproduced in glorious black and white. The author credits his interest in collecting these hard-to-find posters for his inspiration to search out the films and their history. Aside from the filmography are five helpful appendices that cross-reference the films by actor, film company, director, producer and films by year.

The silent era films of better known figures, such as pioneer producers Oscar Micheaux and Noble Johnson and actor Paul Robeson are well represented. Obscure and long forgotten artisans also get their due, such as William Foster, who in 1910 produced the first commercially made films for African American audiences, and producer/director Peter P. Jones, who released a series of films and newsreels on the African American soldier through his own studio, the Peter P. Jones Photoplay Company.

The extensive research that is provided on the talking shorts and features, which include “Soundies” (musical shorts that were a precursor to today’s music video) and documentaries, is nothing less than splendid. However, a notable omission in the filmography for the silent and sound era are the Our Gang shorts that included prominently featured, young African American performers Sunshine Sammy Morrison, Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Jannie Hoskins, Eugene Jackson, Matthew “Stymie” Beard and William “Buckwheat” Thomas. Although they stretch the author’s criteria a bit for inclusion, these films were important for they presented a genuine equality among the kids (their clubhouse wasn’t restricted!) – a practice that would not occur in the mainstream media for decades.

While Mr. Richards’ work is a major accomplishment, there is a pitfall that keeps this book from being a definitive tool in the study of early African American films – the lack of a viable bibliography. Students who wish to do in-depth and/or follow-up research on this topic are not given any specific sources. In his preface, Richards mentions that he relied on published material from noted scholars Thomas Cripps and Henry T. Sampson, but doesn’t mention exactly which materials. He offers that his biggest source of information was “early African American newspapers,” but fails to include the names of the publications and which libraries or archives they were found. With the scarcity of written material on the subject, letting others know where it could be found would be a boon. He does, though, provide the location of a major resource, known as the “George Johnson Collection” on microfilm at the University of Florida. Unfortunately, he doesn’t reveal specifically what comprised this important collection.

The author offers some commentary in the book’s “Historical Overview” (pages 5-6) that doesn’t have any basis in fact. Most notably is the claim that Thomas Edison had an African American lab assistant by the name of “William Dixon” “who created the Kinescope [sic], the first moving picture projector.” Edison’s career is very straightforward and well documented. Yes, he had an assistant. However, French born William K.L. Dickson (1860 – 1935), who created many cinematic innovations, was not Black.

Richards goes on to state that “it was D.W. Griffith’s now legendary and controversial masterpiece The Birth of a Nation (1915) that almost single-handedly shocked an independent African American film industry into being.” While some may accept this as a very logical assumption, it was brought to the attention of this reviewer by Pamela Thomas, race film historian and producer of the documentary Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of Race Movies (A Northern Lights Production film, for The American Experience, 1994), that “D.W. Griffith and Birth of A Nation had absolutely nothing to do with Black Americans getting into the film business. We were forced to do it out of necessity in order to attempt to control our image as placed on the screen by mainstream media.” This is a point that will probably be debated as the scholars continue to write their treatises.

In spite of these flaws, we are fortunate to have this compilation. The vital information found within its pages is a valuable contribution to film history in a handsome presentation.

Madison Morrison