Young Voices: Black Filmmakers
For as long as I can remember I have had an interest in photography and writing. I’ve found countless plays and stories scribbled on notepads from as soon as I was able to write. At the age of fourteen I realised I wanted to make films, which would combine my love for both mediums. When I told my mum this, she sent me a list of black filmmakers that same evening.
I hadn’t yet considered that being black could be an issue as I began to explore a future career in film. I hadn’t completely acknowledged the disproportionate representation both on screen and behind the camera. Of course, the number of black female characters I could relate to were sparse, and the black directors I knew of were few, but for so long it had seemed normal.
Looking at my place within the industry I aspired to work in, I realised that the story of black absence in the birth of film wasn’t true at all - I discovered a complex history of people just like myself who had created the foundations for me to build on. It was just a question of visibility.
Historically the presence of black artists in film began as a way to perpetuate colonial narratives with the collection of available roles consisting of service jobs, ‘mammy’ portrayals and hyperbolic stereotypes of uneducated black people.
This representation was most marketable to white audiences, the main consumers of film, and perpetuated the racism central to representations of blacks in the mainstream entertainment industry. Though this was understood as degrading to black actors of the time, for many it was still a means to a foot in the door.
Filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux - one of the first major African-American feature film directors - began to chip away at these stereotypes. Micheaux worked with The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, one of the first all-black film production companies producing what was referred to then as ‘race films’ for black audiences. Though the company was short lived (it produced just five films), it reflected both the need and desire for black people to work in film. Less is known about early black female film directors, although Tressie Souders was the first known African-American woman to direct a film with her 1922 feature “A Woman’s Error”.
Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (better known as Stepin Fetchit) was the first African-American movie star millionaire, though this came at the price of perpetrating ideas that black people were lazy. Other founding artists included Dorothy Dandridge, who revolutionised space for black women on screen. Her career included many triumphs, controversies and struggles, both in her personal and professional life. Growing up, Dandridge, together with her two sisters, performed to earned a living to support their family. Her breakout role on screen was as servant girl in Lady from Louisiana (1941). Eventually she worked towards becoming one of the first black actresses to be nominated for a Best Actress academy award in 1954, competing with iconic nominees such as Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly for the title. Before Dandrige came Hattie McDaniel, the first black female actress to win an Oscar in the best supporting actress category (1940) for her performance in Gone with the Wind. Since then then only a few black actors and actresses have won academy awards, highlighting the continued lack of recognition for black artists within the film industry.
However, there are still many positives if we look for them. Gradually we are seeing more versatile roles being made available to black actors, allowing them to explore different aspects of the human experience on screen. Black directors are also appearing behind cameras with opportunities to distribute their films to mainstream audiences - think Ava Duvernay who has worked on Disney films and on Netflix, Spike Lee who was finally awarded an academy award in 2019 for Blackkklansman and Amma Asante who won the Outstanding Debut BAFTA award…
Though there is still a way to go in achieving diversity in the film industry, these directors are just a few of the inspirational characters changing the climate for our next generation of black filmmakers. Their passion shows all young people that their dreams are valid and possible.