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Migrating to the Movies

Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity

Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 367
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  • Book Info
    Migrating to the Movies
    Book Description:

    The rise of cinema as the predominant American entertainment around the turn of the last century coincided with the migration of hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the South to the urban "land of hope" in the North. This richly illustrated book, discussing many early films and illuminating black urban life in this period, is the first detailed look at the numerous early relationships between African Americans and cinema. It investigates African American migrations onto the screen, into the audience, and behind the camera, showing that African American urban populations and cinema shaped each other in powerful ways. Focusing on Black film culture in Chicago during the silent era,Migrating to the Moviesbegins with the earliest cinematic representations of African Americans and concludes with the silent films of Oscar Micheaux and other early "race films" made for Black audiences, discussing some of the extraordinary ways in which African Americans staked their claim in cinema's development as an art and a cultural institution.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93640-9
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  6. Introduction: A Nigger in the Woodpile, or Black (In) Visibility in Film History
    (pp. 1-20)

    On the screen we see two white farmers talking to each other next to a pile of wooden logs. One of them places a stick of dynamite inside one of the logs, which he then slips back into the woodpile. When the white men exit, two Black men enter and surreptitiously steal several pieces of wood (figs. 5 and 6).

    In the next shot, we see the interior of a cabin where a large Black woman is preparing food next to a wood-burning stove (fig.7). The Black thieves enter, and one of them places log after log into the stove...


    • CHAPTER ONE “To Misrepresent a Helpless Race”: The Black Image Problem
      (pp. 23-49)

      Black people living in the North in the early twentieth century understood that they could not completely escape the kinds of racial insults and abuses that were regularly visited upon their counterparts living in the “unreconstructed” South. Lynchings, riots, and vicious media caricatures were recurring features of Black life in northern cities during this period, influencing local interracial relations, as well as the ways in which racial difference was understood by, represented to, and circulated for a national public. This period witnessed the emergence of cinema, and it comes as no surprise that its early methods of representing Blackness both...

    • CHAPTER TWO Mixed Colors: Riddles of Blackness in Preclassical Cinema
      (pp. 50-90)

      Proceeding from the discursive and apparatus-based approaches outlined in chapter 1 , this chapter surveys Black images in a wide variety of preclassical films to explore more broadly how the complex issues surrounding Black image production developed as Black northern and urban migration gained momentum. I describe how the Black image problem in preclassical cinema is frequently organized around Black-white looking relations and the visibility of Blackness in many cinematic contexts.¹ Preclassical films repeatedly foreground questions about the ability of whites to see and recognize Blackness—and thereby control and contain it—at a moment when African Americans were vocally...


    • CHAPTER THREE “Negroes Laughing at Themselves”? Black Spectatorship and the Performance of Urban Modernity
      (pp. 93-113)

      On screen, preclassical cinema treats Black figures as complex and contradictory reflections of white anxieties about Black mobility and visibility. In contrast, the dominant film industry’s treatment of African Americans as viewers may seem to be more straightforward and consistently discriminatory—it excludes Blacks from its textually inscribed, imagined audience and adheres to prevailing segregationist policies in its exhibition practices. As the cinema formalized and standardized its modes of representation, address, and exhibition, more and more commentators questioned the attraction of moving pictures for African Americans, particularly in light of the kinds of Black images they featured, which seemed to...

    • CHAPTER FOUR “Some Thing to See Up Here All the Time”: Moviegoing and Black Urban Leisure in Chicago
      (pp. 114-154)

      Given the dearth of evidence documenting specific instances of Black film spectatorship, but the survival of early Black protest against the cinema’s racist and exclusionary practices, many scholars have assumed that most African Americans did not want to patronize preclassical cinema any more than white audiences wanted to share theater space. Film historian Thomas Cripps has argued that during the early years of film production, African Americans were not particularly interested in moviegoing:

      Negroes, both intellectuals and urban masses, shared an indifference to the cinema. Because of their deep puritan fundamentalist roots, black churches eschewed film as needless frivolity. Organized...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Along the “Stroll”: Chicago’s Black Belt Movie Theaters
      (pp. 155-186)

      During the first two decades of the twentieth century, moviegoing became one of the most popular and, therefore, hotly debated leisure activities for African Americans in Chicago and other cities. As a feature of a northern industrial landscape that was more “modern” than the South, but still structured by racial segregation, urban moviegoing could allow Black people, particularly migrants, to assume a range of evolving public rights and roles. For example, Mary Carbine persuasively argues that during this period movie theaters provided Chicago’s African American community with “a space for consciousness and assertion of social difference as well as the...


    • CHAPTER SIX Reckless Rovers versus Ambitious Negroes: Migration, Patriotism, and the Politics of Genre in Early African American Filmmaking
      (pp. 189-218)

      As we have seen, by the early 1910s African Americans made up a conspicuous portion of the American film audience, patronizing moving pictures in a variety of contexts, including hundreds of theaters across the country that catered specifically to Black clienteles. Inspired by the expansion of this largely segregated market, which included growing Black urban populations with disposable income and race-conscious views, a handful of African American entrepreneurs began to form their own film production companies to respond in kind to the portrayal (or, more frequently, the absence) of Blackness in dominant cinema. Even before D. W. Griffith’s inflammatoryBirth...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN “We Were Never Immigrants”: Oscar Micheaux and the Reconstruction of Black American Identity
      (pp. 219-244)

      George P. Johnson took credit for getting Oscar Micheaux started in the film production business. After reading Micheaux’s third novel,The Homesteader(1917), Johnson approached Micheaux about the possibility of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company purchasing the film rights to his book. Correspondence ensued, and contracts were drawn up and ready to be signed when Micheaux demanded that the film be at least six reels in length and insisted on supervising the production himself. When Lincoln refused these terms, Micheaux produced the film on his own. He went on to make more than forty films between 1918 and 1948 ,...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 245-250)

    Oscar Micheaux’s misgivings about the quality of Black urban life would reverberate in African American art and political thought with subsequent waves of Black movement. So would the kinds of representational dilemmas he faced. Migration made African American subjects visible in unprecedented ways in (African) American intellectual and popular discourses. But this increased visibility heightened Black and white anxieties about how Black people could or should participate in the elaboration of a modern American society and its attendant visual, mass, and public cultures.

    When Richard Wright was asked to write a short essay to accompany a collection of Depression-era photographs...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 251-310)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 311-326)
  13. Index
    (pp. 327-343)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 344-344)