Cara Caddoo is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her new book is Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life (Harvard University Press, 2014).
Jason McGraw is author of The Work of Recognition: Caribbean Colombia and the Postemancipation Struggle for Citizenship (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
McGraw interviewed Caddoo about Envisioning Freedom:
What is the story you tell in your book?Learn more about Envisioning Freedom at the Harvard University Press website.
Before Oscar Micheaux, or Hollywood, or even the nickelodeon theater, African Americans exhibited and produced their own motion pictures. This began in the 1890s, shortly after the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” decision, when hundreds of thousands of black migrants were leaving the countryside. In cities across the South and West, film became a way that black folk could have fun together, fundraise for their organizations, and broadcast ideas about black progress.
This history helps explain the responses of African Americans to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of Nation. In what effectively became the first mass black protest movement of the twentieth century—we’re talking railroad porters, housewives, gangsters, and schoolchildren—African Americans weren’t just reacting to a terrible new medium they knew nothing about; they were fighting to reclaim a form of popular culture that they had helped to create. The demands and political organizations that emerged from those protests were a direct precursor to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
How did you first discover that this entire “black cinema culture” in churches existed?
It began with a few colorful characters that I encountered pretty early in my research. Like Jamaican-born John E. Lewis, who migrated to Kansas where he became a barber, fought white terrorists, and exhibited motion pictures at a time when most of his white neighbors barely knew anything about the new technology. Another was a traveling minister named H. Charles Pope, who used the motion pictures to illustrate his church lectures about black progress and the 26 sins of dancing. I couldn’t wrap my head around their stories. They went against almost everything I thought I knew about early black film: that it began in the urban North, emerged during the Great Migration, and that black church leaders viewed it as a sinful form of entertainment. Lewis and Pope were religious, they worked in the Midwest, and they were exhibiting films a decade before the Great Migration. But they were so fascinating; I kept researching them, even though I didn’t think I would end up writing about them. They led me to other people, like William G. Hynes, who in 1905, traveled to the National Baptist Convention in Chicago to produce a film about the event! That’s when I realized that I had to shift gears, and when I did, I found thousands of records documenting the emergence of these black cinema practices.
Besides earning a living, did African American directors and film exhibitors have other goals for their films, like building community or engaging in politics?
They did. The motivations you mention were all part of a popular philosophy of the era known as “racial uplift,” the idea that self-help initiatives were essential for collective racial progress. The black men and women who first produced and exhibited motion pictures were vocal proponents of these ideas. They earned a living by raising money for black institutions and by serving black customers. This type of economic self-sufficiency, according to the philosophy of racial uplift, was in itself a political goal.
You describe the many diverse venues for showing early films marketed to African Americans. What were the earliest movie venues like, and how did the venues for watching films change over time?
The first films screened in places like black churches because these were the public, communal spaces open to African Americans in Jim Crow America. Plus, if you think about the architectural layout of most churches, they are set up a lot like movie theaters. By 1906, colored theaters began appearing in cities across the country, but in the countryside, churches continued to double as theaters for black audiences.
It seems like a thorny issue that always comes up with cinema history is how we today can understand what audiences got out of the experience of watching films in the past. This must be an especially difficult problem for talking about movie watching from a century ago. How do you handle the issue of audience reception of films?
You’re right; it is tough to know how audiences responded to films. To begin, black filmgoers were diverse. A poor woman who washes laundry for a living, and a college-educated minister might have very different tastes. But in my research, I paid a lot of attention to things like demand. Sometimes advertisements would announce the return of a “popular” program that had sold out the previous season. A few exhibitors offered “satisfaction or your money-back guarantees.” Around 1904, everyone started screening motion pictures about disaster and war. By that time, black audiences wouldn’t show up for a film they weren’t interested in seeing. Paired with a few more explicit records of the filmgoers’ responses to these films, we can begin to get a sense of audience reception.
You have been involved in film production yourself. So how did being behind the camera influence the story you tell in your book?
I was a filmmaker before I became a historian, and I think part of me always will be. Making films without a lot of resources teaches you to be humble about your expectations of other filmmakers. My experiences editing, knowing how much authorship can be involved in that process, is part of the reason that I’m so adamant that early black film exhibitors be described as auteurs.
On a completely different note, the tools I learned from filmmaking helped me with the writing process. Some of the worksheets and schedules that I used in production were really useful for organizing my book. At one point, I hacked a storyboard template to plot out a bunch of overlapping events. It helped me figure out how all these people were moving around, and what they were doing in different places, in a way that wasn’t as clear on the written page.
Could you recommend some early African American films, explain what’s special about them—what we should be looking for when watching them—and where we might find them to watch today?
I’m really excited about MOMA’s discovery of a 1913 Bert Williams film. But that’s a tough question to answer because the exhibitors of early black films were so critical to shaping the meaning of the pictures they screened. They usually screened several films, which they edited together along with still images, a lecture, or a musical performance. So much of these motion picture exhibitions existed outside the strips of celluloid that we’ve managed to preserve today.
The Page 99 Test: Envisioning Freedom.