If cinema is both an entertainment and information platform that gives society a window to take a peek at nuances that would otherwise slip from the oblivious citizen, then it ought to be African American Cinema. In many ways, the contribution of the African-American character has not been fully appreciated in films, let alone given ample chance to direct and take charge of a movie or occupy the seat of the commanding producer as has been White producers. Despite all such disturbing profile of the so-cried American democracy and equal representation, African Americans have been toiling their ways up the cinema ladder despite the enormous deliberate hurdles that have been thrown at short notice and in some cases derailed the project. Only few would grasp what history-strewn sacrifice it has taken to put such names as Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Halle Berry, and Whoopi Goldberg on the TV screens or have their names embossed on a glossy trophy (Clark, 2016).
The representation of the African American has been a cruel, sheer mockery, and a sad tale of suppression, thereby making African American Cinema one of the most intriguing and inspiring stories of the 21st-century film studies. Clark argues that in many respects, the African American Cinema (AAC) has forever been “circumscribed by its racist, one-dimensional portraits of black people as layabouts and lecherous savages.” It is quite apparent then that the definitional deadlock that characterizes the cinema where some refer to it as the “racist cinema,” or the “separate cinema,” or even the “other cinema” is a testament to the stereotyping of all Black films as thriving on the redress of slavery, segregation, injustices and so forth. In a different analysis, Knight (2016) faces the dilemma of adequately defining the AAC. He questions, does the cinema qualify as AAC because it is based on a Black-centered plot, or is it because the protagonist and other actors are Black, or is it because it was produced in a Black only studio with primarily Blacks directing its course? Decoding the answer may be too lengthy an argument. Even so, the history of the AAC is still compelling.
The primary reason the AAC would qualify as a worthy segment of academic analysis is the history that gave rise to the liberal acceptance of African Americans in the cinema scene as more or less significant members. But such was not the case, until after they had broken the barriers against all the odds to make a bold presence within and without American borders. The history of the AAC could be segmented in three prominent phases. The first is the mediocrity era when African American representation in cinema was nothing short of a gimmick that painted the typical African American as the buck-like, brutish, and macabre individual (Bourne, 1990). Examples include The Birth of a Nation (1915) by D.W. Griffith and Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920). The second phase is the Blacksploitation era of the 60s and 70s with such films as Blacula and Sidney Poiter’s Lilies of The Field (1963). The period marked the “marketability” of the African American who only fell into the hands of White exploiters (Clark 2016; Liversidge, 2003).
The third and latest era embodies the beginning of the Black cinematographic Renaissance often called the “New Black Wave” that began in the 80s (Liversidge, 2003). The period marked the beginning of evident African American determinism as concerns acting, production, and direction. With new found power and relative independence in cinema, the AAC spelled the beginning of diversified African American representation from the more criminal, ghetto-dwelling profile to include involvement in inspirational plots and themes that moved audiences beyond America. It gave rise to stardom of the African American actor. It would seem the heavens had opened indefinitely. However, AAC still faces difficulties even today with few African American represented in direction and even fewer in the production of films.
- Bourne, S. C. (1990). The African American image in American cinema. The Black Scholar, 21(2), 12-19.
- Clark, A. (2016, February 2). Second showing: unearthing the lost history of African American cinema. The Guardian. Retrieved form https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/feb/12/pioneers-african-american-cinema-oscar-micheaux.
- Knight, A. (2016). African American Cinema. Oxford Bibliographies in Cinema and Media Studies. doi: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0213.
- Liversidge, J. (2003). African American Cinema. Retrieved from http://www.library.ufl.edu/spec/belknap/cinema/cinemaaa.htm