Posted by Susan Doll on March 8, 2010
Last week, I wrote about Chicago’s role in the birth of the mainstream film industry, which is most often treated as a footnote in text books and film histories. Even less known is the city’s importance to the development of an African American cinema in which black entrepreneurs made movies for black audiences. While there are several scholarly studies on the development of an African American cinema, and many of them chronicle the early pioneers, the whole story has yet to creep into coffee-table film histories or filter into the popular consciousness.
In 1913, when Selig Polyscope and the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company were at a peak of production in Chicago, William Foster established the William Foster Photoplay Company in the Grand Theater on the South Side before he moved his offices to 3312 S. Wabash. According to some, William Foster may have produced, written, and directed the first race movie, that is, the first film produced for a black audience featuring an all-black cast and crew. Foster had experience in the entertainment business because he was working as a booking agent and business manager for Chicago’s Pekin Theater, a vaudeville house. Using the name Juli Jones, he also wrote for the Chicago Defender, the city’s legendary African American newspaper.
Foster was part of the African American press who had grown unhappy with the portrayal of blacks in movies from the mainstream film industry. As far back as 1909, the black press had denounced the negative depictions of their race and simultaneously called for African Americans to become not only actors and actresses but also directors, scenario writers, and behind-the-scenes crew members. Their theory was that with experienced personnel, black entrepreneurs could enter the motion picture business and make movies with more appropriate depictions of black life. Foster made that commitment in 1913 with the Foster Photoplay Company, and as he wrote in the Indianapolis Freeman: “It [the film industry] is the Negro businessman’s only international chance to make money and put his race right with the world.” His goal was not only business success but also to show that African Americans could improve their image and standing all over the world.
Foster’s first film was The Railroad Porter, a two-reel slapstick comedy starring Lottie Grady and Howard Kelly made in the style of the Keystone Cops. The Railroad Porter, combined with the first black newsreel, which was of a YMCA parade, premiered in Chicago at both the States and Grand Theaters, and it became a financial success. Foster’s connections to the Pekin gave him access to entertainers, whom he hired to star in his two-reel movies over the next few years. Unfortunately, Foster grew disillusioned over problems with white distributors, who would not deal with him and his movies. In 1917, he disbanded the Foster Photoplay Company, though he continued to show his movies to South Side audiences for a few years, and he sent prints to the troops fighting overseas during World War I. During the 1920s, he moved to Los Angeles to produce musical shorts of black entertainers for Pathe Studios, and then tried to establish a second incarnation of the Foster Photoplay Company. However, the coming of sound had made it difficult for many small companies to stay in business because of the expense of investing in sound technology, and the major Hollywood studios tightened their control of distribution and exhibition. Foster’s second Photoplay Company closed its doors before it produced even one film.
Yet, Foster was correct in his belief that African American audiences would embrace the opportunity to see themselves onscreen in a variety of roles that were not demeaning. In Chicago, several black producers followed Foster’s lead and began making motion pictures. As a matter of fact, more black production companies started in Chicago prior to the coming of sound than in any other city. The large African American population in Chicago combined with the moral support of the Defender and the financial support of black entrepreneurs helped foster this alternative film industry in the Windy City. In 1916, Peter P. Jones, a portrait photographer who had photographed such prominent African Americans as W.E.B. Dubois and Bert Williams, opened a production company on S. Prairie Avenue. While his first film, Sambo and Dinah, was a two-reel comedy that exploited unflattering stereotypes, his second film was a high point for African American motion pictures. For the Honor of the 8th Illinois U.S.A. chronicled the history of the all-black 8th Illinois military unit. After a few films, Jones returned to still photography in New York City and eventually became the first African American to work in the lab of a major film studio when he was hired by Lewis Selznik for his studio. (Lewis was the father of Myron and David O.) In 1922, Jones teamed up with stunt flier Bessie Coleman, the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license, to make a movie based on her exploits, but the venture did not work out. He did manage to make a film about aviation, but it was a two-reel comedy called How High Is Up?—his last known foray into film production.
In addition to established production companies that were large enough to make at least a dent in history, there were many individuals and tiny companies that have been completely forgotten. Miles M. Webb’s company, Unique Film, produced only one movie. In 1916, Webb released Shadowed by the Devil, which had a plot that touched on the supernatural—unusual for the era. The story was written by Webb’s wife and involved the devil-possessed son of a black businessman. A look through the movie gossip pages and ads from old issues of the Chicago Defender reveals many names and titles completely lost to history. In a July 1922 issue, for example, the Defender noted that filmmaker Ben Strasser was releasing his new drama The Devil’s Match to local theaters, while E.L. Cummings had sold all his prints of his film Loyal Hearts to Sidney P. Dones. With a nominal investment, any individual with a script during the silent era could hire a few actors from the pool of vaudevillians or minstrel performers in the city and rent a Kodak package. The Kodak package included a camera, an operator who knew how to run it, and a few lights. These small entrepreneurs would try to sell their films to established companies, or take prints of their movies to local theaters in the hopes of getting a play date. Few managed to produce more than a handful of movies before realizing that making large profits in the motion picture business was not easy.
A production company that ran into trouble for different reasons was the Ebony Film Corporation, which was formed in 1917. Ebony had over 40 entertainers under contract, including Sam Robinson, the brother of Bill “Bojangles.” Ebony was owned by two white men, but it was managed by an African American named Luther J. Pollard. Ebony was one of the few black-based companies that had production facilities, which were located on the North Side near California and Fullerton, but their offices were at 608 S. Dearborn. Ebony specialized in comedies with titles such as The Porters, The Bully, Mercy the Mumble Mumbled, Spying the Spy, and A Black Sherlock Holmes, and Pollard was proud to claim that his studio’s movies were clean and did not feature demeaning stereotypes. Ebony’s comedies played in white theaters, probably because the company was owned by two white men, and the movies made money in those venues. However, the Chicago Defender disagreed with Pollard, accusing Ebony of featuring “scenes of degradation” in their comedies. The newspaper campaigned against Ebony in editorials and reviews, and in at least one instance, an Ebony film was yanked from a black theater for its offensive stereotypes. The Defender’s criticism of Pollard and his company may have started when Ebony decided to release the films of the white-owned Historical Feature Film Company under the Ebony banner. Historical Feature Film did use black characters that were more blatant stereotypes. The Defender’s crusade against Ebony eventually turned black theaters against their films, and the company suffered from financial difficulties. Ebony folded in 1919.
The Chicago Defender and its experiences with the city’s black production companies is an example of the close relationship between black papers and the African American film industry. Black newspapers supported the industry in general by cheering on the efforts of all producers and by providing reviews, ads, and behind-the-scenes gossip on specific films. But, sometimes this close relationship resulted in unwanted advice and suggestions from columnists and reviewers on what the companies should be producing for the screen, and if producers and filmmaker did not heed their advice, then a flurry of criticism in print could hurt individual companies.
Most black-owned production companies did not survive the coming of sound, because of the expense of the sound technology, the consolidation and systemization of the industry, and the lack of consistent distribution and exhibition outlets available to African American companies. The Johnson Brothers of Los Angeles, who owned the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, had mild success when they set up the first film exchange for black-produced films, but it did not last. The exception to the rule was Oscar Micheaux, the most tenacious of the black film producers and filmmakers, and one of the few to survive into the sound era. He successfully worked outside the Hollywood industry during an era when the major studios had a strong grip on distribution and exhibition. This makes Micheaux and his business tactics a forerunner to today’s independent filmmakers. Micheaux is the best-known of the filmmakers who got their starts in Chicago, undoubtedly due to his thirty-year career. He has also gained a high profile because of the Oscar Micheaux Book and Film Festival in Gregory, South Dakota, which is devoted to showcasing his films and preserving his legacy.
By the time Micheaux entered the motion picture business in 1918, he had already experienced a lifetime of adventures and occupations too numerous to mention here. He opened the Micheaux Film and Book Company at 538 S. Dearborn to produce a film adaptation of his novel The Homesteader after negotiations with the Lincoln Motion Picture Company fell through. Lincoln was a Los Angeles-based African American production company owned by George and Noble Johnson. (Noble would later become an actor in Hollywood films.) Micheaux had very specific ideas for the project, which the Johnsons did not support, so the determined first-time filmmaker made it happen himself. He raised the money by selling stock in the production to white businessmen, former neighbors, and other associates. The three-hour epic drama opened in Chicago in 1919 to great success, encouraging Micheaux to continue in the motion picture business.
A handsome, imposing figure and a persuasive talker, Micheaux convinced local businessmen to invest in his productions and theater managers to book his films. Sometimes, he asked theater managers to advance him money on upcoming projects. He not only booked his movies into Chicago theaters but he would also go on the road with prints of his films loaded in the trunk of his car and persuade theater managers in other urban centers or in the segregated South to play his movies. Barnstorming, a technique he learned from selling his novels back in the day, is how Micheaux got around the problem of distribution.
During the silent era, Micheaux based his storylines on issues, problems, and headlines relevant to his black audiences, and sometimes his films courted controversy. In 1920, he released Within Our Gates, a drama with a powerful sequence detailing a lynching. Chicago had been seething with racial tension for months because of an incident in the summer of 1919. A young black man had been stoned and then drowned by a group of white Chicagoans because he had drifted toward a white’s only beach while swimming in Lake Michigan. Afterwards, whites and blacks rioted in the streets, houses were burned in arson attacks, and the National Guard was called in to keep order. Fearing more violence in the streets, prominent black religious and community leaders did not want Within Our Gates to be exhibited in Chicago. The film was initially censored by the city, but other African American city leaders thought it should be shown. Eventually, Chicago’ s mayor and chief of police allowed the film to be exhibitied. By this time, the controversy had made Within Our Gates a must-see film. The Chicago Defender proclaimed, “People interested in the welfare of the Race cannot afford to miss seeing this great production, and remember, it TELLS IT ALL.”
As much as I like the Oscar Micheaux story, his many talents did NOT include directing. Even considering his low budgets and short schedules, some of his movies, particularly his sound films, suffered from poor production values and unsuccessful solutions to creative problems. Black newspapers often criticized his films for their lack of craftsmanship and for the uneven acting in which newcomers were thrust in scenes with established players. Micheaux was always searching for ways to cut corners and ways to exploit opportunities that came his way. Friends who operated or managed night clubs let him shoot in their establishments after hours so that he did not have to deal with more difficult locations. The clubs’ staff and showgirls were lent to Micheaux to be extras and entertainers. A production number or chorus line could be added to pad out the film’s running time. Thus, an inordinate number of the wily director’s movies take place in night clubs. One of Micheaux’s discoveries, an actress named Shingzie Howard, was fond of telling a story about the director’s predilection for cutting corners, which she preferred to think of as resourcefulness. One day, a woman in a fur coat came to see Micheaux in his Dearborn Street offices, and she hung her coat in an outer room. Micheaux asked her to wait in his personal office while he called Howard who dashed over to meet one of the company cameramen. Howard hastily put on the fur coat while the visitor was talking to Micheaux and stepped out into the streets with the cameraman who then photographed the actress strolling down the boulevard or crossing the street in the fashionable fur. These shots were saved for future films that might call for a fashionably dressed character.
Micheaux may not have been a good director or a solid craftsman, but he was a decent storyteller, and his intricate plots concluded with a moral and exploited subjects and issues relevant to black audiences. I have seen about half dozen Micheaux films, and my favorite is a three-part mystery titled Ten Minutes to Live (1932). Despite issues of poor craftsmanship, the film features a long sequence in a taxi cab that moves through the streets of downtown Chicago. The camera is aimed out the window and captures the hustle-bustle of the city during the early Depression era, adding a vitality and naturalism to his film that is lacking in the Hollywood features of the day. Hollywood had become hopelessly devoted to synchronized sound, and the cumbersome equipment made studio-bound films the norm. While the sequence was born out of the low-budget necessities of Micheaux’s filmmaking, it is like a breath of fresh air compared to the studio-bound cityscapes in Hollywood features of the same time frame.
Micheaux left Chicago in 1926, but he continued to make movies in various locations. During the course of his career, he managed to employ a number of notable African American actors, including Robert Earl Jones, who was James Earl’s father, and handsome Lorenzo Tucker, whom he billed as “the Black Valentino.” As the sound era progressed, the crudeness of Micheaux’s direction became more apparent, and he found it increasingly difficult to book his movies in theaters. His last film, The Betrayal, was released in 1947. The big man died in North Carolina in 1951. Like his white counterparts Selig and Anderson, Micheaux has been honored outside of Chicago but not so much in his adopted city. A museum and festival in Gregory, South Dakota, pay tribute to his contributions, and he has received a star on Hollywood Boulevard.
Outside of a collection of photos buried in the archives of the Chicago History Museum, the handful of articles in local newspapers and magazines about Chaplin’s brief tenure at Essanay, or the occasional exhibition of “race” movies at Doc Films or the School of the Art Institute, the city seems uninterested in thoroughly exploiting its unique contributions to the history of cinema or in marketing it as a way to draw in tourist dollars. The names of Selig, Anderson, and Spoor have largely been forgotten, and any trace of Micheaux and his peers was torn down, built over, or destroyed long ago.
Bernstein, Arnie. Hollywood on Lake Michigan. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1998.
Bowser, Pearl, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser, eds. Oscar Micheaux and His Circle. Indiana Universisty Press, 2001.
Gaines, Jane. Fire & Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
McGilligan, Patrick. Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker. New York City: Harper, 2007.
Thomas, Pamela, producer. Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of Race Movies. Northern Light Productions for PBS’s American Experience, 1995.
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