Beyond the Oscars: A Century of African-American Milestones in Film

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Dorothy Dandridge strikes a pose for her film, "Carmen Jones," for which she became the first African-American to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

It may be Oscar season but the biggest spotlight isn’t on red carpets or gold statuettes. No, the Academy Awards are all about black and white.

The 2016 Oscar ceremony proved to be one of the most controversial in recent memory, given it was the second straight year with no acting nominees of colour. The #OscarsSoWhite debate served to spark much needed, and ongoing, discussions about diversity in Hollywood so, with Black History Month in the same month as the Academy Awards (February 26), we’re looking back more than a century to explore some of the most influential, historic and ground-breaking African-American milestones in cinema history.

1910: William D. Foster, a Chicago-based journalist and press agent, founds the first ever African-American film enterprise, the Foster Photoplay Company. It only lasted three years but broke ground with slapstick comedies featuring primarily black actors that countered the pervading negative stereotypes surrounding African-Americans at the time. His films include The Railroad Porter, The Fall Guy, The Butler, and The Grafter and the Maid and paved the way for future film companies run by African-Americans and/or that produced films featuring primarily African-American actors.

1913: Famed African-American comedian, vaudeville star and recording artist Bert Williams’ Lime Kiln Club Field Day hits theatres. Decades later, curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA) discovered old film reels from the movie in their archives, restoring them and making the oldest surviving film featuring a primarily black cast.

1915: Though run by white owners, the Ebony Film Corporation is founded and sets out to follow in the Foster Photoplay Company’s footsteps – even working out of Chicago – to create films that star black casts and confront and dispel stereotypes about African-Americans. The company remains in business until 1920 when, ironically, Foster’s old publication, the Chicago Defender, levels accusations of racism against it and puts it out of business.

1916: African-American actor Noble Johnson and brother George Perry Johnson establish the first production company operated solely by blacks – the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. They’re also among the first producers of films both starring and aimed at African-Americans, such as 1916’s The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition and the Trooper of Troop K the following year, which counter the racist depictions of African-Americans in the highly offensive 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. The company remained in business until 1921.

1918: Emmett Jay Scott, a former newspaper editor, member of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s administration and advisor to Booker T. Washington sets out to create an official film rebuttal to The Birth of a Nation on behalf of his fellow African-Americans. He even outlines his plan for the film, titled The Birth of a Race: “The Birth of a Race, the true story of the Negro — his life in Africa, his enslavement, his freedom, his achievements — together with his past, present and future relations with his white neighbour. It will bring close the future in which the races — all races — will see each other as they are.” The film is released in 1918 but differs greatly from Scott’s original idea for it and garners poor box office and critical returns.

Oscar Micheaux, a pioneering and hugely influential African-American filmmaker whose work both tackled social issues facing blacks and bridged the silent film and talkie eras, releases his first film, The Homesteader.

1927: The Colored Players Film Corporation, based in Philadelphia, releases The Scar of Shame, one of the earliest surviving examples of films made by African-Americans for African-American audiences – also known as “race” films.

1929: Hearts in Dixie and Hallelujah!, two ground-breaking musical films boasting African-American casts, debut. Both treat African-Americans with far more respect than major productions usually did, free of slavery roles and stereotypes that tended to haunt black characters in film.

1930: Eloyce Gist, a female filmmaker, and her husband James, who, “used filmmaking as a spiritualizing medium, employing mystical trick effects alongside visual storytelling techniques to promote religious morality through cinema,” release two films, Verdict: Not Guilty and Hellbound Train.

1940: Hattie McDaniel makes history as the first African American to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind – a bittersweet victory given the win was for an explicitly racist role in an explicitly racist movie, the premiere of which she was even banned from attending due to the state of Georgia’s segregation laws.

1943: Lena Horne stars in two major movie musicals featuring black casts – Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather – alongside co-stars such as Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (performing a musical number) in the former and Cab Calloway and Bill Robinson in the latter.

1955: Dorothy Dandridge makes history as the first African-American nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her turn in the musical Carmen Jones.

1959: Imitation of Life stars African-American actress Juanita Moore as a housekeeper named Annie opposite Lana Turner as a Broadway star who employs her. It’s one of the first films to cast the “Mammy” role in a significant and emotional light as one of the main focuses of the movie. The crux of the plot revolves around Annie’s struggles with her daughter, who can pass as white, and who shuns her African-American heritage to pursue the advantages being white can offer. The powerful role and Moore’s performance earned the actress a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the following year’s Academy Awards.

1959 and 1963: Sidney Poitier makes history as the first black actor nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his role in The Defiant Ones. He eventually wins the award – the first black actor to do so – in 1963 for Lilies of the Field.

1971: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Melvin Van Peebles’ hugely influential, self-financed film in which he stars as a male prostitute on the lam hits theatres. Backed by a hit soundtrack courtesy of Earth, Wind & Fire, many credit the movie with ushering in the Blaxploitation genre.

Suzanne De Passe makes Oscar history as the first African-American nominated for Best Original Screenplay for the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings The Blues.

1972: At the same Academy Awards ceremony, Isaac Hayes wins the statuette for Best Original Song for the “Theme from Shaft” from Shaft. The win makes him the first African-American to both win in that category and to take home a trophy for something other than acting.

1985: Music superstar Prince makes Oscar history as the first African-American winner of the now-defunct category for Best Original Song Score for the film Purple Rain.

1986: Spike Lee’s first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, debuts in theatres and also takes home awards at major film festivals including Cannes.

1992: At age 24, John Singleton becomes both the first African-American director to pick up a Best Director nomination and the youngest person to ever be nominated in the category for his classic Boyz N The Hood.

1994: Whoopi Goldberg isn’t nominated for any hardware, but she still makes history as the first solo African-American Oscar host. She had won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Ghost in 1990.

2002: Halle Berry’s Best Actress Oscar win for Monster’s Ball makes her the first, and only, African-American to win the award.

2005: Writer and filmmaker Tyler Perry introduces the world to Mabel Simmons, better known by her nickname Madea, in his first feature film Diary of a Mad Black Woman. The film, based on a play by Perry, flops with critics but the sequel, Madea’s Family Reunion, a year later, fares better. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, Madea, whom Perry himself portrays, would prove the foundation for his entertainment empire, which includes plays, multiple films, television shows, books and even an entertainment partnership with Oprah Winfrey.

2010: Lee Daniels becomes the first African-American director to have a film nominated for Best Picture when his movie Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire, vies for the award. He didn’t win, but the film’s screenwriter, Geoffrey Fletcher, did, becoming the first African-American to win the Best Adapted Screenplay trophy.

2013: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences elects its first African-American president – Cheryl Boone Isaacs – a position she still holds today.

2014: Following in the footsteps of Lee Daniels’ historic nomination four years earlier, director Steve McQueen makes history as the first African-American director and first African-American producer to see their film win the Best Picture Oscar. The film: 12 Years a Slave.

2017: Bradford Young becomes the first African-American to receive an Oscar nomination in the “Best Cinematography” category, earning the nod for his work on the film Arrival, and the second person of colour to ever receive a nomination in the category (English cinematographer Remi Adefarasin was the first, for his work on the 1998 film Elizabeth). If Young wins, he’ll become the first person of colour to take home the award.