In her new book, “Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life,” Cara Caddoo reveals a fascinating lost history of early film.
At the turn of the 20th century, African Americans were central to the development of cinema in our country. And, in turn, motion pictures were a powerful force in black society. Movies forged a shared sense of identity and created a range of business and social opportunities.
“Doing research on my own films made me fall in love with the process of finding treasures from the past,” said Caddoo, an assistant professor of American studies at Indiana University. “While doing that, I started to discover this really rich history that nobody ever talked about.”
She said that when we ask who invented the movies, we often hear names like Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers. “But, have you heard of William G. Hynes, S.A. Bunn or the Conleys? These African Americans were pioneers of American cinema. Long before the emergence of Hollywood, they produced and exhibited motion pictures for black audiences.”
Hynes, Bunn and the Conleys were some of the important itinerant exhibitors of the era. They traveled from town to town with movie projectors and individualized programs of entertainment. Typical shows would include a mix of their own short films, music and live performances. In one single night, a picture show might splice together wildly different subjects like a natural disaster, Bible stories, theatrical scenes and documentary-style footage of everyday life.
The public was transfixed by the new media. When a traveling movie show stopped in Lancaster County, Pa., in 1897, the local stores, schools and even the courts closed.
The novelty soon subsided, but in 1920 more than half the American population was going to the movies at least once a week.
A larger history
“Envisioning Freedom” is filled with interesting anecdotes, but it focuses on a larger social history. For black Americans, motion pictures were symbols of modernity and tools of “racial uplift.” In their communities, film was intertwined with major social shifts such as migration, urbanization, expanding transportation networks and the growth of a black middle class.
Caddoo said one of the first surprises in her research was discovering that early motion pictures were shown in black churches more often than in freestanding theaters. “There is this whole rich history of black film culture in churches and other black institutions.”
Within black society, churches were the main public gathering spaces, and sometimes the only ones. Church was the center of not only religious life but community life.
The motion picture shows in churches had an enormous economic impact. In fact, many church buildings were constructed on a foundation of film profits. “At the same time it was this fun, shared experience, it was also a way to raise money for black churches and other institutions that were fighting for civil rights,” Caddoo said.
A separate cinema
American movie palaces built by white owners reflected the racial divisions in society. In the South, laws relegated where black patrons could sit. In the North, local etiquette was just as restrictive.
However, Caddoo said that by 1915, “Black filmmakers and the audiences made cinema into something that was their own.”
An important part of that world was the rise of black-owned theaters. Instead of being hidden away in balconies, black patrons could go to movie houses where they were welcome to see films and be seen, often in their finest clothing. They could socialize while they watched works made especially for their theaters.
While church leaders had once embraced film, many soon soured on the medium. Movie houses competed with the church for profits and people’s time. And as entertainment evolved, ministers often frowned upon the content and blamed the movies for many of society’s ills.
As Caddoo pointed out, The Renard Theatre in Baltimore once advertised “We change our pictures to please our patrons” — not to please their ministers.
Uplift, backlash and uprising
In her book, Caddoo also explores a range of other intersections between social history and early cinema.
She writes about the careers of successful filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux, who for a time achieved international distribution for his films, including “Within Our Gates.”
She covers the legal backlash against boxing films that began July 4, 1910, when Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion of the world by knocking out “The Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries.
And the filmmaker-turned-historian analyzes the mass protests that erupted in nearly 60 cities as black citizens responded to the racist depictions and warped history presented in the 1915 D.W. Griffith film “Birth of a Nation.”
Overall, “Envisioning Freedom” presents a fresh and layered perspective. As Caddoo writes, “Across three decades and hundreds of thousands of miles and amid unspeakable violence, economic exploitation and racial segregation, the history of black cinema is one of both constrained possibilities and astonishing creativity.”
“Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life” (Harvard University Press, 2014) is available through the publisher and major booksellers.