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Book Review – ‘Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life’

Book Review - 'Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life'

We should begin here with a simple truism: Those who control the narrative of history also control the narration of the present.

The struggle for racial inclusiveness in the White-washed narrative of history has many battlefields.  In the battlefield of the cinematic art we were recently confronted with the epic biblical stories like Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH (2014) which featured no people of color at all and Ridley Scott’s, EXODUS: Gods and Kings (2014) which relegated Blacks to servant roles in open defiance to historical veracity.  Both of these films, no matter the excuses of the filmmakers, are in total adherence to the White supremacist ideal of a White dominated racial hierarchy in their representation of Biblical history.

If NOAH seemed to tell people of color that they were not a part of Judeo-Christian historical tradition, then EXODUS seemed to tell people of color that,” you were there but only as servants to Whites and to others of a lighter hue.”

Racial inclusion without dramatic agency is tokenism plain and simple. (1)

Yet an equally significant battlefield of racial inclusiveness is located in the halls of academia regarding how the history of early cinema is so often told from the perspective of White inventors (Edison, the Lumière Brothers), White film studios (Pathé, RKO, Fox) and early White filmmakers (Edison, Edwin S. Porter, D.W. Griffith).  It would appear that Black intellectuals and minority scholars always have to play catch-up as they reintroduce people of color and women back into any White-washed historical narrative.  This is a difficult task given the fact that most canonical texts that tell of the early history of cinema still omit Blacks from their “official” telling of the tale and are often continually referenced without correction or amendment.

A recently released book by author Cara Caddoo entitled,” ENVISIONING FREEDOM: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life” (Havard University Press, 2014) is a valiant and insightful rectification of the White-washing of the history of early cinema.  With methodical attention to detail and engaging prose that brings the conflicts and the characters of history to life, Caddoo corrects the omission of Black people from the narrative of the early history of cinema.  Caddoo emphasizes, much like film scholar Anna Everett (Returning the Gaze) did with a history of Black film criticism before her, how deeply integral Blacks, the Black church and early Black filmmakers were to the early popularity of the new medium of Cinema (1895-1918).  “In fact, it is impossible to tell the story of twentieth-century Black public life and its institutions without considering the catalytic role of the moving pictures (pg.5),” asserts the author.

Through the lively pages of Envisioning Freedom we learn how the patents filed by early Black film exhibitors encouraged the standardization of the new medium and how the cinematic representation of Blackness on screen, both positive and negative, politically galvanized the collective notion of Blackness across the country.  But most importantly we learn that it was the wildfire notoriety of an indomitable Black athlete that helped to make the cinema the global commercial entertainment enterprise that it is today.

The observation of the early history of cinema as a cinema of attractions; a dazzling part of a fairground of amusements that travelled across the country showing modernity to those living in dense urban areas as well as those living in less populated rural areas has been popularized by White scholars such as Tom Gunning, Andre Gaudrault and many others.  Our redefined portrait of early cinema from the mid 1890’s until around 1905 comes to us very recently, but it is a portrait of the past that excludes Blacks except where the images of Blackness fall in line with the stereotypes and prejudices of the Whites who filmed Black “pickaninnes” eating watermelon, a Negress bathing her child or a lynching of a Black male for their own sick amusement.

Although Caddoo stops short of observing that films of Blacks being lynched by White mobs were the first “snuff” films that ever existed (i.e. films of people actually being murdered), she provides a detailed enough chronicle of the turbulent and every changing state of early cinema and violent race relations that a perceptive reader can easily infer this horrifying conclusion.

Of great interest in Caddoo’s work is her emphasis on how involved the Black church was in popularizing the new medium of cinema among Blacks and how the Black church used early White films, often re-editing those that showed Blacks, as a means of religious fund raising and racial uplift.  This proto-chitterling circuit used Black itinerant film exhibitors that travelled the Black migration routes to dense Black communities to show films at the churches, lodges and vaudeville/minstrel shows that formed the popular venues of entertainment for Blacks at the turn of the century.

While the public interest and profits grew as the cinema emerged as more than just a passing fad, Caddoo documents how the positive attitude of the Black church towards the cinema turned negative as the newly erected film theaters began to drain money from the collection plates of the Black church.  It is in Envisioning Freedom that we can see the emergence of that now familiar tight moral line between negative and positive images of Black representation that often still inhibits and haunts us to this very day.  The question of whether cinema should be used solely to uplift the race or should cinema be allowed to show a “warts and all” representation of Blackness in the context of a White supremacist society?  For those of us Black filmmakers, writers and actors who are still struggling with the “burden of representation” it is a bit shocking to learn that this question finds its beginning only a few years after the birth of cinema and several years before Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION.

Caddoo locates the beginnings of this question of the “burden of representation” regarding Blackness upon the image of the first Black movie star whose notoriety and defiant personality catapulted the popularity of cinema on a global scale: the (in)famous Black pugilist Jack Johnson and his filmed defeat of the great White hope Jim Jeffries on July 4th 1910.  She describes the film of the 1910 prize fight as,” … a pivotal moment in the intertwined history of modern cinema and race (pg.117).”  The intense worldwide interest in this single Black film as both a challenge to White supremacist ideals and a symbol of Black superiority was ultimately a catalyst for new laws which defined cinema as not an art but a commercial product, Black racial pride, race riots and the global commercial popularity of the new medium.   Even though the author asserts that,” Black Americans would never agree on the meaning of Johnson’s image,” the very fact that a Black film and its Black star would shape modern cinema as we know it is a glaring omission from the tradition historical narrative of the birth of cinema that can no longer be tolerated.  In Caddoo’s words,” Black Americans participated in and were subject to the creation of this modern visual world (pg.137).”

Inevitably, Caddoo must confront that seminal racist film text that defined American filmmaking as the technical and aesthetic standard through which other nations must overcome as well as defined the stereotypical tropes of negative Black representation whose poison still lingers today: D. W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION (1915).   The author looks at the political and collective effect of screenings of BIRTH OF A NATION upon Black communities throughout America at the time.  How protests against BIRTH OF A NATION would pre-figure the local and national campaigns for Civil Rights several decades later.

I’d like to spotlight two other books that approach the issue of BIRTH OF A NATION in ways that shed new light on how the film was perceived and reacted to within the Black community:

RETURNING THE GAZE: A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism 1909-1949 by Anna Everett, Duke University Press, 2001. (2)

FORGERIES OF MEMORY & MEANING: Blacks & The Regimes of Race in American Theatre & Film Before World War II by Cedric J. Robinson, The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. (3)  

So now, including Cara Caddoo’s ENVISIONING RACE: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life, we have three relatively recent scholarly perspectives on BIRTH OF A NATION and its effect within the Black community that will give the Black intellectual and others contesting the status quo a greater and more insightful view into this defining moment of American cinematic history that can no longer be White-washed or toned down for the sake of political correctness.

One of the final chapters of ENVISIONING FREEDOM highlights an issue that I and others here at Shadow and Act have discussed for many years: the need for Black filmmakers to reach international audiences. The final chapter of the book emphasizes how early Black filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux and William Foster,”… described their ambitions in far-reaching terms: they would distribute their films to Black audiences in the United States and export them to Europe, South America, Africa, and the Caribbean, where they believed the markets for motion pictures were unspoiled by the color line and racial attitudes of White U.S. audiences (pg.173).”

The importance of reaching the Black audiences around the globe was something that had been in the minds of early Black filmmakers and should be in the minds of those Black filmmakers working today.

ENVISIONING FREEDOM: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life is an important work that adds to the existing Black scholarship which is necessary to combat the White-washing of the narrative of the history of early cinema.  ENVISIONING FREEDOM details for us that Blacks, the Black church and early Black actors and filmmakers were integral to the national and global popularity of the medium, the patents that aided in the standardization of the medium as well as how important the cinematic representation of Blackness is for our collective understanding and misunderstanding of the Black race.  

For the casual reader of history, the Black Film student struggling under the White-washed narrative of the birth of cinema, and for the scholar looking for an enriching perspective, ENVISIONING FREEDOM: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life is an invaluable new resource that gives weight to the truism upon which we began: Those who control the narrative of history also control the narration of the present.

NOTES

(1) Dramatic agency is defined here as the ability to directly affect and survive the outcome of the circumstances within a story.

(2) See pages: 59- 106 of the chapter ‘The Birth of a Nation and Interventionist Criticism: Resisting Race as Spectacle’.

(3) See pages 82 – 126 of the chapter ‘In the Year 1915: D.W. Griffith and the Rewhitening of America’.

Andre Seewood is author of  “(Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told To The Black Filmmaker.” Pick up a copy here

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