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Issue 9. Performance

Phyllis R. Klotman, African Americans in Cinema. The First Half Century

Author: Jan Baetens
Published: October 2004

Phyllis R. Klotman,
African Americans in Cinema. The First Half Century.
Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003
ISBN 0-252-02892-9

 

 

This project (a CD-ROM and Instructor's Guide) of the Black Film Center/Archive and the African American and African Diaspora Studies, Indiana University, under the direction of Phyllis R. Klotman is a wonderfully rich and well-made compendium of the presence of African Americans in the period between 1894 (the first Edison reels) and late 1940s (the beginning of Sydney Poitier's career and the increased influence of the civil rights movement).

Before praising the technical qualities of the CD-ROM (its user-friendliness, the clarity of its navigational structure, the rarity and diversity of its visual material, the exceptionally well-organized relationship between image and text on screen), one should start applauding the very existence of this publication and the intelligent construction of its content. The traditional problem with African Americans in cinema is a well-known but double problem of representation. First, representation is produced in a way that is not, to put it mildly, white independent: what we best know of African Americans are pictures, images, stereotypes, produced by white filmmakers and producers for white audiences. Second, representation is reduced to representation on screen, neglecting many other issues linked with production, exhibition, reception, and further reading of movies. What this CD-ROM achieves in the first place, is a thorough redefinition of this narrow conception of representation. The visual material of the CD-ROM, with many often totally unknown, i.e. totally forgotten film fragments, as well as the accompanying textual material, entailing contemporary essays by specialists in the field, historical testimonies on the films, and explanatory comments on the cultural background, sweep away the one-dimensional vision of African Americans in cinema imposed by long-lasting memories of Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. The work coordinated by Phyllis R. Klotman gives a rich survey of such topics as: the representation of African American characters (first by whites, later by blacks), the role of African American actors, the emergence of African American production and distribution sectors, the question of racial segregation on screen and in theaters, the reactions and attitudes of African American spectators, etc.

Throughout this survey, which is divided in four major eras (the first starting with Edison in 184, the second with Birth of a Nation in 1915, the third with the breakthrough of African American material in 1929, slightly after the first talkies in 1927; the fourth with the engagement of the US in World War II and the beginning of the end of the segregation system), runs of course a story of emancipation, but this story is a very slow one. The progress toward a more just and equal representation of African Americans had to be won step by step, at the various levels of production, distribution, exhibition, and viewing, and this progress appears to be far from simple and linear. Black production, for instance, did not always mean catering for an all-black audience, a situation that exerted longtime an injurious influence on the on-screen representation of blacks. The most striking features of the history told by Phyllis R. Klotman and the other contributors to the book has to do with the influence of genre on the one hand (fiction features and documentaries are far from obeying the same representational frameworks; African American cinema is only gradually freed from its "natural" relationship with show biz genres or fragments, for instance) and the evolutions in the technical field on the other (new distribution and exhibition practices open and close possibilities for African Americans, and the same goes of course for the explosion of the talkies, which had also very contrasted consequences: it increases the presence of the show biz element, while at the same time creating opportunities to poke fun with "black dialect"). The very broad cultural history told by the CD-ROM makes very clear that there is a two-way correspondence between film and society: film reflects social prejudices and practices, while at the same time it creates a permanent social debate whose outcome has often liberating results.

As I have already mentioned, the content-structure and visual presentation of the CD-ROM is an example of what this type of publications should be. Each of the four sections proposes a set of 5 or 6 small essays, which present themselves as a kind of split-screen: one half of the screen is occupied by the text, divided in small and easy to read on screen "lexias" (most of the times, an essay counts between 10 and 15 of such "lexias"); the other half is occupied by the image, be it a fixed image or a moving image (and this moving image can be consulted very easily: the play, rewind and pause functions are accessible via a controller strip). Moreover, the bottom of each screen contains also a review menu, which enables the reader to access a certain number of historical reviews of the material shown in the essay. Finally, the background information on historical figures and themes can be consulted by simply double-clicking on some highlighted terms.

One can only feel grateful for the work done by Phyllis R. Klotman, whose editorial hand is firmly felt throughout the publication. The general quality of the essays is excellent, both informative for undergraduate and stimulating for scholars. The film fragments gathered in the CD-ROM propose a dazzling mix of material one had always wanted to see without having the opportunity to do so and of material one had never heard of. With an average of 5 or 6 film fragments for each essay, the CD-ROM offers a real encyclopedia of an until now hardly known (seen and studied) dimension of film in America. A database containing over 3,300 screens and with many helpful search functions complete this essential publication.

 
 
 
   
 

 

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