9 Black Filmmaking Pioneers from the Earliest Days of Cinema

For Black History Month, we're celebrating the directors, writers, producers, and performers who worked to make sure Black stories were part of the burgeoning American movie industry.

by | February 21, 2020 | Comments

Black History Month is a time where we reflect on the Black pioneers of the past and celebrate the Black change-makers of today and tomorrow. Today, Black film and TV is thriving: Filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins, Dee Rees, and countless others are creating art across genres, in theaters, and for TV that centers on people and communities that look like them. As they forge new ground in this space, we’re taking a look back at the forebears who paved the way for their work. These Black filmmaking pioneers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries helped shape the modern film industry and often challenged the cartoonish, tired, and racist stereotypes pushed out by those who held the most power in Hollywood in its earliest years.

You will know the names of some of these writers, directors, and performers, while others are mostly hidden figures in cinema’s history, with much of their work tragically lost. These are our folk heroes, and this month we speak their name, celebrate their work, and honor the contribution they made to the movies and to culture.  

Maria P. Williams (1866-1932) 

Williams is known as the first Black female film producer, and had worked as secretary and treasurer of the Western Film Producing Company (the company that distributed her first film and of which her husband was president). It’s debated whether or not Williams directed Flames of Wrath, which has been attributed to her – “director” and “producer” were often interchangeable in the silent film era – but she did write, distribute, and act in the 1923 film. Prior to filmmaking, Williams was an activist and author, writing a book in 1916 on her activism entitled My Work and Public SentimentOn the book’s first page she writes that 10 percent “of all money received from the sale of this book will go to create a fund to be used for the suppression of crime among Negros.”

Noble Johnson (1881-1978)

Noble Johnson
(Photo by Everett Collection )

Black actors found work during the silent film era, but were often confined to racially stereotypical roles. Through his work as an actor and president of his own film company, Johnson sought to change this. Making his film debut in 1915, he was a successful character actor who appeared in 144 films, including 1925’s The Thief of Bagdad and 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game (both 100% on the Tomatometer), 1932’s The Mummy (93%), and 1933’s King Kong (98%). But steady acting gigs weren’t enough: Johnson (born Mark Noble) founded the all-Black–owned and Black-run production studio Lincoln Motion Picture Company with his brother George in 1916. The birthplace of the “race film” genre, the studio sought to produce positive films starring Black actors. Johnson was president of the company from its inception until its closure in 1921, funding the studio with checks from his acting work. The company only produced five films – most of which are lost – but it is often praised as an inspiration for Black-owned film companies that followed.

Lester Walton (1882-1965)

Where would the storied history of Black film be without the inclusion of the voices of Black film critics? Walton began his expansive career at the St. Louis Star, becoming the newspaper’s first full-time Black reporter. He then moved to New York, becoming the theatrical editor and manager for the New York Age, and began writing about representation of Black people in film. As a Civil Rights activist, diplomat, songwriter, theater owner, and film critic/essayist, Walton wore many hats. He also served as Vice President for the Negro Actors Guild of America, where he lobbied for integration in film, TV, and radio. Always connecting art to politics, Walton – in partnership with the Associated Press – also lobbied to have the word “negro” spelled with a capital “N.”

Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951)

Everett Collection
(Photo by Everett Collection)

“Race film” was a genre during the Jim Crow era, referring to movies created for and by Black people partly as a way to commit to screen the discrimination they faced. Micheaux began as a novelist and then transformed into a prominent voice within the genre. Hailed as the first major Black filmmaker, Micheaux directed and produced 42 feature films from 1919 to 1948, beginning with 1919’s The Homesteader, adapted from his first novel. His vision centered on Black life during Jim Crow, tackling subjects such as racial violence, rape, economic oppression, and discrimination. Most notably, Michaeux directed, produced, and wrote 1925’s revered Body and Soul, which was Paul Robeson’s debut. The film was included in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2019. Through his work, Micheaux embodied the words he became famous for: “We want to see our lives dramatized on the screen as we are living it, the same as other people, the world over.” 

Hattie McDaniel (1893-1952)

Hattie McDaniel
(Photo by Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images)

McDaniel was a trailblazing actress, becoming the first Black performer to be nominated for and win an Oscar, winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. (See her moving speech here.) Wind was a boost to an already strong career as a songwriter, musician, touring stage performer, and radio actress. She appeared in 97 films, including 1934’s Judge Priest and Show Boat with Paul Robeson, and was among the first Black entertainers to star in her own radio and TV series, Beulah. While her Oscar was revolutionary, McDaniel’s career was burdened by being typecast in the Mammy-style roles before and after her win – roles such as Mammy Lou in her first film, 1932’s The Golden West, Malena in 1935’s Alice Adams, and Hilda in 1938’s The Mad Miss Manton. It’s notable that at the 1940 Academy Awards – the peak of Jim Crow – McDaniel had to sit at a separate table in the back of the ballroom, separate from her Gone With the Wind co-stars. McDaniel did not show remorse for playing these stereotypical roles, famously commenting“I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7.” (Eighty years later, as Rotten Tomatoes’ Jacqueline Coley has detailed, Black actresses still struggle to be awarded for performances that break from the “Mammy” caricature.)

Spencer Williams (1893-1969)

Spencer Williams
(Photo by Everett Collection )

Like Oscar Micheaux, Williams (above right) was known as one of the most prolific Black filmmakers of the first half of the 20th Century. As a pioneering director, screenwriter, and actor, his work pushed the “race film” genre forward. Of the 13 films he directed, 1941’s The Blood of Jesus is considered his masterpiece, depicting Southern Baptist religion through a Black lens. In 1991, The Blood of Jesus became the first “race film” to be included in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Williams also enjoyed a successful acting career. After working as a character actor in a series of Black-cast westerns in the 1930s, Williams became known as Andy in CBS’s Amos ‘n’ Andy TV series. Williams didn’t receive the full accolades his storied career warranted until after his death, when most of his films were found in a Texas warehouse in the 1980s.

Tressie Souders (1897-1995)

Men weren’t the only ones sharing their perspectives on contemporary Black life in film in the early 20th Century – Black women also created work to have their voices heard. Souders is notably known as the first Black woman to direct a feature film, A Woman’s Error. The film was distributed by Afro-American Film Exhibitors’ Company in 1922, but unfortunately no version of the film has been recovered. The director and writer is as elusive as the film itself, with little biographical information about her available beyond reports of the movie and census records.

Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

Everett Collection
(Photo by Everett Collection)

As a Civil Rights activist, concert artist, author, professional athlete, and star of stage and screen, Robeson was one of the most important cultural figures of the first half of the 20th Century. He started his phenomenally successful acting career in Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 film Body and Soul, and went on to star in the likes of 1933’s The Emperor Jones, 1936’s Show Boat (100% on the Tomatometer), and on stage in productions of Othello and The Emperor Jones. But his success in Hollywood didn’t curb his voice. The outspoken Robeson caught the eye of the FBI due to his support of the Civil Rights movement and favorable view of Communist policies, the latter of which got him blacklisted. When McCarthyism waned, Robeson made strides to come back in the spotlight, but eventually retired to a quiet life. 

Fredi Washington (1903-1994)

Everett Collection
(Photo by Everett Collection)

Washington (above right) performed in nine films and a number of Broadway productions throughout her career, which coincided with the Harlem Renaissance. She’s best known for playing Peola Johnson, a fair-skinned Black woman who passes as white, in the 1934 Academy Award Best Picture nominee, Imitation of Life. After her film career ended, she became a Civil Rights activist, working closely with NAACP President Walter White and becoming a founder of the Negro Actors Guild of America. Washington kept a foot in the industry as the entertainment editor for The People’s Voice, a progressive Black newspaper founded by Adam Clayton Powell Jr., as well as working as a casting consultant for the musical productions of Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess

Thumbnail image courtesy the Everett Collection

Tag Cloud

Warner Bros. Crunchyroll Writers Guild of America space GoT Ellie Kemper Shudder Emmy Nominations Spectrum Originals elevated horror Rocky ITV GLAAD Best and Worst serial killer TBS Vudu Marvel Studios Women's History Month game of thrones south america supernatural comiccon cops Black History Month nature Martial Arts APB war political drama Character Guide Netflix Apple Podcast Britbox Mary poppins Year in Review TV Land Acorn TV name the review Showtime Polls and Games Apple TV+ The Purge Box Office Hallmark scary movies HBO Max award winner sequel GIFs Music indie politics Lionsgate The CW screenings Kids & Family cults President Endgame Dark Horse Comics ratings rotten movies we love slashers richard e. Grant Mindy Kaling streaming Ovation dc Baby Yoda YouTube Ghostbusters Cannes social media Tumblr cancelled CNN Freeform A24 spider-man Opinion 45 VH1 Disney+ Disney Plus Syfy golden globes Country canceled Captain marvel CW Seed 20th Century Fox 2019 based on movie free movies Extras FOX YouTube Red CMT miniseries Holidays thriller diversity Sony Pictures Comics on TV cars YA Masterpiece hist Spike composers Grammys game show strong female leads Lifetime Christmas movies Sundance TV Crackle Lifetime dogs mockumentary Classic Film TruTV unscripted TCM E! crime Cosplay TCA Winter 2020 foreign Disney Channel Superheroes Sundance Chernobyl latino E3 Quiz Reality Competition A&E Teen Marathons psychological thriller Tarantino Shondaland Comic Book ghosts versus anthology TCA 2017 RT History Interview MTV ABC Mary Poppins Returns VICE FX on Hulu Bravo Nickelodeon cartoon finale franchise New York Comic Con documentary 2017 SDCC sitcom Valentine's Day Logo Holiday Disney Plus Rock PBS Chilling Adventures of Sabrina universal monsters WarnerMedia Musical Walt Disney Pictures police drama BBC TCA toy story transformers zombie HBO Tomatazos Comedy Central DC Comics 2016 Sci-Fi blockbuster First Look ESPN 2015 Adult Swim Academy Awards Disney streaming service Watching Series tv talk Red Carpet cinemax FX Lucasfilm Awards El Rey kids Universal OneApp Comedy CBS All Access green book 21st Century Fox science fiction Set visit Western adaptation dceu Elton John romantic comedy quibi National Geographic Epix Countdown cats See It Skip It television breaking bad USA Network series crime drama San Diego Comic-Con Marvel Television historical drama boxoffice Fall TV anime TLC Pop TV LGBTQ Fantasy theme song Rocketman Horror TNT joker Calendar 2020 Oscars Tubi Mary Tyler Moore Biopics sag awards crossover Rom-Com The Arrangement natural history Paramount BET reviews dramedy First Reviews video The Witch crime thriller Funimation what to watch renewed TV shows 24 frames spy thriller DC Universe Amazon jamie lee curtis justice league Pride Month FXX 71st Emmy Awards Emmys Stephen King Amazon Prime Video Reality MCU IFC SXSW American Society of Cinematographers TIFF Mystery USA Turner Classic Movies comic Film Festival Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Star Wars OWN harry potter Election christmas movies RT21 Brie Larson hispanic independent binge Turner Discovery Channel doctor who witnail psycho Mudbound biography Thanksgiving Winners MSNBC Song of Ice and Fire teaser IFC Films Apple TV Plus Trailer Netflix Christmas movies Sundance Now screen actors guild TV Awards Tour cancelled television 2018 Television Academy mutant DirecTV docudrama Marvel true crime cooking spain Pirates Arrowverse canceled TV shows batman facebook Amazon Studios Pop Certified Fresh directors Summer cancelled TV series Animation NYCC dragons cancelled TV shows Video Games halloween singing competition Esquire sports WGN BBC America Amazon Prime DC streaming service Trivia werewolf Avengers Fox News AMC Sneak Peek vampires spanish language zero dark thirty book casting Star Trek movie technology revenge talk show medical drama Premiere Dates animated Christmas movies Pixar festivals Disney Film blaxploitation Cartoon Network PaleyFest DGA X-Men Creative Arts Emmys Hulu Anna Paquin Food Network Schedule History comics Heroines Super Bowl Hallmark Christmas movies reboot SundanceTV Action Trophy Talk Toys spinoff adventure Winter TV discovery LGBT 007 Pet Sematary CBS Nat Geo children's TV Infographic Peacock stand-up comedy Drama Spring TV Paramount Network Family disaster The Walking Dead Binge Guide zombies ABC Family TV renewals Starz romance Columbia Pictures Superheroe Travel Channel Musicals aliens period drama travel YouTube Premium NBC robots Black Mirror Photos Nominations