Forgotten Black Women of Early Hollywood Take Center Stage at CAAM (KCET)
By Nadra Nittle, KCET, July 17, 2017
Hollywood has long had a problem with representation and diversity, especially concerning anyone female and nonwhite. In the first half of the 20th century, black women were largely relegated to playing mammy and jezebel roles. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 classic “Birth of a Nation” even depicted African Americans as rapists and imbeciles, leading to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
The black woman’s unfortunate standing in Hollywood history is why the California African American Museum’s “Center Stage: African American Women in Silent Race Films,” which runs until October 15, is so significant. It reveals how as early as 100 years ago, independent black filmmakers presented complex portrayals of women of color that major studios never fathomed. These silent gems depict black women exploring their religious faith, fighting for the rights of African Americans and in loving relationships. They underscore how even today Hollywood has much ground to cover in its depiction of black women.
Among the exhibit’s treasures is the 1920 film “Within Our Gates,” the oldest surviving feature by an African American director. In it, director Oscar Micheaux makes a plea for society to recognize African Americans as equals while highlighting the plight of black women in particular. The silent film asserts that “a woman, though a Negro, was a HUMAN BEING.”
Starring Evelyn Preer as an educated black woman trying to fund a school for sharecroppers’ children, “Within Our Gates” tackles a number of controversial social issues, including suffrage, lynching and miscegenation. It belongs to the cinematic canon known as race films, which featured black casts and were designed for black audiences. With its complex heroine — Sylvia Landry endures heartbreak, betrayal and predatory men —“Within Our Gates” is one of five films featured, including 1921’s “By Right of Birth” and 1920’s “The Symbol of the Unconquered.”