Taking Center Stage: African American Women within Race Films

"Since the beginnings of cinema in the late nineteenth century, African Americans have sought to claim their agency on screen. Black women, in particular, have fought to counter stereotypes and ensure adequate representation on film..."

Center Stage: African American Women in Silent Race Films highlights a community of black filmmakers in the early twentieth century who made films outside of the Hollywood system, building space for black women to operate with autonomy and away from the white gaze. These filmmakers often called their work “race films,” or motion pictures made by black filmmakers with mostly black casts for black audiences after WWI and through the 1940s. These films sought to advance the portrayals of African Americans and counter the racist stereotypes found within such films as D.W. Griffith’s propaganda movie, The Birth of a Nation (1915).

From silent pictures to those that utilized sound, the films shown in this exhibition give a sense of the range and depth of black women’s performances outside of Hollywood by some of the race films genre’s most famous actresses: Evelyn Preer, Iris Hall, Anita Thompson, Lucia Lyn Moses, and Cathryn Caviness. Through their performances, we see how African American women from this era delivered nuanced portrayals that were considered progressive for the time. Today, as the entertainment industry debates diversity in public discourse, these films provide insight into the modern quest for three-dimensional representations of black womanhood.

Within Our Gates

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Within Our Gates (1920), the second film of director Oscar Micheaux’s prolific career, tells the story of Sylvia Landry, a role played by Evelyn Preer. Sylvia, an educated black woman, returns to her southern hometown where she teaches at an impoverished school for black children. To save the school, she travels north, where she convinces a white philanthropist to supply the funds necessary for the school. Sylvia’s return is not without anguish as she confronts memories of witnessing the lynching of her adoptive parents as a young girl. Her new love, the white school superintendent Dr. Vivian, learns of her pain, and he admonishes her to find strength in thinking of the role that black people have played in history and the power of black dignity. Confident in their ability to build a new life together, Sylvia and Dr. Vivian marry.

Within Our Gates is the oldest surviving race film. Although it earned contemporary success with black audiences, it was controversial for its depiction of lynching and its frank take on interracial relationships. Sylvia Landry in particular proved a compelling character: a woman determined to do good in a world working against her, and a victim of horrible trauma who finds strength in her embrace of black pride.

The actress Evelyn Preer was born in Mississippi in 1896. After her debut in Micheaux’s first film, The Homesteader (1919), and her role in Within Our Gates, she went on to a successful career with the Lafayette Players, the first all-black theater company in the United States. A great talent, she moved fluidly between stage and screen, as well as between silent and sound films, becoming one of the most recognizable black actresses of her day before her death in 1932.

The Symbol of the Unconquered

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The Symbol of the Unconquered, like Within Our Gates, was written, directed, and produced by Micheaux in 1920. The story centers on Evon Mason (Iris Hall) after she inherits land from her grandfather. On her journey to reclaim the land, Evon is aided by her new neighbor, Hugh Van Allen (Walker Thompson), with whom she develops a romance. When the Ku Klux Klan tries to force Hugh off his land, Evon rides gallantly to alert the town and saves the day—a reference to, and an inversion of, D.W. Griffith’s Klan sequence in The Birth of a Nation. In this scene, Iris Hall depicts a fearless and determined woman, a film role that black actresses were rarely given the opportunity to play.

A singer, dancer, and actress, Hall was born in Barbados and immigrated to the United States at age thirteen. Like Preer, she became a member of the Lafayette Players and also had a role in Micheaux’s The Homesteader. Beyond her acting career, Hall was a popular Harlem beautician and business owner. Little else is known about her, but she remains one of the most distinctive black actresses of the race film era.

By Right of Birth

The Lincoln Motion Picture Company (LMPC) was established in 1915, and its fifth and final film, By Right of Birth, was produced in 1921. Today, only four and a half minutes of the LMPC’s entire catalog survive.

By Right of Birth depicts the struggles of Juanita Cooper (Anita Thompson Reynolds), a young, educated woman searching for her birthparents. The narrative includes a romance between Juanita and Philip (Clarence Books), a law student and popular athlete. Designed as a response to The Birth of a Nation, By Right of Birth was praised for portraying African Americans and Native Americans in a better light than many early movies.

Anita Thompson Dickinson Reynolds (1901–1980) offered a sensitive and compelling performance as Juanita. The role in some ways mirrored her real life, in that she often traversed racial boundaries in pursuit of knowledge and experience. Reynolds described many of these experiences in her memoir, American Cocktail: A “Colored Girl” in the World (Harvard University Press, 2014). A world traveler, intellectual, and performer, she shared the company of Ruth St. Denis, Rudolph Valentino, W.E.B. Dubois, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes (her cousin), and many others. During her remarkable life, Reynolds worked as a dancer, model, actress, artistic muse, literary critic, journalist, Red Cross nurse, and educator.

The Scar of Shame

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The last production to come from Philadelphia’s Colored Players Film Corporation (CPFC), The Scar of Shame (1927) was written and produced by CPFC founder David Starkman shortly before the company folded. In the film, a young working-class woman, Louise Howard (Lucia Lynn Moses), marries Alvin Hillyard (Henry Henderson), a talented concert pianist. Yet Alvin remains ashamed of her economic background.

When Louise becomes entangled in a business venture with a saloon owner, Alvin fires his gun, accidentally wounding Louise and inflicting the titular scar. After his release from prison, Alvin becomes a successful music teacher and finds new love. Devastated, Louise commits suicide.

The Scar of Shame is one of the earliest race films to depict levels of social stratification within the African American community. Designed specifically for African American audiences, it discusses communal conflicts around upward mobility, assimilation, and the retention of black culture. These themes may not have been apparent or compelling to white audiences, but they present a strongly moralizing view of self-improvement through hard work and clean living.

The Scar of Shame was Lucia Lynn Moses’s only film role. She began her career as a chorus girl, and during the film’s production, Moses maintained her commitments to New York’s Cotton Club, commuting to Philadelphia to shoot during the day before heading back to Harlem to dance at night. Like many black actors, she never achieved the stardom she hoped to attain. Her sisters, Ethel and Julia Moses, also had successful careers in show business: Ethel was a leading actress for Oscar Micheaux, and Julia was a Broadway performer.

The Blood of Jesus

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The Blood of Jesus (1941), written, directed, and produced by actor Spencer Williams, is the story of Martha (Cathryn Caviness), a devout rural black woman. When her drunken husband Razz (Williams) drops his shotgun, Martha is near-fatally wounded. As she hovers between life and death, she struggles to overcome obstacles placed in her path as she seeks the road to heaven. When Martha throws herself at the mercy of Jesus Christ, she wakes in her bed, resurrected by the power of faith.

The Blood of Jesus was remarkable for its unflinching portrayal of African American spiritual and faith traditions in the Jim Crow South. As the film’s director, Williams sought to create a narrative that reflected the power of the religious community and his own belief in the power of prayer. A prolific actor and race film director, he later rose to fame as Amos of the television comedy duo Amos ‘n’ Andy. The Blood of Jesus was presumed lost until its rediscovery in a dusty warehouse in Tyler, Texas, in the late 1980s as part of a cache of stored and forgotten race films. In the early 1990s, it was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress's National Registry of Films.

In The Blood of Jesus, Cathryn Caviness brought sweetness and fragility to her depiction of a woman seeking the path of righteousness in the face of adversity. Very little is known about her, save that she was born in 1914 in San Antonio, Texas. Her sensitive and poignant portrayal as Martha in The Blood of Jesus served as her sole foray in professional film. She passed away in 1993 at her home in Austin, Texas.

Center Stage explores how African American actresses from this period challenged demeaning characterizations of black women through the employment of wit, sensitivity, intelligence, and determination. Their exercise in agency pushed back against race and gender stereotypes that black actresses still face to this day, creating multidimensional representations of women in complex circumstances. The performances showcased in Center Stage capture the spirit of enterprise endemic to the race film industry and the women who worked through this medium to elevate black voices, black artistry, and black womanhood. Just as these actors and filmmakers paved the way for future generations, contemporary artists can learn from the work they left behind and create new characters and forms of storytelling that speak directly to today's social and political concerns.

This essay accompanies the exhibition Center Stage: African American Women in Silent Race Films and was written by curator Tyree Boyd-Pates and students from the UCLA Center for Digital Humanities: Francesca Albrezzi, Aitana Balam, Anastasia Gershman, and Brian Tran.