“We’re a great country. We’ve got great stories. And for the most part, the great stories of people of color have not been told.”
(at the NYC Premier of Red Tails)
“Americans trust black people when we sing, dance or tell jokes. It’s when we stop laughing that people get itchy.”
Author Charles Fuller (A Soldier’s Story)
As a response of the release of The Birth of a Nation (1915) plans were set in place by black leaders to give a response to stereotypes portrayed in D.W. Griffith’s widely praised film. Plans to film Booker T. Washington’s book Up from Slavery fell apart, the start of World War I didn’t help with film funding, but eventually The Birth of a Race did get produced and was released in 1918. According to the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance the film “was considered a critical and popular failure, and it was a financial fiasco.”
But the one thing it did do was inspire Oscar Micheaux to become the first Africa-American to write and direct a feature film—The Homesteader in 1919. (On IMDB, Jerry Mills is also listed a co-director.) He would go on to make 41 films over the next 29 years. But his direct response to The Birth of a Nation was the film Within Our Gates (1920).
Now here’s the great thing about technology—there was no known copy of Within Out Gates until 1990 when one was found in Paris. Now the whole version pf the film is available for free on You Tube.
While it’s generally accepted that Micheaux is the first African-American to make a feature film, back in 1910 William D. Foster of Chicago founded the Foster Photoplay Company—the first independent African-American film company. He was a sports writer from Chicago and his first film was The Railroad Porter, a short film made in 1912 and starred William D. Foster.
And back when Jacksonville, Florida was known as “winter film capital of the world,” writer/director Richard Norman (also an African-American) made several features in the 1920s. Long before Tyler Perry opened his film studio in Atlanta, Norman owned the Norman Studios. A studio which is still around today as a museum. And before Red Tails (currently in theaters as I write this) Norman was the producer, director and writer on The Flying Ace (1926)—about a World War I pilot— with an “ALL COLORED CAST” as one old advertisement promised.
That movie is part of the Library of Congress. Here’s the trailer for The Flying Aces (with a little updated music):