Black Film Archive brings to life a little-known history of cinema


Many questions prompted Maya Cade to create the Film noir archives website, a new guide to black cinema streaming from 1915 to 1979: which movies belong here? How can I present it in a way that doesn’t harm my community? But one of them forced her to take a break before sending her out into the world: do people need this?

The question did not come from a place of doubt, but rather from a place of in-depth reflection on how to present the films with a context that explains their place in the story. In the process of creating a trusted resource for historic film noir, Cade says doing this responsibly is the most important consideration she faces with this project.

“If my intention was to do this with community in mind… then there is an even bigger question: are they ready for this and are they ready for what it might become? “

Examining the idea that the film noir, pre-Spike Lee, is a monolith of racial trauma rehashed in the canon of Hollywood-endorsed films is exactly why Cade spent over a year compiling a list of about 250 black films from streaming platforms like Tubi. , Criterion and HBO Max, as well as YouTube and other public domain sites. The Black Film Archive brings together the forgotten works of legends like Oscar Micheaux and Zora Neale Hurston in one place, sorted by decade, with links to where they are shown and descriptions of the films.

His project comes at a time when mainstream institutions have begun to examine the portrayal of blacks in films and realize that important works have been excluded from the canon of American cinema. Consider that the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which opens to the public in Los Angeles on September 30, dedicates a gallery that places equal value on Micheaux’s career alongside the films “Citizen Kane” and “Real Women Have Curves. “. like Bruce Lee, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki.

“This moment reminds me,” Cade said of the academy’s recognition of Micheaux’s legacy, “that we never really celebrated and embraced this man who funded, wrote, produced and directed films. over blacks as blacks fought to be seen as humans, and struggled for our humanity to be recognized. It is a struggle that continues a century after his first masterpiece, ‘Within Our Gates ‘.

Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s “Within Our Gates” (1920) was seen as a response to DW Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” and the Chicago race riot of 1919. In some cities, the film was banned or censored in part for his lynching scenes. . A saga of love and betrayal in a climate of overt and systemic racism, it starred Evelyn Preer and is one of the films featured in Maya Cade’s Black Film Archive.

(Hollywood Entertainment Museum)

Cade was particularly attached to archiving black films made before the 1980s, which she describes as the “new era of noir cinema” which ushered in a wave of contemporary icons like Lee, John Singleton and Robert Townsend. The Black Film Archive brings together works for too long relegated to the graves of dusty VHS cupboards, films like “The Cry of Jazz,” a 1959 documentary tracing the history of jazz and its impact on American history, and “Killing Time “, a master class in a quirky thriller about a woman who plans to kill herself but won’t do so until she finds the right outfit to wear.

“Killing Time” “just reminded me that there is a movie from the past for everyone,” says Cade, who works as an audience editor for the Criterion Collection and created the archives in his spare time. “This movie that I’ve never heard of – because it’s rarely streamed and not very accessible – is just amazing.”

A portrait of Maya Cade

“With archives, I say … ‘We are vast and we contain multitudes,” says Maya Cade, founder of Black Film Archive.

(Justice Namaste)

Since its debut in late August, Black Film Archive has been widely praised by black movie fans and directors alike, confirming for Cade that, yes, people to do needed this platform as much as Cade needed to create it.

Like many, Cade sought a way to sustain himself spiritually and emotionally during the pandemic and the cultural shockwaves created by Black Lives Matter. In June 2020, she started a Twitter feed links to video streams of classics like “Cabin in the Sky” and “Boarding House Blues”. The tweets went viral, and her occasional internet searches quickly turned into spreadsheets of all the titles she could look up in a dozen books on the history of noir cinema.

At that point, she knew she couldn’t stop, so she decided to start her own online platform.

“I realized I could get involved in this because there is a community that already trusts me, people really care about film noir, that’s all I talk about online. “Cade says. “I was like, ‘OK, you have the trust of the community. It is a starting point.

Responding to a unique need for historic black films means including titles that celebrate black pride, as well as films that shake it up. Paul Robeson’s denunciation of ‘Sanders of the River’ in 1935, in which he starred, raises questions about the role of racism in film editing – Robeson attempted to ban the film after it was edited in a pro-imperialist story without his knowledge.

40 years ahead, Cade debated whether to include the 1975 film “The black Gestapo,“Without a doubt one of the strangest titles in the canon of blaxploitation. In this parody of the Black Panthers, a black militant group called “The People’s Army” protects the black residents of Watts from “The Man.” “As their control over the community increases, their leader’s thirst for power increases,” the Black Film Archive described.

The film is full of Nazi imagery, with messages that imply that even those who fight fascism can become fascists if they are addicted to power. “But he almost gets lost on his way to his point,” Cade says. At one point people fight together, and then at another point the movie says the People’s Army is no better than the army of white supremacists they are fighting.

“This is one of the movies where I was just like, ‘OK, that pushes a line back, and what does that line mean? What is the value to the people here? ‘ Says Cade. “It’s definitely a movie that couldn’t be made today.”

The tree, holding a gun, means business in a scene of "Tree."

In her film noir archives, Maya Cade describes the original “Shaft” (1971) as “badass, sleek, street smart.” Above: “Shaft” star Richard Roundtree.

(Archives du film noir / MGM)

Cade also struggled with his decision not to include the work of Bill Cosby, who had lead roles in half a dozen films prior to 1979, including “Uptown Saturday Night,” “Let’s Do It Again,” and “A Piece of. the Action “. Cade says she has received emails from people asking if Cosby’s absence from the archives means she has decided to ignore her films altogether. She explains that one of the reasons Cosby’s films don’t have not been added to the site is that they mostly consist of rentals, which are not yet available for streaming. Adding rentals from sites like Amazon is a task she says she is trying to accomplish. .

“It’s not a question of whether or not Cosby will be on the site, it’s a question of how to include it on the site and what will it look like?” Cade said. “If my mission is to talk about the film noir of a certain period, the question is: what is the value and how can I do it in a way that minimizes harm to the people I want to serve in my community? ”

Cade hopes to help new generations of moviegoers open up to other examples of black culture portrayed in previous films, whether or not people agree with the performances. While it may seem that a silent 1920s black-and-white film has little relevance to young black audiences, Cade says the archives can improve young people’s relationship with film noir by finding new definitions in it. help from a forgotten story.

“People will say things like, ‘Oh, all the black films of the past are traumatic; why would i watch this? Or, ‘All Black film’ is this or that. … It’s such a binary that Blackness exists on, ”Cade says. “I think with the archives I say, ‘No, we are big and we have multitudes.'”

The Black Film Archive is at blackfilmarchive.com.


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