In recognition of Black History Month, this space will spend February highlighting several important figures and notable films from the history of Black Cinema. It is by no means intended to be comprehensive, but to provide a broad overview of an often overlooked area of film history.
Charles Burnett grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and financial pressures kept him from pursuing his artistic ambitions until somewhat later in life. His first feature film, Killer of Sheep, an undisputed masterpiece of the American Independent cinema, wasn't released until Burnett was 35 (and went largely unseen until its re-release in 2007), by which age many directors are already past their best work. Hardly prolific since then, Burnett has only put his name to five feature films (non-television, non-documentary), nevertheless he's the recipient of some of the most glowing accolades in the industry. The Chicago Tribune has named Burnett "one of America's very best filmmakers", while the New York Times called him "the nation's least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director". His Killer of Sheep was one of the first 50 films placed on the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Other recommended titles include Nightjohn, The Glass Shield and To Sleep With Anger (now, sadly, out of print).
Dorothy Dandridge's career began as a child in her family's singing act on the vaudeville circuit. At the age of 13, she got a bit part in an Our Gang comedy, which led to twelve years of bit parts and uncredited roles playing characters such as "Singer" or "Dancer". Suddenly, in the early '50s, MGM realized they had a star on their hands and cast her as the lead in Bright Road, alongside Harry Belafonte. 20th Century Fox signed her away from MGM in 1954 and her role in Otto Preminger's adaptation of the musical Carmen Jones saw her nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, the first such nomination garnered by an African-American for a leading role, four years before Sidney Poitier's first. But after such a meteoric rise, the studios and/or the movie-going public didn't know what to make of her, and after a few more years and precious few movies, her movie career was over (though not before netting another Best Actress nomination, this time a Golden Globe, for her role opposite Poitier in Porgy and Bess, now out of print). Interest in Dandridge spiked in 1999 with the release of the made-for-HBO biography Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, in which Halle Berry played Ms. Dandridge (and two years before Berry became the first African-American woman to win that Best Actress Oscar). Interestingly, though she was never formally the subject of an investigation, the FBI kept a file on Dandridge, which is now available through Federal internet archives.
Best known as a photographer - and in Saint Paul as the guy they named Gordon Parks High School after - Gordon Parks' foray into filmmaking amounted to a mere handful of movies, but those few cast a pretty long shadow. Most famously, Shaft (and its first sequel) and The Learning Tree, adapted from Parks' own semi-autobiographical novel. There's not much I can add to the world's discourse about those films (yep, they're great), but I will point out that almost 30 years before Steve McQueen garnered such awards buzz for his adaptation of Solomon Northrup's memoir 12 Years a Slave, Gordon Parks' made-for-PBS adaptation Solomon Northrup's Odyssey went comparatively unnoticed.
John Singleton was all of 21 years old when his debut feature, Boyz N The Hood, was released, netting two Oscar nominations (Director and Screenwriter), a place in the Un Certain Regard showcase at Cannes and numerous other awards, the film eventually being selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. Singleton followed that up with a string of films that drew raves from critics and audiences alike, including Poetic Justice, Higher Learning, Rosewood and Baby Boy, and more recently several more mainstream hits, including 2 Fast 2 Furious.
Following the commercial and critical success of 1970's studio-produced, relatively-big-budget Watermelon Man, Columbia Pictures offered Melvin Van Peebles a three-picture contract. He turned it down in order to make Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song outside the studio system for $150,000. Initially controversial (the box boasts of its having been "rated X by an all-white jury"), and panned by critics it opened at only a few theaters and could have spelled the end of Van Peebles' career. It ended up taking north of $15m at the box office, making it one of the most profitable independently-produced films of all time, and is credited with spawning the artistically fertile, if critically underappreciated blaxploitation genre. All well and good, but this still sells the film short on its artistic merits: If Sweet Sweetback had emerged from Europe bearing a name like Godard or Pasolini, it would immediately have been recognized for the revolutionary masterpiece it was. Even today, though it has been reclaimed from the knee-jerk smut reaction of contemporary critics, it doesn't get the respect it deserves, being perhaps the biggest omission of Mark Cousins' otherwise encyclopedic Story of Film. Melvin's son Mario directed a partially-fictionized re-telling of the making of Sweetback, 2003's art-house hit Baadasssss.
To give an idea of the timescale we're working with: Oscar Micheaux's father was born into slavery. Oscar was the fifth of thirteen children born to his parents on their Illinois farm. After years of working various jobs and operating his own small businesses in and around Chicago, he bought land in South Dakota and became a farmer. In 1913, he published his first of seven novels, The Conquest, a largely autobiographical account of life as an African-American farmer. Six years later, Micheaux had the opportunity to direct a film version of that novel. He went on to write, direct or produce more than 30 films including 1920's Within Our Gates - thought to be the earliest surviving film directed by an African-American - and 1924's Body and Soul, featuring the film debut of Paul Robeson. You can read more in Patrick McGilligan's 2007 biography Oscar Micheaux, the Great and Only: The Life of America's First Black Filmmaker.
Senegalese director, producer and author Ousmane Sembene is widely regarded as the Father of African Cinema. 1966's brilliant Black Girl, a story of a young woman who moves to France to work as a nanny for a rich couple, was the first feature film ever produced by a sub-Saharan African director. It won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo, bringing worldwide attention to the budding African film scene. Two years later, his Mandabi became the first feature film to be produced entirely in Wolof, Sembene's native tongue. Sembene's illustrious career spanned five novels (most famously God's Bits of Wood) and seven more feature films, ending with 2004's Cannes-award-winning Moolaadé. Always political and often satirical, every one of his films is a master work, but my personal recommendations go to Black Girl and Xala, a 1975 satire adapted from his own novel that follows a rich post-colonial businessman through the corrupt political landscape and ends with one of the most striking comeuppances in the history of movies. African cinema, particularly in Senegal, has flourished in the years since Sembene first put image to celluloid, and you could find numerous films and directors worthy of being featured here, but Sembene was the first and still one of the best.
The titles Criterion gave to the four discs of its Paul Robeson box set say it all: Pioneer, Citizen of the World, Outsider, Icon. The true renaissance man, Robeson's Wikipedia entry featuring sections on stage and film acting, on singing, on his All-American college football career, on a brief law career, on his involvement in the Harlem Renaissance, on his political and social activism, and on being blacklisted during the McCarthy hearings. Surely enough life for three ordinary biographies. Robeson acted in thirteen films in his career, but his legacy casts a much larger shadow. Several of his films are hard to come by these days, but luckily The Criterion box set includes seven of his movies plus the documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to An Artist. Highlights include The Emperor Jones, Body and Soul (directed by Oscar Micheaux) and Jericho. The library has numerous biogrophies in our collection for your further reading needs.
I'll concede that I've probably got nothing to add to your understanding of Spike Lee, and just provide a link to his filmography, which pretty well speaks for itself.