Harlem’s Role in the Black Film Scene

by A Collier
black film

Harlem’s Role in the Black Film Scene

Let’s talk about Harlem’s role in shaping what once was endless portrayals of racist and stereotypical Black characters and how the community helped turn it into the diverse representation that we see on the big screen today.

black film

Let’s talk about Harlem’s role in shaping what once was endless portrayals of racist and stereotypical Black characters and how the community helped turn it into the diverse representation that we see on the big screen today.

We’ve previously talked about some of the ways Harlem makes its presence known on the movie screens, but there is a lot more to learn about the Black film scene.

Let’s talk about Harlem’s role in shaping what once was endless portrayals of racist and stereotypical Black characters and how the community helped turn it into the diverse representation that we see on the big screen today.

The Beginnings of Black Film

As early as the 1830s, the emergence of the Jim Crow persona – a racist portrayal of Black individuals and Black culture – was gaining popularity in entertainment pieces. This rise in popularity gave way to the emergence of the minstrel show. These shows were made up of skits, variety performances, dancing, and musical acts done by white people done up in blackface makeup.

The success of these shows was transformed into early silent films, which only fueled the discrimination against Black people in America. The early days of the Black film scene were created for and consumed by white audiences, which started a decades-long struggle for equal representation that continues today.

Black Voices, Black Films

In a response to these harmful depictions, Black filmmakers started launching their own independent projects. They started making films that featured Black directors and Black casts. At the beginning of the 1900s, Oscar Micheaux became America’s first Black filmmaker, directing and producing 44 films throughout his career. You can see a list of his works here, and watch a short video about his life here.

His work challenged the perception of Black characters in cinema. His work was very diverse: he created films that featured difficult topics like racism and white supremacy, but he also created films that were made for more light-hearted entertainment purposes. This was decades before the civil rights movement would gain any substantial ground. His work was revolutionary, and he forged the path that many great Black film professionals have since followed, including the likes of Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay

In the late 1900s and early 1910s, movie houses in Harlem and the greater New York City area began letting Black citizens come to the shows. Though by law, all forms of racial discrimination were considered crimes in the eyes of New York State, many times Black filmgoers were seated in the back or balcony seats of the theater.

But in Harlem, things were already starting to become more centered around the Black experience, which meant that movie houses in the neighborhood were not only allowing Black people to come to watch the movies, but they were also actively seeking out Black audiences. This included playing films that other white-catering film houses wouldn’t.

Just like Black musicians and other entertainers were making their way in Harlem, the cinemas in the community were celebrating Black talent in the film industry.

Lincoln Theatre

Opening in 1909, the Lincoln Theatre was the first Black theater in Harlem, and one of the first “desegregated picture houses” in the United States, according to the Gotham Center for New York City History.

This and other area theaters employed Black entertainers and staff to capitalize on the desire for more racially diverse venues in Harlem. However, most of these businesses that touted Black employees and films were still mostly owned and operated by white businessmen.

The Lincoln made a reputation for itself as a cheap movie house where you could get a little rowdy and watch a few acts.

Then came the Lafayette Theatre. The locals called it the “House Beautiful.”

Lafayette & Gem

The Lafayette Theatre opened in 1912 and had nearly double the capacity as the Lincoln and was the first major theater to desegregate. It became a popular spot for entertainment, with Duke Ellington making his New York debut here in 1923.

The Gem Theatre opened in the early 1920s after a name change and other updates to the building. It wasn’t open for longer than a few years. There’s not much that’s known about the Gem, other than in 1926 it featured a “race movie” called Ten Nights in a Barroom, starring Charles Gilpin, one of the most famous actors of the time. You can still watch the entire film to this day, in a restored video done by the George Eastman Museum.

Black Film in the 1940s and 50s

Many of the theaters were heavily impacted by the emergence of talkies (in the late 1920s) as well as by the Great Depression. The Lafayette survived into the 1950s, but not by much. And the Gem was closed by 1935.

There were establishments like the American Negro Theater still open in the 1940s, and they were offering actors parts in shows that seemed more focused on portraying authentic stories from the community.

The Harlem film scene was not what it once was, but it was still playing a role in the advancement of Black cinema. The late great Sidney Poitier was training at the ANT at the time, as was Harry Belafonte.

“Race films” soon fell out of favor, as the civil rights movement started to gain momentum. And then the era of the Blaxploitation film was born.

Blaxploitation Films & Beyond

The rise of Black Exploitation films – shortened to Blaxploitation – saw a revival in the Black film experience. These films were filled with Black characters, culture, music, and style.

Arguably the best Blaxploitation film of all time, Shaft (1971), was filmed in Harlem, Greenwich Village, and Times Square and is about a cool detective working to snatch Harlem back from the clutches of the mob. The titular character was played by the powerhouse Richard Roundtree, who was kind enough to take part in one of the HarlemAmerica Digital Network’s podcasts, “What’s Hot! HarlemAmerica with G. Keith Alexander.” You can listen to the full episode on-demand here.

Blaxploitation films were fun and exciting, but like with the Harlem theaters, these movies were typically created by white filmmakers, which meant the money being made off those films went right out of the neighborhoods they were depicting and into the hands of non-Black film companies.

Though these films carry a special weight in the culture of Black cinema, many strides have been made in the last 50 years to ensure that Black filmmakers, artists, actors, and producers are closing the gaps in wages and success that have been present since the Civil War. The eras of Black film have rich and complicated histories, but many of them had a foothold in Harlem.

Black Film and Entertainment Today

The HarlemAmerica Digital Network is your destination for Black entertainment. Do you want to start a podcast or online TV show for your business? HarlemAmerica was created with the Black entrepreneur in mind.

Check out our website to learn more about our small business membership packages.

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