A history of Black representation in film

January 23, 2021
FREDERIC J. BROWN // Getty Images

A history of Black representation in film

To study the rich history of Black representation in film, Stacker created a timeline of some the most significant milestones in Black contributions to the industry. Selections for the forthcoming gallery come from a myriad of books, articles, and archives. Entries include films about Black, queer, Muslim teens falling in love, early horror stories intended to challenge racism long before contemporary classics like "Get Out," and various directors, screenwriters, and others who landed historic firsts in the awards circuit. There are also experimental documentaries, silent films, musicals, and groundbreaking LGBTQ+ films in the mix.

From the beginning, Black films have been used to challenge stereotypes of race, tell great stories, and create laughs. There have been various eras within Black film history that focused on social and political movements. "Race films," or "race movies" as a specific film classification came to be around 1915 as a means of combatting the Jim Crow South and negative racist stereotypes in the early 1900s. Later, blaxploitation films were developed following victories of the civil rights movement. The genre was geared toward young Black Americans and had many political undertones. As industry leaders driving the progress and development of Black-inclusive film, Black writers, directors, producers, musicians, cast, and crew have created award-winning movie scores, horror films, and comedies.

Many Hollywood films have historically caricaturized the Black experience. Today, even films that aren't overtly racist often perpetuate harmful stereotypes or tropes. However, Black creatives and others have worked tirelessly to combat these views with their own work. This list celebrates various representations both in genre and accolades and contains a number of firsts, including the first Black woman with a movie that earned $100 million at the box office.

1898: ‘Something Good Negro Kiss’

The first depiction of on-screen Black love and possibly the first-known Black film, “Something Good Negro Kiss” was made in 1898. It shows two lovers embracing in a sweet kiss. The silent film reel was lost only to be rediscovered in good shape decades later and added in 2018 to the National Film Registry.

1898: Black Cavalry marching

One of the first depictions of Black people on film was the images of the Black Cavalry marching. The newsreels depict an all-Black cavalry marching during Teddy Roosevelt’s march on San Juan Hill.

1910: First comedies by Black men

In 1910 brothers Peter and Bill Jones began making comedies. They were the first Black men to make comedic films.

1910: Photoplay Company is formed

In 1910 William D. Foster became the first Black man to form a film production company, which he called Photoplay Company. “In a moving picture, the Negro would off-set so many insults of the race—could tell their side of the birth of this great race,” Foster said in 1915.

1912: 'The Railroad Porter'

"The Railroad Porter" was produced by the Photoplay Company in 1912. It is considered the first film with an all-Black cast.

1916: Lincoln Motion Picture Company is formed

"Race film" was a genre of film prevalent from around 1915 to the 1950s. These movies featured Black casts and were made for Black audiences. Producers of these films made them as a way to offset the racism of the Jim Crow South and provide inclusionary entertainment for a growing sector of American consumers. In 1916, brothers George Perry Johnson and Noble Johnson formed the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which was a race film production company.

1918: ‘The Birth of a Race’

“Birth of a Nation” was a racist film that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan and which was well-received in 1915. To counter that film's racist stereotypes, Emmet J. Scott began production of “Birth of a Race.” The intended epic, meant to be three hours, was never made. Instead, Scott was forced to accept funding from white investors due to his lack of capital, and the original film was changed to moderate their sensitivity.

1919: ‘The Homesteader’

“The Homesteader” was the first film to be produced by acclaimed filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. The silent film is based on his book and autobiography. The initial book was about a Black man falling in love with the daughter of a Scottish widower. However, the film is noted to have a plot-twist, removing the story line of interracial romance. “The Homesteader” is considered the first African American feature film; the original film has been lost to time.

1920: 'Within Our Gates’

“Within Our Gates” is the silent film directed by early Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux and released in 1920. The film falls under the category of race films and was released during the Jim Crow era.

1929: 'Hallelujah' is the first all-Black talking musical

The first all-Black talking musical film was released in 1929. With the introduction of sound to film, "Hallelujah" was a major studio hit.

1929: ‘Hearts of Dixie’

“Hearts of Dixie” was the first all-Black talking major studio production. The film came out in 1929 and starred Stepin Fetchit, one of the earliest Black Hollywood movie stars.

1940: ‘Song of Ingagi’

“Song of Ingagi” was the first sci-fi horror film to feature an all-Black cast. The monster movie was written by Spencer Williams and based off his short story called "House of Horror."

1940: Hattie McDaniel earns an Oscar

In 1940 Hattie McDaniel became the first Black woman to win an Oscar. She earned the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind,” despite being barred from attending the initial premiere of the film. "Gone With the Wind" is a notoriously controversial film for its caricature-like depiction of McDaniel's role as well as for its "lost cause" narrative.

1941: ‘The Blood of Jesus’

“The blood of Jesus” by Spencer Williams is one of the first films to feature an all-Black cast while having strong Christian messaging. Williams was one of the few Black filmmakers of his time who received frequent funding from white investors.

1955: First interracial kiss in British film

The first interracial kiss in British film was depicted in crime film "Killer's Kiss" by Stanley Kubrick. The scene is between a Black man (Frank Silvera) and white woman (Irene Kane). Because Jamaican-born Silvera was a lighter-skinned Black man, the prolific actor was alternatively cast as Polynesian, Black, and Latino throughout his career.

1960: First documentary by a Black woman

“Interrogation Report 1” is Madeline Anderson’s first film. She is the first Black woman to create a televised documentary film. The 1960 documentary focuses a lens on racism within the U.S.

1963: ‘Nothing But a Man’

“Nothing But a Man” is the first full-feature Black drama featuring an all-Black cast for a mixed audience. The film was initially released in 1963, around the time period the civil rights movement was beginning to take speed.

1964: Sidney Poitier wins an Oscar

Sidney Poitier in 1964 became the first Black man to win an Oscar. The actor and humanitarian took home Best Actor for his role in the drama “Lilies of the Field.”

1967: First interracial kiss on film in US

The first interracial kiss came to American cinema in 1967 with the comedy-drama “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” one of only a few films in that era to represent interracial marriage positively. Interracial marriage was made legal throughout the U.S. just six months before the movie came out.

The milestone was followed a year later by the first interracial kiss on TV with “Star Trek” episode “Plato's Stepchildren.” "Star Trek" executives were reluctant to film the scene but released the episode despite the controversy.

1967: First metatextual documentary by a Black man

William Greaves' "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One" is one of the first metatextual documentaries directed by a Black man. The film is shot using several points of view, which were filmed at the same time.

1969: First interracial sex scene

Only a year after the first televised interracial kiss, the first interracial sex scene took place in “100 Rifles.” The action film starred Jim Brown and Raquel Welch.

1971: ‘Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song’

Blaxploitation was an era of film in the ’70s intended for young Black Americans. “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song” was directed by Melvin Van Peebles during this era. The film grossed more than $10 million dollars but received criticism for its raciness.

1971: Hollywood debuts its first major Black director

Gordon Parks became Hollywood’s first major Black director with his debut film “Shaft.” The box office grossed $12 million in the U.S.

1972: ‘The Man’

1972 political drama “The Man” stars James Earl Jones as first Black president. In the film, Jones' character Douglass Dilman ascends to the White House from his role as a senator via the order of succession.

1972: First Black horror film in blaxploitation era

"Blacula" was the first Black horror film during the blaxploitation era. Directed by Williams Crain, the movie was a hit at the box office and depicts the first Black vampire on the silver screen.

1973: ‘The Spook Who Sat by the Door’

Ivan Dixon in 1973 released the independent film "The Spook Who Sat by the Door," a fictional account of one Dan Freeman, the first Black CIA agent, as he organizes Black teenagers with plans to overthrow the white establishment. The film is based on a Sam Greenlee book by the same name. There are  conspiracy theories surrounding the film, which was removed from theaters mysteriously after its release.

1976: First black woman to star in an erotic film

Desiree West was the first Black woman erotic-film star. She debuted in 1973's “Teenage Runaway.” West was known for pushing the envelope with adult scenes featuring Black, interracial, and lesbian scenes.

1983: ‘Billie Jean’ on MTV

Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in 1983 became the first music video to be frequently aired on MTV. Though it is not exactly a film, the video set the stage for the airing of “Thriller,” which is considered a short film by some critics due to its 14-minute runtime.

1984: 'The Brother From Another Planet'

1984 sci-fi film “The Brother From Another Planet” follows the story of an alien with strange abilities who arrives in Harlem. The film stars Joe Morton and grossed $4 million at the box office.

1987: Herbie Hancock wins Best Original Music Score

Pianist Herbie Hancock in 1987 won the Academy Award for "Round Midnight." He is the first Black man to have won an Oscar for an original score.

1989: ‘Tongues United’

One of the first documentary films to share the experiences of Black gay men was 1989's “Tongues United.” The experimental documentary was directed by Marlon Riggs.

1990: ‘Paris Is Burning’

Director Jennie Livingston's award-winning “Paris Is Burning” explores racism and homophobia in New York City. More than two decades later, the documentary “KiKi,” a documentary about the ball culture in New York, paid homage to “Paris Is Burning” and is considered by some critics to function as a sequel.

1991: ‘Young Soul Rebels’

Young Soul Rebels” was released in 1991 in Great Britain. The coming-of-age thriller takes place in 1977 London and centers on a murder mystery and several relationships, including a love story between two young, Black, gay men.

1991: First Black woman director with nationally distributed film

“Daughters of the Dust” in 1991 became the first Black-woman-directed film to get national distribution. The film is noted for its dreamlike and experimental aesthetic. Though well-received, director Julie Dash had difficulty distributing films following “Daughters of the Dust."

1993: First Black superhero film

Long before the release of "Black Panther" came "The Meteor Man," the first Black superhero film. Robert Townsend directed, co-produced, and starred in the movie, which featured an all-star cast and special appearances from the likes of Cypress Hill, Sinbad, and Naughty by Nature.

1996: First Black lesbian film

“The Watermelon Woman” was the first film about a Black lesbian. The comedic drama was directed by and stars Cheryl Dunye.

2002: Halle Berry wins an Oscar

Halle Berry in 2002 became the first Black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress. She won the award for her role as Leticia in the romantic drama “Monster’s Ball.”

2007: 'Killer of Sheep' released 30 years after initial premiere

As a poor film student in 1977, Charles Burnett wrote, directed, and shot “Killer of Sheep.” The film, which was never meant to be distributed, was considered lost to time. Film preservationist Ross Lipman in 1977 restored the project and it was released on DVD.

2009: Princess Tiana

Princess Tiana was the first Black Disney princess. The children’s movie, “The Princess and the Frog,” came out in 2009.

2012: 'The Skinny'

Five years prior to the successful "Moonlight," "The Skinny" came out as one of the first films about Black gay love. The story centers on queer Black classmates during the Pride parade.

2012: First Black woman wins Best Director at Sundance

Ava DuVernay in 2012 won Best Director at the acclaimed Sundance festival. She is the first Black woman to win the award, which she earned for her film “Middle of Nowhere.”

2014: First coming-of-age film about gay, Black, muslim teens

Directed by Jay Dockendorf, “Naz & Maalik” is the first film to represent young Black, gay, Muslim men falling in love. The film is about two teenagers in New York.

2015: First historical film about a queer Black woman

2015's “Bessie” stars Queen Latifah. It is the first historically fictional film about a queer Black blues singer.

2017: ‘Moonlight’ hits the scene

“Moonlight” was the first Black LGBTQ+ film to win an Academy Award for best picture. The 2017 independent drama set in Miami follows a Black man named Chiron as he comes of age, played at different times in his life by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes.

2017: First queer Black screenwriter win an Emmy

In 2017 Lena Waithe became the first queer Black woman to win an Emmy. The award was given for "Thanksgiving" an episode she wrote in the series "Master of None."

2017: First Black woman screenwriter to hit $100 million at box office

In 2017 Tracey Oliver became the first Black woman screenwriter to work on a film earning $100 million at the box office. Her film “Girls Trip” was a comedy starring various Black movie stars.

2018: ‘Black Panther’

“Black Panther” is the first Black Marvel superhero film to ever be released. The film earned widespread critical acclaim and grossed $200 million dollars.

2018: $100 million movie budget given to a Black woman

In 2018, Ava DuVernay became the first Black woman to direct a $100 million film. The budget was given for the adaption of “A Wrinkle in Time.”

2018: DC superhero film attached to Black woman director

It was announced in 2018 that Ava DuVernay would direct a film based on the comic “New Gods.” DuVernay is the first Black woman to direct a DC superhero film.

2018: First Black screenwriter wins Oscar

In 2018, Jordan Peele took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. "Get Out" was nominated in several categories.

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