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How Black resistance has been depicted in films over the years

A screenshot from the Melvin Van Peebles film, <em>Sweet Sweetback's </em><em>Baadasssss</em><em> Song.</em>
A screenshot from the Melvin Van Peebles film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.

One of Carter G. Woodson's more powerful quotes from The Mis-Education of a Negro is: "If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated."

Woodson, the father of Black History Month, would be happy to know that since 1928, the month — formerly called Negro History Week — has always had a theme.

This year it was Black Resistance.

It's a rich vein to mine from, because the definition and depictions of resistance — ranging on a spectrum of subtle to emphatic — are nestled within the everyday lived experience of Black people.

Black resistance and its fluidity are significant accents within the tapestry that is the Black experience, from attending Black church, to dancing and singing, to taking up arms, pursuing an education, and, of course, voting.

But it was cinema that dealt a powerful blow to motifs of emancipated Blackness.

Some of the earliest depictions of Black life were reduced to caricatures, creating steeper hills for newly-freed persons to climb, fighting both white supremacist dogma and the grotesque depiction of their humanity.

Depictions of Black people have evolved over time thanks Black film directors, actors, writers and creatives who formed communities in spaces to combat illustrations that limited the range and complexity of Black roles.

Filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux, whose groundbreaking films arrested the minds of viewers who had contemplated tropes over their trusted eye. And actors like Sidney Poitier, whose attention to, and responsibility for, social progress didn't come at the expense of his dominating career during the '50s and '60s.

Maya Cade believes this was one of Black cinema's charges and still serves as a form of resistance to this day.

Cade is the creator and curator of the Black Film Archive, a digital archive centered on Black cinema that dates back to the late 19th century, and she is a scholar-in-residence at The Library of Congress.

In an interview with NPR's Ailsa Chang, Cade unpacks the innumerable modes and threads of Black resistance from the late 19th century to today.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On Black History Month's 2023 theme 'Black Resistance'

I think I first thought of this idea that American freedom, for as long as Black cinema has existed, has relied on denying Black Americans equal rights. Cinema among Black directors, actors, performers, then, has become a tool of self-articulating and resisting those tropes. Tropes such as the oversexed Black woman, the Black brutes, the tragic mulatto, the all-knowing Negro. All of those things are at the forefront of Black creators when they take on a role.

I think also what is unique about Black cinema is that Black performers carry the weight of Black representation on their back at all times. And Black audiences see Black moviegoing in the same way they see voting. Going to the movies is seen as a tool of resisting. Even when that representation, if you will, may not meet what the audience has in mind, audiences are still thinking, "If I don't support this, I don't know when another film or moment like this will come around again."

On examples of Black resistance that resonate and have evolved

I think about the life and career of Melvin Van Peebles, who really created a prototype of Black imagery on screen with his film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, from 1971. And this film, which centers a Black sex worker on the run from cops after he is accused of something he did not do, is on the run with revolutionaries. And this film, which begins with this idea that it's dedicated to "all the brothers and sisters who had enough of the man" — it literally says that on screen — became a prototype. Melvin Van Peebles self-financed this film after he walked away from his Columbia contracts. And it became this legend: If Melvin Van Peebles can do this, then can't we also? This film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, is the prototype for blaxploitation and a generation of filmmakers to come.

On films rooted in resistance from the Black Film Archive

I definitely want to begin with Oscar Micheaux, his film Within Our Gates, from 1920, as a response to D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, from 1915. Birth of a Nation is a film that reignited the KKK for the way that it showed white nationalism as conqueror. Oscar Micheaux's 1920 film, instead of centering white nationalism, centers a schoolteacher and a journey through her past. And you realize in her past that her parents were lynched by a mob. And by doing so, it resists imagery of Black villainy and the assumed white virtue. And the realistic lynching was so heated that the film did not pass the board of censors on its first pass, because the movie board of Chicago believed that this film would cause a riot.

On late 19th century films rediscovered

Something Good — Negro Kiss from 1898 is a film that is the earliest depiction of Black affection on screen. What's interesting is that the film was considered lost. The film got a new life in recent years and really is the film that launched a million inspirations. It showed people that there is beauty in Black films past, because I think resistance works on many layers. I mean, when we resist assumptions about what is in the past, we work to make a brighter future.

On African-American tenderness as resistance

You know, Black Film Archive came to be because during the summer of 2020, something that constantly was repeated was that the only thing in the past is negative representations of us, and that film's past is simply racist. And something I kept seeing were these instances of people, what they were advocating for for the future, had already existed richly in the past. So tenderness as a guide to Black film's past allows an avenue for people to explore. It's not just in a kiss, it's not just in a warm embrace, it also is in nods of understanding. It's also in being deeply and richly understood. These are all forms of resistance that give us new life, a new path of exploration through Black film's past.

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.