History of Cinema 8 – Minority audiences in the early 1900s

*** warning - - - there may be language dealing with race in the early 1900s that could offend you in this post. If this applies to you, please skip this post. ***

In 1907 it was believed that Negroes were not interested in film, preferring plantation minstrel shows. No one had tried to make films for the black audience. Blacks were not interested in seeing white faces.

Theatre owners found profitability in the rise of racism. They had no interest in inviting blacks into their theatres. 1907 saw strong segregation from theatre owners and strong racism with the studios. The creators, however, saw an audience that could be targeted and began, selectively, to produce films for blacks.

The Selig Company made The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon in 1907. Edison made The Pickaninnies in 1908 and Uncle Tom Wins in 1909. Lubin made Rastus in Zululand in 1910. And in 1913 the Foster Film Company presented the first all black produced film, Railroad Porta.

Obviously, blacks were interested in film and came out in strong numbers. They enjoyed the “made for blacks” and “made for whites” films. Theatres limited blacks to balconies. Blacks had to purchase a ticket, enter through a side door or had to go outside to access the balcony.

Discrimination was made illegal in 1909 but no one enforced it. Either you sat in the balcony or you were denied access.

Harlem celebrated black talent and jumped on black cinema. They would show movies in between live acts at first. As the popularity grew, they began to have days dedicated to films exclusively. They booked any film, any genre. The crowds kept building. The format settled with 1 film and 6 vaudeville acts. The film changed twice a week.

Stepin Fetchit, the first black movie star

Maria C. Downs owned one of the first desegregated theatres, the Lincoln Theater. It was a 300 seat Nickelodeon. It was advertised as having “movies and short acts for short money.” In 1915 the Lincoln was rebuilt as a 850 seat theatre.

The Lincoln

Most theatres were owned by whites. It was rare for a theatre to be owned by a black, even in Harlem. The white theatre owners would use the trend of naming theatres after white heroes, install a black manager, and make money off of blacks. The belief that Negroes were not interested in film had reversed completely, owners creating desegregated houses to make money off of all.

As time moved on more blacks bought theatres and converted vaudeville theatres to cinemas. The Association of Colored Motion Picture Projectionists was established. Soon Hollywood embraced, for good or ill, the new genre of the Race Film.

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