Preserving the history of black cinema, one poster at a time

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One of the most challenging aspects of mounting our Oscar Micheaux series was locating images to pair with descriptions of the pre-war black cinema pioneer’s little-seen films. We were aided greatly by Separate Cinema, a unique archive of 25,000 rare film posters, lobby cards and photographs that chronicle the evolution of films by and about African Americans. The founder of Separate Cinema, John Kisch, graciously agreed to be interviewed by the filmlinc blog about his archive and the history of black cinema.

“When I began collecting black film posters in the early 1970s, I was certainly part of the “general public,” wrote Kisch in an email exchange. “Still a teenager, and in a predominantly white environment, I had no knowledge of black actors other than Sidney Poitier, Fred Williamson or Pam Grier, who were (to me), simply actors on a screen. I had no conscious thoughts that black film history even existed. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, black music was an inescapable and major part of everyone’s life; it was everywhere. Black film history, however, was a blur and in retrospect, not something many people were made aware of. I didn’t learn about it in school, no one I knew spoke of it, and black “history” was limited to the things that the Civil Rights Movement made a point of referencing.”

Kisch cites two films as turning points in the history of the black experience on screen: “Modern history might point to two pivotal films: Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It  (1986) and Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987) as being another step up the ladder in the acceptance of the Black cinematic experience. However, if that “experience” had in fact crossed over to the mainstream, we wouldn’t be questioning it today. There are many many films yet to be made by those whose voices and experiences need to be heard. It will happen. Audiences are ready.”

Kisch further lists the following pre-1950 films as MUST SEE:

  • Mainstream Hollywood : Hallelujah (1929), Emperor Jones (1933), Imitation of Life (1934), The Green Pastures (1936), Stormy Weather (1943), Cabin in the Sky (1943), Intruder in the Dust (1949), Pinky (1949), No Way Out (1950).
  • Independent: Anything by directors Oscar Micheaux or Spencer Williams would be important in understanding their importance to the world of Black film.
  • More modern independent films of note (1950-1970) would certainly include: Shadows (1959), One Potato Two Potato (1964), Nothing But  Man (1964), Dutchman (1967).

To see illustrations of some of the posters mentioned and hundreds more from Separate Cinema’s traveling museum exhibits, please visit the Separate Cinema Archive.

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