Allyson Nadia Field’s Uplift Cinema excavates the lost history of African-American filmmaking in the first half of the 1910s, uncovering a surprisingly diverse body of genres – from local film and sponsored production to drama and comedy – through which early Black entrepreneurs strove to self-fashion racial representations on their own terms. Irrespective of form or subject matter, Field contends that all of these works were inevitably in conversation with the era’s ever-present and always-fraught discourse of racial uplift. Perhaps even more impressive is that she weaves such a detailed and compellingly-argued narrative entirely in the absence of extant films.
Working from a filmic “archive of absence,” Field reconstructs the prehistory of the 1920s race film from a copious body of surviving late 19th and early 20th century archival print ephemera. This arsenal includes institutional records and memos, personal correspondence, publicity materials, and photographs, as well as the era’s mainstream, Black, and industry trade press. Together, these sources empower Field to read around the missing moving image by using contextual clues regarding production, exhibition, and reception to infer how they were narratively and formally constructed. Whereas the historiography of early Black filmmaking in the United States has focused extensively on narrative fiction that is said to have arisen in response to D.W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation, Uplift Cinema proves that a groundwork in fiction and non-fiction film had already been laid prior to 1915 by educators, entrepreneurs, and artists who were desirous both to counter racist depictions in mainstream media and to author representational imagery of their own.
Field’s methodological bent – a “manifesto for looking at lost film” – is a call that should resonate with film historians across a wide range of research interests. Reflecting on the nature of the field, she states, “film history is a history of survivors, and scholarly writing is consequently disproportionally weighed towards extant films.” Noting the woefully miniscule survival rate of early cinema, she declares it even “irrational to perpetuate [our current] extant-centric film history.” (p. 23) To be clear, the author’s emphasis is not to disregard the moving image outright. Rather, hers is a push to adapt methodologies to account for a larger body of works that, due to the contingent nature of the archive, may not have survived. Field’s monograph – the first of its kind to focus on non-extant films – affirms the value of her efforts to resurrect the spirit of lost cinemas through contextual analysis, for her specific intervention notably expands the history of African-American filmmaking practice prior to 1915.
The discourse of racial “uplift” is rooted in post-Civil War America, as the nation grappled with how to incorporate over four million newly freed slaves into society. The most influential model to emerge in the Reconstructionist South was that of vocational and agricultural education for free Blacks, former slaves, and their descendants, pioneered by the Hampton Institute in Virginia. A Hampton education functioned as something of a finishing school, whereby an inchoate student was made useful via job training and an education in Protestant work ethic, self-sufficiency, and thrift. Transformed by the curriculum, Hampton graduates were expected to go forth and spread the gospel throughout the South, serving as an educator and a model for others in the community to emulate.
By 1900, over a hundred Southern Black agricultural and industrial institutes were in operation, vigorously promoting the development of a skilled African-American labour force as the best means towards progress. Booker T. Washington, a Hampton graduate and founder of the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers (as well as the National Negro Business League), emerged as the movement’s poster child – uplift’s “ambassador among whites” and an aspirational figure for America’s Black population (p. xi). The “Hampton-Tuskegee Idea,” as it became popularly known, drew the ire of more radical African-American intellectuals (such as W.E.B. Du Bois) who attacked its tacit acceptance of segregation and the extant white racial hierarchy. Neatly summarising the complex ambivalence of uplift discourse, Field writes:
Put simply, uplift was an idea, a project, and a rhetorical strategy promoted by Washington and his allies, in which individual self-help was the key to collective progress of African Americans. […]For its proponents, uplift means that material improvements (and the ensuing elevated social status) would be attained through individual striving and the self-sufficiency of the race—rather than political or social equality with whites created through legal means. Thus, uplift involved a complex negotiation of ambition and obsequiousness, and of assertion and retreat, along with virtuosic rhetorical gymnastics required to speak concurrently to two divergent audiences. (p. x)
The author’s decision to conceive of early forays into Black filmmaking as “uplift cinema”—as opposed to using the accepted “race film” label – is motivated by a desire to craft a more inclusive model of African-American silent filmmaking practice that includes previously unexamined lost films. In reviewing the historiography of race films, Field discusses the overwhelming emphasis on narrative fiction generally, and melodrama, more specifically. While noting that both phrases point to efforts to strategically harness the power of the moving image for racial advancement and self-expression, she argues that uplift cinema, “expands the epistemological coordinates of race film” by also considering previously overlooked “nontheatrical practices, hybrid forms, and nonfiction filmmaking such as actualities and local film.” (pp. 10-11) Uplift cinema, she contends, was conceived of as “an explicitly useful form of cinema” (p. 2) applied, at various times, to fundraising, local reportage, and self-affirmation, as well as the desire to entertain and monetise Black consumers.
The book’s first chapter articulates a visual “aesthetics of uplift” by focusing on rhetorical strategies employed by Hampton and Tuskegee in their promotional campaigns in the decades prior to their adoption of moving images around 1910. During this time, both organisations conducted extensive efforts that utilised print brochures, pamphlets, photographs, pageants, and musical performances to appeal, alternatively, to both Northern white philanthropists and Southern African-American communities. Through the close examination of this media, Field identifies a series of consistent “persuasive, strategic, and didactic” narrative and stylistic strategies that convey their efforts to mould “raw” recruits into industrious and respectable citizens (p. 37, 39-42). One common rhetorical strategy to demonstrate the efficacy of the Hampton-Tuskegee Idea was that of the before-and-after narrative, whereby conditions of a student’s pre-education life are contrasted with their experiences as successful graduates. According to Field, Hampton and Tuskegee’s promotional activities enact “a precarious balance between lauding social and political advances and perpetuating the underlying inequities that blocked further improvements.” (p. 81)
Building from this context, Uplift Cinema’s second chapter recounts the production and exhibition of two films shot at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee School. The first, A Trip to Tuskegee (1909), was the brainchild of Boston-based African-American businessman George Broome. Based on letters exchanged between Washington and the filmmaker, Field describes the resultant film as comprising exteriors of the campus, footage of Washington, and extended depictions of students at work. While the archival record indicates no sign of dissatisfaction with the film itself, the partnership between Broome and the school soured over competing desires to control the film’s exhibition. Whereas Broome sought to capitalise on Tuskegee’s notoriety to draw Black spectators to his commercial screening programs (and potentially include the film on a bill alongside presumably more lowbrow fare), the institute wanted to restrict the film’s use to fundraising events and other exhibition contexts where it could exercise tight control over screening conditions. The conflict, Field perceptively notes, illustrates the differing models of uplift that coexisted within the African-American community:
Washington was concerned with promoting the Hampton-Tuskegee model of education as a means of uplifting the race, but Broome’s image-making was itself another form of uplift – that of a Black-owned film company dedicated to capturing subjects of interest to a Black audience that would be entertaining. […] Broome’s aesthetics of uplift focused on promoting a Black self-image on screen to Black audiences rather than formulating one for white philanthropists or mixed audiences, as Tuskegee intended. (pp. 90-1, 100)
While the Institute’s second project – A Day at Tuskegee (1913), produced by a team of Chicago filmmakers – proved less fraught, ultimately, Tuskegee’s desire to reach white benefactors trumped any efforts to speak directly to Black spectators, despite even the best intentions and efforts of filmmakers to reach a larger audience.
In chapter three, Tuskegee’s experimentation with filmmaking is contrasted with the comparatively more sophisticated promotional efforts of the Hampton Institute. Their first effort, John Henry at Hampton: A Kind of Student Who Makes Good (1913), depicts the development of a fictionalized student during his tenure at the institute. Drawing from a detailed synopsis published in a local trade paper, Field remarks on the film’s use of a before-and-after narrative model that contrasts John Henry’s impoverished childhood home with the more stately environment of the school’s grounds. The narrative also invokes what Field characterizes as the “circularity” of racial uplift discourse, in that an older Hampton graduate encourages the titular character to enrol in the school, and Henry, in turn, eventually spreads the message to the next generation of younger children. Despite its depiction of betterment and economic aspiration, however, the author ultimately suggests that the film’s narrative, perhaps due to its fundraising objectives, maintains an accommodationist stance as the uplift trajectory delimits opportunities to those only available within the black community, “this film is explicit in its message that Hampton is not a training ground for systemic change or a challenge to segregationist status quo: John Henry is not going to compete for a job with southern whites, nor does he aspire to move north.” (pp. 127-8) Just as in the Tuskegee example, Field also acknowledges the revelatory potential that the film may have had when played for Black audiences, in this instance, the Hampton students and faculty on campus who viewed the film in advance of the Northern fundraising campaign.
Continuing with the motion picture activities of the Hampton Institute, chapter four is a fascinating case study of the organisation’s response to The Birth of a Nation (1915), whereby it sought to strategically “correct” the film’s racist message by lending footage from another of its projects (the evocatively named actuality film Making Negro Lives Count, also discussed in the previous chapter) to serve as an epilogue appended to Griffith’s incendiary epic. Field interprets the resulting sequence – titled The New Era – as entirely aligned with the institute’s broader ideological mission. In Hampton’s view, the epilogue would serve as an “after” to Griffith’s “before,” echoing the well-worn syntax of uplift aesthetics that had characterised their promotional strategies for decades (p. 162). Viewed this way, Hampton’s epilogue was meant to “serve as a counterargument for the preceding three-hour motion picture. In effect [it tried] to make The Birth of a Nation as a whole into an uplift film…” (p. 166) Despite the organisation’s best intentions, Field’s perceptive analysis of The New Era sequence in the context of Griffith’s entire film demonstrates the discursive failure of Hampton’s misguided initiative and the inability of the epilogue to neutralise the director’s negative portrayals of African-Americans.
Field’s final chapter analyses the careers of a trio of African American entrepreneurs in Chicago and New York. Taken as a whole, the films produced by these businessmen – well-known pioneer William Foster and comparatively less examined figures, Peter P. Jones and Hunter C. Haynes – generated a multivalent mosaic of African-American depictions on screen that foreground the inherent tensions within the politics of racial uplift.
Foster’s efforts encompassed a wide-range of genres – from early efforts recording civic events for Chicago’s Black community to short comedies that often negotiated the politics of middle class respectability. Peter P. Jones similarly trafficked in a range of representational strategies. Parlaying a career in still photography to moving image work, Jones shot a dramatic “fiction-actuality hybrid” about the all-Black Eighth Regiment that fought in the Spanish-Civil War. (p.214). He followed with a 5,000-foot work depicting events held at a 1915 Illinois fair; strategically titled 50 Years Freedom, he branded the film “the greatest motion picture ever produced of colored people”. (p. 218) At events, Jones mixed these nonfiction works with comedies based on vaudeville acts, which tended to replay key tropes that negatively stereotyped African-Americas. Reflecting on the variety of these programs, Field notes that: “The adjacency of the comedy and actualities chronicling the ‘progress of the Negro’ and the ‘Re-Birth of a Nation’ suggest that the older vaudeville tradition of Black caricature was not replaced by the uplift actualities but coexisted, however uneasily, with them.” (p. 220)
A case study of the Hunter Haynes-produced Uncle Remus’ Visit to New York (1915) demonstrates a comedic reworking of the before-and-after trajectory, when a successful black businessman invites his rural southern family to visit, amounting to an “uplift narrative [turned] on its head.” (p. 231) Summarising the chapter, Field argues that:
…Entrepreneurial filmmakers offered images of African American uplift that presented its subjects as modern, civically engaged models of progress and possibility. […] Black [directors] of this period employed cinema as a useful medium for promoting the uplift of the race and simultaneously endeavored to build an economically viable – and profitable – filmmaking enterprise. (p. 191)
In aggregate, just as in the Hampton and Tuskegee examples, the activities of these entrepreneurs invoked tensions within the uplift project, “between individual initiatives and collective advancement, between so-called positive representation and alternative notions of what should constitute a public image of the race.” (p. 244)
Ultimately, the dominance of “uplift” as a representational and political strategy declined by the end of the 1910s amidst broader shifts in political and cultural priorities of America’s Black populace. Yet, Field argues, the spectre of uplift lingers, a discourse invoked, applied, or challenged by more contemporary figures such as Sidney Poitier, Melvin Van Peebles, and Lee Daniels (p. 258).
To illustrate how her more theoretically grounded and inclusive “uplift cinema” model applies to later films, Field bookends her study with a discussion of Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 melodrama Body and Soul, which was criticised heavily in the African-American press for its depiction of Black criminality. Just as in the book’s main chapters, her prologue and epilogue address the hybridity of forms within this single work, covering both scenes of staged drama (starring Paul Robeson in dual roles) and nonfiction footage of Black churchgoers. Field suggests that the director’s critical engagement with “Bookerite politics” is literalised within the diegesis in the presence of a Booker T. Washington portrait in the home of an upstanding Black family, a common practice among African-Americans during the period. While Washington’s visage itself symbolises assiduity and aspiration, Field suggests its dark side within the mise en scene, serving as an “aloof witness to intra-racial crimes of rape and extortion” as it hangs over Reverend Jenkins during his attack on the virtuous Isabelle (p. xiv). Through Field’s incisive analysis of this sequence and the actuality scenes in the epilogue, Body and Soul defies a clear cut positive or negative vision of uplift discourse. Rather, it affirms an ambivalence that continues to haunt filmmakers and performers today.
Field’s monograph adds further depth to the historiography of African-American studies and film history by providing a detailed reconstruction of an entirely lost period of silent era Black media practice. Her work is not an outright criticism of the uplift project, but rather a measured scholarly effort to honour and interrogate the complexity of the terrain within which early black filmmakers and entrepreneurs operated. Her work vividly invokes the fraught politics of representation and resistance that filmmakers continue to grapple with today and her deep probing of the archive should serve as a methodological model to historians as they strive to further unearth the history of moving image practice.
Allyson Nadia Field, Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity (Durham: NC, Duke University Press, 2015).