The first chapter of Wil Haygood’s elegant and well-made book of history, “Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World,” is titled “Movie Night at Woodrow Wilson’s White House.”
The movie was “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), D. W. Griffith’s notorious silent epic, filled with flying white robes, about the noble intent of the Ku Klux Klan. It portrayed Black people as criminals, sex fiends and goggle-eyed fools, in skulking league with Northern carpetbaggers.
This was the first such White House screening, and the president had a stake in the film’s success. For one thing, it was based on a popular novel, “The Clansman,” written by his friend Thomas Dixon Jr. For another, the president made cameo appearances, of a sort. Griffith had adapted some of Wilson’s writing for interstitial explanatory frames.
“The Birth of a Nation” became a sensation, the first blockbuster, seen by roughly a quarter of the American population. And it became grimly apparent, Haygood writes, that Black people “had yet one more enemy: cinema.”
Some prolific nonfiction writers slowly grow bleary; you sense them, in their later books, going through the motions, rounding off corners. Haygood, on the other hand, has become a master craftsman, one whose joinery is seamless.
“Colorization” tells the story of Black artists in the film industry, those in front of and behind the camera, over more than a century. Some of these stories are little-known. This is sweeping history, but in Haygood’s hands it feels crisp, urgent and pared down. He doesn’t try to be encyclopedic. He takes a story he needs, tells it well, and ties it to the next one. He carries you along on dispassionate analysis and often novelistic detail.
He moves from “The Birth of a Nation” to tell the story of Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951), the former Pullman porter, plains farmer and novelist who almost single-handedly created Black filmmaking. Micheaux’s movies played in Black-owned theaters and weren’t reviewed by white publications.
Haygood considers “Gone With the Wind” and the stereotype of the Black maid; the making of Douglas Sirk’s last Hollywood film, the daringly interracial “Imitation of Life” (1959); and the obstacle-filled careers of performers like Paul Robeson, Dorothy Dandridge, James Edwards and Lena Horne.
There’s a chapter about Otto Preminger’s “Porgy and Bess,” which was dated when it appeared in 1959, nearly 25 years after the premiere of George Gershwin’s opera. The young playwright Lorraine Hansberry said about it: “We object to roles which consistently depict our women as wicked and our men as weak. We do not want to see six-foot Sidney Poitier on his knees crying for a slit-skirted wench.”
Haygood writes about Poitier, who seemed to step out of a dream many Americans were planning to have, and Harry Belafonte; the arrival of Melvin Van Peebles, Pam Grier and the so-called blaxploitation genre; the talents, largely wasted by Hollywood, of actors such as Billy Dee Williams; and the disaster that was “The Wiz” (1978).
Later chapters hail the careers of directorial stars such as Spike Lee, John Singleton, Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen and Jordan Peele, and trace a body of linked influences.
This film history plays out against the backdrop of American history, from the Scottsboro Boys and the Tuskegee Airmen through Rodney King, Clarence Thomas, Barack Obama and Black Lives Matter.
It plays out, too, against the ways the Academy Awards ignored Black performances. Federico Fellini, at the 1993 Oscars, unwittingly underlined why this mattered when he remarked, “The movies and America are almost the same thing.”
As you read, you may find yourself making lists of films to watch or rewatch: the pre-Code “Baby Face” (1933) starring Barbara Stanwyck and the Black actress Theresa Harris; “Home of the Brave”; “Lilies of the Field”; “Duel at Diablo”; “Sounder”; “Cane River”; “Get on the Bus”; “Love Jones.”
I spent an afternoon watching the trailers for these films and many others Haygood mentions. I was reminded that sequential trailer-watching is a vastly underrated pleasure.
Cinema, it need not be said, is a unique art form in the sense that many of us become children again in front of a moving image. Our defenses are lowered. We long to watch, often enough, with a child’s simple heart.
This fact about movies, Haygood is aware, has made the worst of them especially harmful to Black people across the last American century. It’s a problem that had many aspects. James Baldwin put one of them this way: “It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and, although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”
Stale language begins to creep in toward the end. It’s past time for an ambitious young copy editor to invent a search widget called ClicheCatcher™ to routinely run on manuscripts before they go to press.
Yet this is important, spirited popular history. Like a good movie, it pops from the start. (Haygood was wise to omit an introduction.) Like a good movie, too, it comes full circle.
Haygood recognizes that Wilson was an especially racist president, even by the standards of his time. On the last page of “Colorization,” he notes that in June 2020, Wilson’s alma mater, Princeton, announced that a building bearing his name would bear it no more.