Race film

The race film or race movie was a film type produced entirely in the United States between about 1915 and the early 1950s, consisting of films produced for an all-black audience, featuring black casts.

In all, approximately five hundred race films were produced. Of these, fewer than one hundred remain. Because race films were produced outside the Hollywood studio system, they were largely forgotten by mainstream film historians until they resurfaced in the 1980s on the BET cable network. In their day, race films were very popular among African American theatergoers. Their influence continues to be felt in cinema and television marketed to African Americans.

The term "race film" is sometimes used to describe films of the period aimed at other minority audiences. For instance, the 1926 film Silk Bouquet (also known as The Dragon Horse) starred the Asian-American actress Anna May Wong and was marketed to Chinese-American audiences.[1]

The Homesteader 1919 newspaperad
Ad for The Homesteader (1919) emphasizing its black cast

Financing and production

African Americans produced films for black audiences as early as 1905, but most race films were produced after 1915.[2] As many as 500 race films were produced in the United States between 1915 and 1952.[3] As happened later with the early black sitcoms on television, race movies were most often financed by white-owned companies, such as Leo Popkin, and scripted and directed by whites, although one producer, Alfred N. Sack, made some films written and directed by black talent such as Spencer Williams (actor). Many race films were produced by white-owned film companies outside the Hollywood-centered American film industry such as Million Dollar Productions in the 1930s and Toddy Pictures in the 1940s. One of the earliest surviving examples of a black cast film aimed at a black audience is A Fool and His Money (1912), directed by French emigree Alice Guy for the Solax Film Company.[4] The Ebony Film Company of Chicago, created specifically to produce black-cast films, was also headed by a white production team.[5]

Some black-owned studios existed, including Lincoln Motion Picture Company (19161921), and most notably Oscar Micheaux's Chicago-based Micheaux Film Corporation, which operated from 19181940. On his posters, Micheaux advertised that his films were scripted and produced exclusively by African Americans. Astor Pictures also released several race films and produced Beware with Louis Jordan.

The race films vanished during the early 1950s after African-American participation in World War II contributed to the starring of black actors in lead roles in several Hollywood major productions, which focussed on the serious problems of integration and racism, such as Pinky with Ethel Waters; Home of the Brave with James Edwards; and Intruder in the Dust, all in 1949; and No Way Out (1950), which was the debut of the notable actor Sidney Poitier. The last known race film appears to have been an obscure adventure film of 1954 called Carib Gold.


In the South, to comply with laws on racial segregation, race movies were screened at designated black theaters. Though northern cities were not always formally segregated, race films were generally shown in theaters in black neighborhoods. Many large northern theaters segregated black audiences into the balconies or by later showtimes.

While it was rare for race films to be shown to white audiences, white theaters often reserved special time-slots for black moviegoers. This resulted in race films often being screened as matinées and midnight shows. During the height of their popularity, race films were shown in as many as 1,100 theaters around the country.


Lobby card for The Gunsaulus Mystery (1921)

Produced primarily in northern cities, the target audience consisted primarily of poor southern blacks and southerners who had migrated northward. Many race films, particularly those produced by white studios, expressed middle-class urban values, especially education and industriousness. Common themes included the "improvement" of the black race, the supposed tension between educated and uneducated blacks, and the tragic consequences in store for blacks who resisted liberal capitalist values. The most famous race movie, The Scar of Shame, incorporated all of these themes.

Race films typically avoided explicit depictions of poverty, ghettos, social decay, and crime. When such elements appeared, they often did so in the background or as plot devices. Race films rarely treated the subjects of social injustice and race relations, although blacks were legally disenfranchised in the South and suffered discrimination in the North and South.

Race films avoided many of the popular black stock characters found in contemporary mainstream films, or else relegated these stereotypes to supporting roles and villains. Micheaux depicted his protagonists as educated, prosperous, and genteel. Micheaux hoped to give his audience something to help them "further the race".

Black comedians such as Mantan Moreland, who had played supporting comedy roles in mainstream Hollywood films, reprised his character as the lead in such films as Professor Creeps and Mr Washington Goes To Town. Some black entertainers, such as Moms Mabley or Pigmeat Markham, starred in their own vehicles. Mabley and Markham did not appear in mainstream entertainment until the late 1960s, when both were featured on Laugh-In on American television.

Many black singers and bands appeared in lead or supporting roles in race films; Louis Jordan, for example, made three films.

Historical significance

Race films are of great interest to students of African American cinema. They are historically significant due to their ability to showcase the talents of actors who were relegated to stereotypical supporting roles in mainstream studio films. Hattie McDaniel and Clarence Muse are two of the most striking examples of talented performers who generally were given minor roles in mainstream film. A few stars from race films were able to cross over to relative stardom in mainstream works – for example, Paul Robeson and Evelyn Preer. Hollywood studios often used race movies as a recruiting source of black talent.

Notable race films

See also

Print references

  • Caddoo, Cara. Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life. Harvard University Press, 2014. ISBN 0674368053
  • Diawara, Manthia. Black American Cinema. Routledge, 1993. ISBN 0-415-90397-1
  • Gaines, Jane M. Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era. University Of Chicago Press, 2001. ISBN 0-226-27875-1


  1. ^ "She (Wong) also appeared in a Chinese 'race' film, The Silk Bouquet, released in June 1926 ...." © Anna May Wong - Silent and Sound Film Actress - goldensilents.com
  2. ^ Caddoo, Cara; Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life: Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014; 24
  3. ^ McMahan, Alison; Alice Guy Blache: Lost Visionary of the Cinema; New York: Continuum, 2002; 148
  4. ^ McMahan; 147
  5. ^ Leab, Daniel. From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975; 45

External links

A. W. Hackel

A. W. Hackel (December 18, 1882 – October 22, 1959) was an American film producer who founded Supreme Pictures in 1934.

Hackel contracted Bob Steele for 32 of his westerns, for example Alias John Law in 1935. In 1936 Republic Pictures needed more westerns and made a deal with Hackel, who released his films through Republic. After the demise of Supreme Pictures in 1942, Hackel released through Monogram Pictures. All of his pictures were westerns with the exception of Am I Guilty? (1940), a race film, and The Flaming Urge (1953), a crime film.

A Daughter of the Congo

A Daughter of the Congo is a 1930 race film directed, written and produced by Oscar Micheaux. The film is loosely based on the novel The American Cavalryman (1917), by African-American novelist and playwright Henry Francis Downing.The film is considered to be a lost.

Body and Soul (1925 film)

Body and Soul is a 1925 race film produced, written, directed, and distributed by Oscar Micheaux and starring Paul Robeson in his motion picture debut.

Death Race (film)

Death Race is a 2008 science fiction action film co-produced, written and directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. It stars Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane and Joan Allen.

Though referred to as a remake of the 1975 film Death Race 2000 (based on Ib Melchior's short story "The Racer") in reviews and marketing materials, director Paul W. S. Anderson stated in the DVD commentary that he thought of the film as something of a prequel.

A remake had been in development since 2002, though production was delayed by disapproval of early screenplays, then placed in turnaround following a dispute between Paramount Pictures and the producer duo Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner (the latter was the producer without Cruise in the film). Death Race was acquired by Universal Studios, and Anderson re-joined the project to write and direct. Filming began in Montreal in August 2007, and the completed project was released on August 22, 2008. The film received mixed reviews from critics.

Three direct-to-video films in the series were then released: Death Race 2 (2010), Death Race 3: Inferno (2013) and Death Race: Beyond Anarchy (2018).

Lying Lips

Lying Lips is a 1939 American melodrama race film by Oscar Micheaux, starring Edna Mae Harris, and Robert Earl Jones (the father of James Earl Jones). Lying Lips was the thirty-seventh film of Micheaux.

Marcus Garland

Marcus Garland is a 1925 race film directed, written, produced and distributed by Oscar Micheaux. The film offers a harsh parody on the rise and fall of Marcus Garvey, the Black nationalist and pan-Africanist leader. Few details on the film’s production survive, and some sources place its release in 1928.No print of the film is known to exist and it is presumed to be a lost film.

Race (2008 film)

Race is a 2008 Indian action thriller film directed by Abbas-Mustan and produced under the Tips Films banner. The first installment of Race film series, the film is loosely based on the 1998 American film Goodbye Lover. It stars an ensemble cast of Anil Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan, Akshaye Khanna, Bipasha Basu, Katrina Kaif, and Sameera Reddy in the lead roles while Dalip Tahil and Johnny Lever are featured in supporting roles.

Set and mostly filmed in Durban and Dubai, Race explores themes of sibling rivalry, betrayal and passion. It became the fourth highest grossing Bollywood film of the year. Race was dubbed into Tamil as Panthayam and in Telugu as Race Telugu. A sequel, Race 2, was released in 2013 to additional success; a second sequel, Race 3, released in 2018.

Race (film series)

Race is a series of Indian action-thriller films. The series is directed by Abbas-Mustan, Remo D'Souza and produced by Ramesh S. Taurani, Kumar S. Taurani and Salman Khan under the banner of Tips Industries and Salman Khan Films. The series stars Anil Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan as recurring roles for first 2 films, Race and Race 2. The third film, Race 3 was a reboot. It stars Anil Kapoor once again, and Salman Khan. Race 3 received poor reviews from critics. The makers are moving to make Race 4 which will again be a new story that will roll on 2020.

The first film is loosely based on the 1998 Hollywood movie Goodbye Lover.

Rat Race (film)

Rat Race is a 2001 American comedy film directed by Jerry Zucker. Inspired by Stanley Kramer's 1963 classic It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the film features an ensemble cast consisting of Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jon Lovitz, Kathy Najimy, Lanai Chapman, Breckin Meyer, Amy Smart, Seth Green, Vince Vieluf, Wayne Knight, John Cleese and Dave Thomas. The film centers on six teams of people who are given the task of racing 563 miles from a Las Vegas casino to a Silver City, New Mexico train station where a storage locker contains a duffel bag filled with $2 million; the first person to reach the locker wins and gets to keep the money.

Produced by Fireworks Pictures, Alphaville Films, and Zucker's Zucker Productions, the film was released by Paramount Pictures on August 17, 2001 in the United States and Canada. It received mixed reviews from critics but was a box office success, having grossed $85.5 million worldwide against a $48 million budget.

Swing (1938 film)

Swing! is a 1938 American race film directed, produced and written by Oscar Micheaux.

The Boat Race (film)

The Boat Race (French: La Régate) is a 2009 drama film directed by Bernard Bellefroid. The film follows Alexandre, a 15-year-old guy who lives alone with his dad, enduring relentless physical violence. To escape from his daily life, Alex rows on the Meuse river, and has only one obsession: to win the Belgian Singles Championships.

The film received four nominations at the 1st Magritte Awards and won Most Promising Actor for Joffrey Verbruggen .

The Gunsaulus Mystery

The Gunsaulus Mystery is a 1921 American silent race film directed, produced, and written by Oscar Micheaux. The film was inspired by events and figures in the 1913-1915 trial of Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan. The film is now believed to be lost.

The Master Race (film)

The Master Race is a 1944 American drama film directed by Herbert Biberman and written by Biberman, Anne Froelich and Rowland Leigh. The film stars George Coulouris, Stanley Ridges, Osa Massen, Carl Esmond, Nancy Gates, Morris Carnovsky, Lloyd Bridges, Helen Beverly, Gavin Muir and Paul Guilfoyle. The film was released on October 18, 1944, by RKO Pictures.

The Notorious Elinor Lee

The Notorious Elinor Lee is a 1940 race film directed, written, and co-produced by the African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.

The Virgin of the Seminole

The Virgin of the Seminole (sometimes listed as The Virgin of Seminole) is a 1922 race film directed, written and produced by Oscar Micheaux.

Veiled Aristocrats

Veiled Aristocrats is a 1932 American Pre-Code race film directed, written, produced and distributed by Oscar Micheaux. The film deals with the theme of "passing" by mixed-race African Americans to avoid racial discrimination, and is a remake of The House Behind the Cedars (1927), based on a novel by the same name published in 1900 by Charles W. Chesnutt.

When Men Betray

When Men Betray is a 1929 race film directed, written, produced and distributed by Oscar Micheaux. The film details the plight of a young woman who falls in love and marries a glib con artist who abandons her without money on their wedding night.No print of When Men Betray is known to exist and it is presumed to be a lost film.

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