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How Black resistance in film has been received by the public through the years

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Since 1928, Black History Month, formerly known as Negro History Week, has always had a theme. And this year, that theme is Black Resistance. It's a rich vein to mine because so much of everyday life, from attending church, to dancing and singing, to taking up arms, to pursuing an education and thriving in the U.S. - all of that serves as forms of Black resistance. To tell us the story of Black resistance in film and how it's evolved from something less overt in the early days to being openly celebrated today, we're joined now by Maya Cade. She is the creator and curator of the Black Film Archive, a digital archive centered on Black cinema that dates back to the late 19th century. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Maya.

MAYA CADE: Oh, welcome back - yes.

(LAUGHTER)

CADE: Thank you.

CHANG: And it's so lovely to have you in person here. So let me ask you, when you first heard that the theme for this year's Black History Month was going to be Black Resistance, what came in your mind about how that theme has been depicted throughout the history of film?

CADE: I think I first thought of this idea that American freedom, for as long as Black cinema has existed, has relied on denying Black Americans equal rights. Cinema among Black directors, actors, performers, then, has become a tool of self-articulating and resisting those tropes, tropes such as the oversexed Black woman, the Black brute, the tragic mulatto, the all-knowing Negro. All of those things are at the forefront of Black creators when they take on a role.

I think also what is unique about Black cinema is that Black performers carry the weight of Black representation on their back at all times. And Black audiences see Black moviegoing in the same way they see voting. Going to the movies, it's seen as a tool of resisting even when that representation, if you will, may not meet what the audience has in mind. Audiences are still thinking, if I don't support this, I don't know when another film or moment like this will come around again.

CHANG: So give us some examples. As you've seen forms of resistance evolve over time in the history of Black films, tell me what strikes you.

CADE: I think about the life and career of Melvin Van Peebles, who really created a prototype of Black imagery on screen with his film "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" from 1971.

(SOUNDBITE OF EARTH, WIND & FIRE'S "SWEETBACK'S THEME")

CADE: And this film, which centers a Black sex worker on the run from cops - after he is accused of something he did not do - is on the run with revolutionaries. And this film, which begins with this idea that it's dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who had enough of the man - literally, it says that on screen...

CHANG: (Laughter).

CADE: ...Became a prototype.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: The theme of the film, just like the album, the book and everything else is you bled my momma, you bled my poppa (ph), but you won't bleed me.

CADE: Melvin Van Peebles self-financed this film after he walked away from his Columbia contract, and it became this legend. If Melvin Van Peebles can do this, then can't we also?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG")

SIMON CHUCKSTER: (As Beetle) Can you dig it, baby? Together, you know, maintain. They can't bother you as long as Beetle's with you. Now you go on and hibernate like that ol' bear.

CADE: This film, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," is the prototype for blaxploitation and a generation of filmmakers to come.

CHANG: So when you look through your archive, what are a few films that are rooted in resistance that resonate with you?

CADE: Yeah.

CHANG: What pulls you in?

CADE: I definitely want to begin with Oscar Micheaux. His film "Within Our Gates" from 1920 is a response to D.W. Griffith's "Birth Of A Nation" from 1915.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CADE: "Birth Of A Nation" is a film that reignited the KKK for the way that it showed white nationalism as conqueror. Oscar Micheaux's 1920 film, instead of centering white nationalism, centers a schoolteacher who - and a journey through her past, and you realize in her past that her parents were lynched by a mob. And by doing so, it resists imagery of Black villainy and the assumed white virtue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CADE: And the realistic lynching was so heated that the film did not pass the Board of Censors on its first pass because the movie board of Chicago believed that this film would cause a riot.

CHANG: Can we go back even further in time? 'Cause I know that your archive dates all the way back to 1898.

CADE: Yes.

CHANG: Were there any really early films, either from that era or just a little bit after, that are being celebrated now, but weren't celebrated when those films first were released?

CADE: Yeah. I think "Something Good - Negro Kiss" from 1898 is a film that is the earliest depiction of Black affection on screen. What's interesting is that the film was considered it lost. The film got a new life in recent years and really is the film that launched a million inspirations. It showed people that there is beauty in Black film's past because I think resistance works on many layers.

CHANG: Yes.

CADE: And when we resist assumptions about what is in the past, we work to make a brighter future.

CHANG: Exactly. Because, well, I know that you're exploring what you call the place of tenderness...

CADE: Yes.

CHANG: ...In Black film as part of your residency with the Library of Congress. Can you talk about that? Like, how is showing tenderness - showing African Americans in their full, rich humanity - how that in itself is its own form of resistance?

CADE: You know, Black Film Archive came to be because, during the summer of 2020, something that constantly was repeated was that the only thing in the past is negative representations of us and that film's past is simply racist. And something I kept seeing were these instances of people - what they were advocating for for the future - had already existed richly in the past. So tenderness as a guide to Black film's past allows an avenue for people to explore. It's not just in a kiss. It's not just in a warm embrace. It also is in nods of understanding. It's also in being deeply and richly understood. These are all forms of resistance that give us new life and new paths of exploration through Black film's past.

CHANG: I love that.

Maya Cade - in addition to her archival work, she's serving as a scholar in residence at the Library of Congress. Thank you so much for coming in today and sharing this time with us.

CADE: Thank you. It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Fuller
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.