Date of Degree
Arts and Humanities
African American women filmmakers, Black women filmmakers, First Female Director, Eloise Gist, Alice Burton Russell, African American Actresses
African American women were historically and traditionally depicted in Hollywood film productions as maids and servants, like actresses, Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers or sultry sirens like, Lena Horne, Theresa Harris, Fredi Washington and Dorothy Dandridge. The filmic images of African American women that developed in minstrel shows and vaudeville stereotyped African American actresses. My thesis begins with minstrelsy and vaudeville because of its influence on creating negative stereotypical roles in films. The thesis then focuses on the film period of silent era through the post-war period, up to the 1950s in classic Hollywood, and discusses independent Black films and Hollywood’s so-called “race” films.
There were African American women who became pioneers in cinema as producers, directors, screenwriters and editors to make independent films for a Black audience. These women rebuked Hollywood's portrayals of African American women and men by making films with positive images that showed beauty, wit, intelligence and talent to largely Black audiences for them to admire and emulate. There were filmmakers like Zora Neale Hurston, Tessie Souders, Eloise Gist, Madame Touissant and Maria P. Williams who made independent Black films that had complex narratives. Actresses, like Evelyn Preer, Eslanda Cardozo Goode and Alice Burton Russell and African American Hollywood actresses, like Nina Mae McKinney and Fredi Washington acted in independent Black films or “race” films that offered a variety of roles. Two African American male filmmakers, Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, are cited for their contributions to independent Black films and offering more acting roles and other creative opportunities in film for African American women.
There are comments from African American actresses from the silent era and 1950s who were critical of racist Hollywood and playing stereotypes that were disparaging to them and other African Americans. The history of these stereotypes culminated from the social and political history of racism in America and influenced the images of African Americans from the silent era through the 1950s in film and affected the attitudes of the American public even today. Visual images are provided in the thesis.
Vilson, Elvera L., "The Odyssey of African American Women in Films: From the Silent Era to the Post-War Years to the 1950s" (2017). CUNY Academic Works.