Black Film Archive:  A Site To Behold

by Ronnie and Michele Wise, WashCo Dems Communications Committee Members

A background of colorful patterns with title which reads Black Film Archive: A Site To Behold

Black Film Archive is a unique collection of more than 200 Black films dating from 1898 to 1999 that are available to the viewing public free of charge via streaming.  Its creator and curator is Maya Cade, a Black woman who was born in New Orleans and now lives in Brooklyn, New York.  From early childhood, Maya was enthralled with motion pictures, especially those that focused on Black subjects.

Maya has worked as a film consultant for the Criterion Collection and is currently a Scholar-In-Residence for the Library of Congress.

Maya’s dream of creating a website that would make available a wide variety of Black-related movies, documentaries, and short films became a reality several years ago.

In the formative stages of Black Film Archive, Maya reached out to film fans and scholars requesting recommendations of films to include on the website.  As two founding members of Black Film Archive, we sent Maya a list of some of our favorites and she included those in the website’s collection.

Here is a sample of the films we recommended that are currently available free of charge on Black Film Archive:

1.  “Emma Mae” (1976) – A young Black woman from Mississippi travels by bus to visit her “big city” cousins in Los Angeles.  Shortly after her arrival, Emma Mae becomes involved with Black militants in Watts and then becomes a community organizer for Black justice.  Her cousins quickly realize that Emma Mae is no “country bumpkin” from the South.

2. “Juke Joint” (1947) – This is a prime example of a “race movie,” a film genre that flourished from the 1920’s into the late 1940’s.  “Race movies” showcased all-Black cast members and were primarily made for Black audiences who attended segregated theaters across the country.

“Juke Joint” starred Spencer Williams who also wrote the screenplay and directed this low budget comedy.  The film centers around Williams and his sidekick who pose as “talent scouts” and, for room and board, promise a struggling Black mother that her vivacious daughter will win a beauty contest at the local juke joint.  The family needs the prize money and Williams and his partner need a roof over their heads.

Spencer Williams is often remembered as portraying Andrew Brown in the controversial 1950’s television sitcom “Amos and Andy.” However, Williams also led an adventurous life that included being a member of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders.”  He later served with distinction in World War I, and was a pioneer in the early days of sound motion pictures. Williams wrote, directed, and starred in a long string of “race movies” from the 1930’s into the late 1940’s.

3. “The Bronze Buckeroo” (1939) – This all-Black cast musical Western starred the multi-talented Herb Jeffries who was the first (and to our knowledge) the only Black singing cowboy in motion picture history.

The tall, handsome Jeffries began his career as a big band singer and then worked his way into low budget movies, and eventually starred in a series of musical Westerns.

One of these movies is “The Bronze Buckaroo,” a fast paced Western that finds Jeffries and his men fighting to help a poor rancher and his beautiful daughter save their ranch from a band of outlaws who want to steal their cattle and property.

Herb Jeffries lived a long and productive life in the entertainment world. He died in 2014 at the age of 100.

4.  “Black Like Me” (1964) – This film is based on the bestselling autobiography by John Howard Griffin.  A Caucasian writer and researcher, Griffin wanted to experience first hand what it was like to be a Black man living in the segregated South of the early 1960’s.

Griffin had his skin darkened with chemicals and then traveled to the Deep South to record his experiences disguised as a Black man.  His shocking autobiography rocked the publishing world when it appeared in bookstores in 1961.  “Black Like Me” is a faithful adaptation of the book.

These four motion pictures are just some of the ever-evolving compilation of titles in this essential collection that will entertain and enlighten casual film fans and serious scholars alike.

Black Film Archive is currently celebrating Black History Month with “Twenty Nine Days and Twenty Nine Black Films” available free on its website. 

Black Film Archive is a wonderful buffet that can be sampled and enjoyed any month of the year.