Discovering Black film classics

People The Arts

October 1, 2020

Film historian Felix Curtis shines light on the artistic value of the complex Black film canon. 

By Michael J. Solender 

Two years after moving to Charlotte from the San Francisco Bay area in 2006, Felix Curtis was itching to bring his love of lesser-known films featuring Black artists and themes to Charlotte audiences. 

Curtis came to Charlotte as the longtime curator of the San Francisco Black Film Festival and Black Filmworks, the annual festival component of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, where he later served as executive director. In 2008, the Classic Black Cinema Series was born, screening the second Sunday afternoon monthly at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture. (The series has been online during the pandemic.) 

SouthPark recently spoke with Curtis, who shared insights on his selection process, race films and contemporary filmmakers to watch. 

Comments were edited for brevity.

What criteria do you use to designate a film classicand choose for screening? 

It’s the quality and the content of the film. Since launching the series, most films have been in that ’30s to ’60s period. Initially I looked to noteworthy talent like Dorothy Dandridge, Oscar Micheaux, the great Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker and others.

Recently, I’ve been showing the films that have been done in the ’70s. Half or maybe even three quarters of my audience hasn’t seen these films. The older films are the ones that I really gravitate toward, because they highlight actors that people aren’t familiar with or didn’t know existed but were great actors. 

You mention Micheaux, why is he so venerated?

He’s identified as the godfather of Black cinema. Modern-day filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton found inspiration in Micheaux. He was a guerrilla filmmaker, making films on small budgets and [with] borrowed material. Two classic Micheaux films I recommend are both silent. Within Our Gates (1920) was a counterpoint to Birth of a Nation (1915). Body and Soul (1925) is a classic because it was Paul Robeson’s first film, and he played two parts. 

There was an era (from the ’20s to the ’40s) of what were called “Race Films.” What is their background? 

Race films were films [made by Black film companies for Black audiences] that had a predominantly Black cast and predominantly racial themes. There was segregation in the mainstream theaters during this time. These were serious films though, not comedies. They were dramas. There was always this element of the color, of there being either someone passing for white or someone upholding the Black race against those who were trying to degrade the race. 

In the ’70s there were Blaxploitation films. These films had a predominantly black cast, though the subject matter was usually that of ‘getting one over on the man.’ Superfly (1972) is a good example. One of my favorites is Willie Dynamite (1973). It was a Blaxploitation film featuring a good-natured pimp. Ironically, the star of this film was one of the original stars of Sesame Street, Roscoe Orman.

What do you find exciting about contemporary Black film?

Female filmmakers are showing what they’re capable of. Ava DuVernay is spearheading that whole genre of positive image, love stories — dealing with things other than race, dealing with relationships. Ryan Coogler is doing great things. Black Panther (2018) is a culmination of his prior great work. Fruitvale Station (2013) was great. Many actors are getting into directing now. Regina King is doing great work acting and directing, and Spike Lee is still producing Spike Lee movies. Hollywood is not the epicenter of quality films. Independent films are now dominating as far as the quality, and audiences are responding.  SP

featured image by Tamu Curtis

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