Black Manhood on the Silent Screen

Gerald R. Butters, Jr.

Theater Library Association Award, Finalist

Choice Outstanding Title

“Butters offers scholars of early-twentieth-century American culture an original work on the role of black masculinity in the silent film era. He writes in a clear and open style, offering a study that is as rich in historical detail as it is passionate in scope. He addresses a range of important subjects: from stereotypes such as Sambo and Zip Coon to ‘race movies,’ or films produced and directed by European Americans for black audiences, to works produced and directed by African American filmmakers. . . . Moving beyond questions of positive and negative images, Black Manhood on the Silent Screen takes early cinema to task for the ways in which black masculinity was defined, resisted, and redefined.

—Journal of American History

“Written with tremendous intellectual insight and a fluid and accessible style, Butters has opened a fascinating realm of silent film history that is well worth study.

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In early-twentieth-century motion picture houses, offensive stereotypes of African Americans were as predictable as they were prevalent. Watermelon eating, chicken thievery, savages with uncontrollable appetites, Sambo and Zip Coon were all representations associated with African American people. Most of these caricatures were rendered by whites in blackface.

Few people realize that from 1915 through 1929 a number of African American film directors worked diligently to counter such racist definitions of black manhood found in films like D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 epic that glorified the Ku Klux Klan. In the wake of the film's phenomenal success, African American filmmakers sought to defend and redefine black manhood through motion pictures.

Gerald Butters's comprehensive study of the African American cinematic vision in silent film concentrates on works largely ignored by most contemporary film scholars: African American-produced and -directed films and white independent productions of all-black features. Using these "race movies" to explore the construction of masculine identity and the use of race in popular culture, he separates cinematic myth from historical reality: the myth of the Euro American-controlled cinematic portrayal of black men versus the actual black male experience.

Through intense archival research, Butters reconstructs many lost films, expanding the discussion of race and representation beyond the debate about "good" and "bad" imagery to explore the construction of masculine identity and the use of race as device in the context of Western popular culture. He particularly examines the filmmaking of Oscar Micheaux, the most prolific and controversial of all African American silent film directors and creator of the recently rediscovered Within Our Gates—the legendary film that exposed a virtual litany of white abuses toward blacks.

Black Manhood on the Silent Screen is unique in that it takes contemporary and original film theory, applies it to the distinctive body of African American independent films in the silent era, and relates the meaning of these films to larger political, social, and intellectual events in American society. By showing how both white and black men have defined their own sense of manhood through cinema, it examines the intersection of race and gender in the movies and offers a deft interweaving of film theory, American history, and film history.

About the Author

Gerald R. Butters, Jr., is assistant professor of history at Aurora University whose articles have appeared in Literature/Film Quarterly and the Journal of Multimedia History.

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