Though they go by different names, almost every major streaming service has some type of “Black film” collection, often promoted during the month of February or, during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, in the summer.
These collections mainly act as an exhibit for the Black movie titles the streamer already has, and as a result, the movies are often from the last 10 years, or maybe the last 20. It’s rare to see movies prior to those made in the 1980s. Clicking through the titles, one might think that Black cinema simply didn’t exist in the years before that.
But Black Film Archive, a new internet tool developed by Maya Cade, aims to change minds. By chronicling historic Black movies – starting in 1915 and stretching all the way to 1979 – Cade recontextualizes what Black cinema can be. Featuring more than 200 titles, the archive showcases each film by decade, giving a brief description of the movie, written by Cade, along with some context and a link for folks to watch the movie themselves.
For now, the Black Film Archive only highlights movies that can be found somewhere in the corners of the internet, on YouTube or other small streaming sites.
“A part of my intentionality here, is bringing these films to the conversation,” Cade, whose day job is at the Criterion Collection, told CNN. “When we have these conversations about what Black film is, it’s really devoid of history. So really, I hope that now it won’t have to be.”
This, of course, isn’t to say that movies from the 1980s or 1990s are any less important, Cade said. But they do tend to be more accessible, and titles like “Do The Right Thing” (1989) and “Love Jones” (1997) often ring bells.
In the decades before, though, Hollywood was actively investing in Black cinema, Cade explained, and the period produced a wealth of iconic Black movies, like the musical “Carmen Jones” (1954) or the romantic comedy “Claudine” (1974).
But over time, a number of films released in the last three decades shifted their focus to topics surrounding Black trauma – these include critically acclaimed slave narratives such as “Beloved” and “12 Years a Slave.” Recent conversations surrounding Black film have been critical of the emphasis on such narratives, pointing out that there are also stories of Black joy worth celebrating.” There also tend to be generalizations about what Black film is, or what it has been in the past. Cade wanted to shift those conversations.
“I think when we have a deepened relationship with the past, we realize quickly that these generalizations don’t hold up,” she said. In the movies featured in the archive, “we see there’s romance, there’s joy, there’s tenderness, there’s light in these films.”
One movie Cade mentioned specifically is “Killing Time,” a 1979 short film by Fronza Woods, about a woman trying to find the best outfit to end her life in. The movie is a dark comedy, Cade said, and many might not associate Black people with the genre, especially in the past.
“What I hope to remove (with the) Black Film Archive is the assumption that a Black person has not done something as it relates to film,” she said.
Cade recognizes that she’s not the first person to bring these older Black films to light. And other archival preservation projects on Black film – like the L.A. Rebellion Preservation Project at the UCLA Film & Television Archive – also exist.
But, with an emphasis on user-friendliness, her website makes these movies accessible to a younger generation, one that might be internet-first and unlikely to delve deep into Black film scholarship on their own.
And so far, hundreds of thousands of people have benefited from the site, and Cade has received “countless” messages and emails from people thanking her for the work she’s done.
The site has “captured individuals,” Cade said, and it’s given her encouragement to continue the project.
Soon, Cade plans on expanding the archive, eventually hoping to encompass every film that exists from the pre-1980 period – showing just how limitless Black cinema can be.