Author Talks: The history of Black cinema in America

The journalist whose article served as the basis for the movie The Butler explores the past 100 years of Black movies in the United States.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Wil Haygood, accomplished journalist and Boadway Visiting Distinguished Scholar at Miami University. Haygood’s Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World (Alfred A. Knopf, October 2021) examines a century’s worth of Black artists in the film business to explore Black culture, civil rights, and racism in the United States. An edited version of the conversation follows.

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Why is this moment particularly relevant for your book?

This is a moment in US history when we have been forced to reflect on filmmaking and all of the imagery that has been shown on screen as it relates to Blacks. The book I've written, Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World, takes the reader on a voyage on the history of the country, race relations, and cinema. Who gets to make movies? What do movies mean to the populace?

Moviemaking, when it began, was just an explosive hobby for people. This 1915 movie, which was the first Hollywood blockbuster, called The Birth of a Nation portrayed Blacks as heathens and sex fiends and portrayed the Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the Civil War as heroic. You look at the sweep of cinema, film history, segregation, movies that were only shown in segregated theaters, and the rise of people like Eartha Kitt, Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Spike Lee. And then you move into battles on the streets like the March on Washington, the Million Man March—there was a movie made about that, which I talk about in the book.

Then you get to the Oscars, and the Oscar nights, and the Oscar nominations. When much of America is riveted to the TV set, who's been nominated? Who got left out? You add this movement in 2014, 2015, when there were no Black Oscar nominees, and that ignited the #OscarsSoWhite movement in this country. In Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, members of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi members were marching. In 2020, you had the death of George Floyd, which was very public. In the past ten years, the issue of racial inequality in cinema has landed on the front pages of newspapers repeatedly.

A historical lens

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Where are we today in the long struggle for Black Americans to matter in movies?

It matters so much to the millions of Blacks in this nation who routinely go to the cinema with the hopes that they are being taken seriously when it comes to mainstream filmmaking. One looks at a year like 2008, when this country elected its first African American president, and sees that it takes maybe four to five years for films to then reach the screen.

By 2013, the first big waves of movies that were Black themed in the aftermath of the election of former president Obama came out. In 2013, Fruitvale Station, 12 Years a Slave, and Lee Daniels’s The Butler were released. It matters who is in the White House, because all of the Hollywood CEOs, all of a sudden, had to say, “Hey, the most powerful man in the world is an African American. We need to reflect this new moment in cinema.” There was a movement there, but that was 2013.

Then you go to 2014, 2015. No Black Oscar nominees, and that was viewed as a setback, but there have been some undeniable steps forward. You have rising filmmakers like Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, and Lee Daniels. There are now streaming services—Hulu, Apple, Netflix—and these services have seemed to open their arms wider than the normal avenues of Hollywood. There’s a lot more thought going into having the world of filmmaking widen its lens.

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What are your feelings on cinema being used as a weapon against Black people in America?

Cinema is such a powerful medium, and it’s been used as a weapon against Blacks. For many, many years, the only roles that Black women could get were as maids, and of course we had “step in, fetch it” stereotypical roles that were on the big, wide, 60-foot screen. Hollywood has to be more respectful of what we put on the screen.

When I was a kid in the ’60s, my mother would give me 50 cents to go to the Garden Theater in Columbus, Ohio. It cost a quarter to get in and a quarter for my popcorn and candy. The stars who I saw on the big screen there when I was ten, 11, 12 years old were Doris Day, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, Elizabeth Taylor, Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Steve McQueen. They all had one thing in common: all of these actors and actresses were white. I never saw a Black face on the big screen when I was eight, nine, ten, 11 years old. You would see movies at home at night sometimes with Blacks—not often, though.

Then I went away to college in the ’70s and came home during the summers. There was a theater uptown called the Southern Theatre, and they showed Black films. It was wonderful for me to look at a screen and see movies like Shaft, like Lady Sings the Blues, like The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. This was a wonderful moment; it meant that cinema wasn't so narrow minded.

So it does matter. It does matter in this country what we put on the big screen. It's hard for Black filmmakers, though. It’s still very hard. No studio wanted the movie The Butler. Lee Daniels had to go around—even with a cast that included Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams, Alan Rickman—hat in hand, to raise money with Sheila Johnson, who was the cofounder of BET, Black Entertainment Television. It’s a struggle. A lot of roadblocks are still there.

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What do you make of the growing variety of movies for Black audiences?

In filmmaking, when it comes to Blacks, the audiences are very varied. You have a filmmaker like Lee Daniels, and you have a filmmaker like Tyler Perry, and you have a filmmaker like Ryan Coogler. They’re all making different kinds of movies, and they all have found a niche. They all have found groups of people who love their films.

It is a very good thing that filmmakers are focusing on what they want to focus on: high drama, comedy, romance, or vintage, historic movies about the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. It’s good to have many different plates at the buffet of filmmaking. That’s a good thing. Each of these filmmakers have a different skill set and a different notion of the kind of movies that they each want to make. It offers you a richer terrain.

The show must go on

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What gives you hope about the contemporary Black filmmaking experience in the United States?

What has given me hope about the modern-day Black moviemaking experience in America is that there are so many rising filmmakers that even the younger generation—in their teens, in their 20s—can look up to. I’ve been on film sets, and most of them are mostly White. But the two film sets directed by Lee Daniels that I’ve been on have been multiracial. Brown and Black filmmakers have it in their mindset that they’re going to create environments on film sets where there are many different opinions and people from all races. That’s been very noticeable to me. The film sets with these African American directors tend to be more multiracial. That’s very wonderful.

The streaming services and the cable services are going to really play a huge role in the future with the welcoming of diverse filmmakers. There was a study that came out that showed Hollywood had left billions of dollars on the floor because they didn’t create diverse movies. Hollywood always says, “Hey, we aren’t really focusing on Black and White. We’re just focusing on good storytelling. And of course, we need to make money.” Okay, of course. As the old saying goes, “No business, no show.” Showbusiness has to make money, but when you have a study that shows that you have left billions of dollars on the floor because you aren’t servicing people who want to go see these different kinds of movies, you have to rethink what you are putting on the screen. Filmmakers now are hungrier than ever. Now it has become easier with the new modern technology to make films.

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What surprised you as you were researching this book?

The thing that most surprised me as I was doing this book about this sweeping history of Blacks in films is the depth of the pain experienced by so many of the actors who were working in the 1950s who I talked to—actors in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s. As I read up on the history, so many of the actors I talked to were saddened by their fellow Black actors and actresses who died young. Many of them in the ’40s and ’50s died in their 30s and 40s—the stress, the heartache, the heartbreak.

It was especially sad to write about certain characters who had died before the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed because these were actors and actresses who went to movie sets. If a film was being made in the South in 1961 or ’62, they had to study the night before they shot their scenes. They had to study about that scene, their character, and they had to master their lines. But then they also had to think about, “Am I going to be allowed to go eat in that restaurant over there? Is somebody going to call me the N word in my hotel tonight?” That was just a dual level of stress from the Black entertainers who had to live in that space before the 1964 Civil Rights Act. There were actors who died in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Their struggle in the space of filmmaking certainly did not add to their happiness in life. That was very, very, very sad to me.

I went to visit Louis Gossett Jr., a great Oscar-winning actor who was in Roots. And he started rattling off names of people who I had never heard of. He would tell me, “Such and such died when he was 24 years old. Had more talent than me, Wil, but, you know, he was just heartbroken from the struggle, going back and forth, New York to LA, being told ‘no’ to this role, ‘no’ to that role.” So a real part of the book is that Black America had to create its own foothold in cinema, and that foothold is still happening.

You seem to have some wistfulness as you retell the history of Black filmmaking in America.

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Yes, that’s a great observation. Thank you very much. I had a goal in this book. Of course, I wanted to introduce the nation to some of these unknown film stories as they relate to Blacks. We know too little about Oscar Micheaux. We know too little about Gordon Parks, Dorothy Dandridge, and Ethel Waters. I had to swerve between the telling of the history and the telling of how the movie got made and what the reaction to it was. There is wistfulness here because I could never stop thinking about little Wil Haygood going to the Garden Theater when he was ten, 11, and 12 years old and what that probably did to my psyche, not being able to see people who look like me on screen.

Yet when Lilies of the Field would come on in succeeding years, when I was still a kid, my mother and my grandmother, who I lived with, would always call me inside the house. We knew how rare it was to see a Black face on screen, so we would sit around the sofa as a family and watch Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. Even if I had seen it three times, it was still a big moment in my family when it came on, and everybody would sit on the sofa. If the reader wants to feel my heartbeat in this book, it will come through hopefully in the movies that I’ve chosen and in the people that I’ve focused on. It was very important to tell the story in as wide a lens as possible because it’s only been in recent years, even, that we’ve started to talk about Black filmmaking in a very serious manner. That’s how I hope readers look at the book.

There’s a lot of triumph and sweetness in some of the stories I’ve chosen to tell. How can you not admire Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier going down to Mississippi in the middle of the night to take money to get Civil Rights marchers who’d been arrested out of jail? How can you not cry when you see Denzel Washington in Glory get whipped, and he himself cries on screen? How can you not feel your heartbeat when you see an interview by James Baldwin, and he’s so angry at Hollywood for what it has done, yet he says, “I have a right to criticize America because I love her so much”?

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What are your top five Black films?

Five films that I think are unforgettable, that demand yearly watching on my part, are Lilies of the Field, Sidney Poitier; In the Heat of the Night, another Sidney Poitier movie; Imitation of Life, the 1959 version—it was one of my mother’s favorite movies; she came from Selma, Alabama, and that was the first movie I think that many Black women of a certain age in this country saw where the interior life of a Black family on the big screen was shown. Another movie is Shaft with Richard Roundtree. It had a blazing musical score; it had a similar performance from Richard Roundtree that was wonderful. And finally, I have to go with The Butler because that was the first movie set that I had been on. [Editor’s note: Lee Daniels based The Butler on Wil Haygood’s article in the Washington Post.]

You and I have a connection to that story because we were both at the Washington Post, and you, of course, played a role in helping get that story on the front page of the newspaper. You obviously saw something in it. And the people on the movie set were so nice and so kind to me. And it was on that set, Raju, that I started to think about writing a book about the wide history of Black cinema because it was a multiracial cast. Everybody wanted to be there. They were so in love with the story. That movie planted the seed. Thank you very much for caring about that story all those years ago.

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Will Haygood on the history of Black cinema in America

Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of McKinsey & Company or have its endorsement.

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