Why not preserve minority-made movies from the silent era?

I’m a film geek who is interested in people of color being seen on-screen, accurately.  The thematic intersection of politics, movies, history and race fascinates me when done well.

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When I heard about the alarm that “The Hollywood Reporter” sounded this month over American movies circa 1910 having been lost instead of preserved and cataloged, I chuckled.  I think that any student of film history understands why they weren’t preserved: in cinema’s teen years, movies weren’t a part of any organized industry.  Nobody had their minds on plots, stories, stars or box office numbers.

Only in 1915, after David W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation” came out, did anyone begin to think that those little flicker shows, as folks called them, might amount to anything.

After seeing that article I began to wonder about how many movies made by black-, Asian-, Hispanic-Americans or different groups of American others had been kept or preserved.

One way to consider it is to ask whether any of them have been entered into the National Film Registry.  That is one way for American culture to acknowledge the undeniable in motion picture achievements.  Every year since 1988 National Film Preservation Board has choosen 25 films to add to that registry.  There aren’t many silent movies by people of color on the registry, but Marion E. Wong, an American-born Chinese woman, and Oscar Micheaux, a black man, are two of the best known.  That is if anyone other than film scholars know them at all.

Ms. Wong made one film, which may have qualified as a feature-length because it is said to have consisted of at least two reels.  Made in 1916, it was “The Curse of Quon Gwon”. The National Film Registry chose to preserve it in 2006.

Mr. Micheaux made many feature-length films, some of which were silent.  One of those was “Within Our Gates”.  Made in 1920, the National Film Registry preserved it in 1992.

Some history of American racial politics, and the ways in which politics, history and race mix within movie stories are definitely reflected here.  Non-white Americans who, while they increase in numbers and proportion to whites, still occupy America’s margins, have made movies since the medium’s birth.  Fortunately, the National Film Preservation Board has preserved at least a few of them in order acknowledge ethnic diversity.

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One Comment

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  1. Margy Rydzynski April 25, 2014 — 7:30 pm

    I’ve heard of Oscar Micheaux and have seen samples of some of his films. I have to admit I haven’t seen films produced by Marion Wong and would love to learn more about her and other minority filmmakers.

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