Cultural Studies Student's Research Highlights African American Women Filmmakers

by Aimee Dixon Anthony

Cultural Studies Student's Research Highlights African American Women Filmmakers
Aimee Dixon Anthony, PhD Student in the Cultural Studies Program

Given the absence in the archives on the subject of my dissertation, African American women filmmakers in early cinema, much of my time has been spent working in archives to dig up evidence to support my theory that African American women did indeed participate in the film industry before 1950.

In the past several years I have had the privilege of spending quality time in libraries and rare manuscript archives in various cities and online depositories to research and expand my knowledge on these women’s contributions. This summer, my expectation was to continue attacking archives, but the pandemic deterred my ability to make in-person research possible. Instead, I continued my investigations through texts that I discovered in my online research on individual women, but also through extensive interviews with scholar Peggy Brooks-Bertram, who has been studying the life of one of the first African American women filmmakers, Drusilla Dunjee Houston.

In my discussions with Brooks-Bertram she shared with me much of the information she has uncovered on the dynamic life of Houston, an accomplished Black newspaper editor in Oklahoma, born in 1876 in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Houston, most known for her ground-breaking seven-book series on the early African civilization of Ethiopia, Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire (1926), wrote a screenplay in 1902 in contradistinction to Thomas Dixon’s novel The Leopard’s Spots (1902). While the extant screenplay, written in elegiac form and well before D.W. Griffith’s notorious film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), is significant in supporting my argument, I was also intrigued to learn about the other women Brooks-Bertram uncovered in her research over the years. One such woman was Eloise Bibb Thompson, who penned a screenplay that was purchased by early film producer/writer/director, Thomas Ince. This is significant: it demonstrated the desire by African American women to enter the established studio system. Furthermore, it pushed my work into a theoretical analysis on class that I had not come to appreciate fully until my research this summer. 

A pattern began to form as my focus shifted from investigating who these women might be to why these women wanted to make films. Why would they want to make movies during this challenging time in American society, when African American women were limited by institutional racism, white supremacist violence, and inequality because of their gender? I recognized a pattern among the over thirty African American women filmmakers that I have located thus far—most came from the Black middle class or what is often referred to as the Black bourgeoisie. They were highly educated, connected to powerful people in Black and white society, and many of them knew each other outside of their work in film.

It became obvious to me that their work had a higher purpose than mere entertainment. Much of their film work was a means to an end to help in the uplift movement towards the betterment of their race and sex. With that impetus in mind, it expanded my theoretical studies to the work of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois in their two different paths within the same uplift cause. How did these African American women filmmakers see film in helping to illustrate the goals of uplift? Furthermore, in appreciating the power of images, I learned of newly published writings by Frederick Douglass on the power of the new medium for his time, photography. The most photographed man in the nineteenth century, Douglass saw in photography the potential to show the true, non-stereotyped, image of the Black race. 

The ability to spend quality time in re-examining my research and expanding it to include not only other women who have contributed to the early industry but the philosophies behind their motivations to make films during a difficult period for African Americans has helped to shape my dissertation through a cultural lens. While it is important to know who these early filmmakers are, it is equally important to appreciate why they saw motion pictures as an important medium for their thoughts and ideas. I plan to shape my dissertation with these theoretical concepts in mind. Furthermore, I see in the work of early African American women filmmakers a theme that also is evident in the work of later filmmakers, specifically of film movements like the L.A. Rebellion.

While my work on this dissertation is focused on early film histories and absences in the archives, I hope to further review and compare the work of such filmmakers as Zora Neale Hurston and Julie Dash in their emphasis on anthropological film styles and a desire to return to their roots. It is evident from film/television, scholarship, and protest in our current times that the understanding and appreciation for the contributions of African Americans to this nation are still being understood. I hope that my work may become a part of this discussion in this reviewing of our past to understand our present.