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African American cinema collection

Identifier: Manuscript Collection No. 814

Scope and Content Note

This collection consists primarily of promotional materials, including lobby cards, posters, pressbooks, and ephemera related to African Americans in cinema or African Americans in general. The strength of the collection resides in the periods from 1920-1980 and 1991-2000. The ephemera series includes stills, slides, promotional photographs, comics and foreign movie programs.


  • 1907-2001

Language of Materials

Materials in English, Spanish, German and Dutch.

Restrictions on Access

Unrestricted access.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

All requests subject to limitations noted in departmental policies on reproduction.

Biographical Note

Beginning with the earliest commercially successful cinematic productions, African Americans have been portrayed on the silver screen. As villains ( Birth of a Nation, 1915), domestic servants ( Imitation of Life, 1934), and entertainers (The Littlest Rebel, 1935), black Americans appeared or were portrayed in films for white audiences from very early on. As pilots ( The Flying Ace, 1926), cowboys ( The Bull-Dogger, 1922), and emerging stars ( The Bronze Venus, 1938) black actors appeared in "race films", black-cast films aimed at African-American audiences. In both types of film, black Americans are integral to the history of American cinema. This history can be roughly divided into five periods: "race films" (1920-1949), "integration films" (1950-1959), "films that reexamine the south" (1960-1969), "Blaxploitation" (1970-1980), and the post-Blaxploitation years (1980-present).

"Race films" are a group of over five hundred independently produced films made between 1910 and 1950. As direct responses to segregation and subordination in the mainstream Hollywood film industry, these films allowed black audiences to witness themselves on screen as professional, educated, ambitious people rather than the docile, deceitful, or even villainous caricatures favored by Hollywood. White film makers including Richard Norman and black directors such as William Foster, Noble and George Johnson, and Oscar Micheaux offered an insider’s perspective on black life and aspirations in the early twentieth century United States.

While race films and black movie theatres became less prominent during the 1940s, several "crossover" actors rose to prominence in Hollywood, gaining star status and finally breaking away from playing the traditional servants, brutes, and performers. Even the "traditional" roles became more complex (although often archetypical or caricatured) as "integration" motion pictures gained popularity. These films hoped to appeal to black and white audiences by portraying "mixed" casts without seeming politically radical. Still, actors such as Lena Horne found themselves relegated to scenes that the studios could cut for release in the South and many (including Horne) found themselves on the political blacklist throughout the fifties.

As national attention focused on the South during the Civil Rights movement, Hollywood embarked on a new series of films with Southern themes. In the 1960s, "integrated" movies such as In the Heat of the Night centered on a strong but solitary black character confronting a hostile white world, while films such as Black Like Me directly challenged white supremacy by reversing white and black social roles. In the early 1970s, Slaves, Mandingo, Drum, and other "plantation films" turned the genteel Gone With the Wind version of the Old South on its head by portraying a slave system which falls apart not because of Yankee invasion, but because of its inherent injustice and brutality.

A new African American film genre exploded onto the screen in the early 1970s with Cotton Comes to Harlem, Sweet Sweetback’sBaadasssss Song, Shaft, Superfly, and dozens of similar movies. Targeting young urban African American audiences, blaxploitation movies presented tough, uncompromising black heroes who beat a corrupt white system. Shaft director Gordon Parks remarked that his film was "doing the thing that everyone in that audience wanted to see done for so long. A black man was winning." Although the seeming glorification of sex, drugs, violence, and "ghetto" life led to widespread criticism, blaxploitation films were huge box office successes and demonstrated the potential for a stronger African American presence on screen.

African American film roles diversified during the 1980s and 1990s. An increasingly mainstream body of literature led to numerous mainstream film adaptations of such bestsellers as How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998) and The Color Purple (1985) while a Pulitzer Prize-winning play provided the material for A Soldier’s Story (1984). After a film making drought that lasted from 1975-1985, black directors such as Spike Lee and John Singleton broke into the mainstream with their often violent and unflattering films about contemporary urban life. Most significantly, however, is the emergence of black actors in leading roles in Hollywood blockbusters. These films, ranging from comedy to action to drama, represent a "mainstreaming" of African Americans in Hollywood but also, according to Dennis Greene, a threat to the legacy of Black filmmakers and independent black films.


19 linear feet (18 boxes); 2 oversized papers boxes (OP); 36 extra-oversized papers folders (XOP)


Lobby cards, posters, pressbooks, and ephemera related to African Americans in cinema or African Americans in general.

Arrangement Note

Organized into four series: (1) Lobby cards, (2) Posters, (3) Pressbooks, and (4) Ephemera.

Finding Aid Note

A complete listing of the items in this collection is available.


Purchase, with subsequent additions.


Control level 3


File name: afronmcinema814.doc


Processed by Ryan Lynch, 2001.

Control level 3

File name: afronmcinema814.doc

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African American Cinema Collection, 1907-2001
Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University
November 22, 2006
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library Repository

540 Asbury Circle
Atlanta Georgia 30322 United States