Into the Archive: Exploring the Jessie Maple Collection

Not enough people, it seems, are aware of Jessie Maple, given her contributions to black cinema.  So for those who aren’t familiar, and introduction from Diane Tucker:

Jessie Maple is included in nearly every who’s who of film except the Registry. Will is the first post civil rights feature-length film produced by an African-American woman. (Hollywood guilds are more than 80% white.) Maple’s film received the Special Merit Award at the Athens International Film Festival.

And there’s much more.

In 1974, she became the first black woman to join the International Photographers of Motion Picture & Television Union (except that ‘became’ is a tame verb to use, given the trials and obstacles to joining the union, including lawsuits against major New York TV stations, pushback from the industry, and the weightiness of ‘being the first’).  She recorded the experience in her book How to Become a Union Camerawoman (more on that below).

In 1982, she founded 20 West, Home of Black Cinema in Harlem as a venue to show films by independent and black filmmakers to the public.

All the while, she was producing content, often with her husband Leroy Patton, with whom she founded LJ Productions in 1974.  She produced two feature length films (Twice as Nice was her second in 1988), and several documentaries (Methadone: Wonder Drug or Evil Spirit and Black Economic Power: Reality or Fantasy among her selections).

New York Women in Film and Television called Maple’s work “a forerunner of the independent, minority filmmaking that would cultivate directors like Spike Lee, Charles Burnett, Leslie Harris and Lee Daniels.”

In 2005, Maple donated her personal collection to the BFC/A, and we maintain an extensive collection of her films and logbooks, photos and news clippings, correspondences and more. We’ve gathered a sampling below to try and share some of Jessie Maple and her story.

[click ‘Continue Reading' after the first item to see the rest; click on each photo for a larger image).

The February 1976 Ebony magazine (newstand price:$1) includes a feature on Jessie Maple.  It tells the story of Maple’s struggles to break into the Cinematrogphers Union and of her courtship with her husband, Leroy Patton.  The article is written 5 years before the release of Will, though it mentions the project. Between the timbre of a 1970s Ebony issue (“What Happened to the Black Revolutionaries?” asks one title piece, among ads for a range of products), the piece details Maple’s work and determination in a particular type of biographical voice:

Like other grown-ups among her four brothers and seven sisters, Jessie has spent all of her adult years in the north, but she retains a deceptively Southern manner.  And when though the quiet drawl, infectious giggle and unassuming air there appears a hard-nosed, ambitious professional, it can come as a surprise.

This issue, as well as other issues of Ebony and many other magazines, can be accessed here.

An undated black and white photo of Maple.

This grant proposal for $9,731.48 was submitted to The Film Fund in September of 1978 by Jessie Maple for her documentary Black Economic Power: Reality or Fantasy? (1976).  The film, says Maple “is about the economic development of Black people in this country and how they feel about their progress thus far.”  Later, in the project description, she discusses the genesis of the project:

My interest in doing a film about the economic development of Blacks began in 1976 when an economic publication listed the top 100 Black businesses with their profits combined with the profits of all the Black owned businesses in this country, and showed the assets together would only equal the semi-annual profits of Sears and Roebuck Company.  Later, I learned that 70% of Blacks between the ages of 16 and 25 are unemployed and considered ‘hardcore’ unemployable.

Front Cover and Opening Page

How to Become a Union Camerawoman is an instructional book published by Maple and Patton’s production company, LJ Film Productions, Co.  The book details her lawsuits and hurdles to join the Union, but includes sections called “Filmmaking, Getting in the Door,” “What Every Union Cameraperson Must Know,” and “Where the Work Is.”  From the acknowledgement page:

To my daughter, Audrey Maple, knowing that she can be/do whatever she desires.  And my husband Leroy Patton, who understands the needs/desires of other humans beings whether they be man or woman.

Special thanks to Pat Patterson who gave me my first writing assignment.  And Peggy Pim, now head of the film department at Howard University, Washington, D.C., who gave me my first film assignment.

Also thanks to Essie Baker.

This December 10, 1983 edition of The Amsterdam News reviews Menelik Shabazz’s film Burning an Illusion (1982), noting that while Abayomi (née Cassie McFarlane)  won The Evening Standard’s ‘Most Promising Newcomer’ award, advances in acceptance of black actors and films were few and far between.  The piece then highlights Patton and Maple’s 20 West Theatre, whose charter is to show black films to black audiences, and give people more choice in the films they watch.

These are the first two pages of the first draft of Will, which was originally titled ‘Higher Ground’.  On a note Maple sent along with the script, she wrote:

This was my first draft of WillWill went through many changes down to the last day of shooting.  Three of us finished the film – we still can’t believe 3 people did this film.  The budget was about $2,000 to shoot and put the film in the can.  And to edit and complete the project, the complete budget was about $9,000.

-  Jessie Maple Patton

Thanks, and let us know if you’d like to see more!

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About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

3 responses to “Into the Archive: Exploring the Jessie Maple Collection

  • Evelyn N. Alfred

    Great article. This is my first time hearing/learning about Jessie Maple.

  • G.F. Scott

    I used to attend film viewing events at 20 West Theatre. I’m excited to find this very current article about Jessy Maple and the Pattons’ work. Please keep us posted about their current artistic projects.

  • BFC/A

    Thanks Evelyn and G.F. We’re working on a longer profile of Jessie Maple for our journal Black Camera, profiling her work, more about 20 West, and what she’s been doing more recently. We’ll keep you posted. And G.F. – we’d be interested in talking to you about 20 West when you used to go. Get in touch with us at bfca@indiana.edu.

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