Category Archives: Black Film Center/Archive

BOAN of Contention: The 1979 IU Screenings of THE BIRTH OF A NATION

On November 12 and 13, the Black Film Center/Archive presents From Cinematic Past to Fast Forward Present: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation – A Centennial Symposium. A full schedule of events, including keynotes, panels, and screening, is available at www.boancentennial.org. In anticipation of the symposium, BFC/A graduate assistant Dorothy Berry looks back to 1979, when “over 900 people came to see The Birth of a Nation at two very different screenings” on the campus of Indiana University, Bloomington.

James Baldwin’s 1976 description of The Birth of a Nation (BOAN) as both “one of the great classics of the American cinema” and “an elaborate justification of mass murder” succinctly captures the challenges of screening D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster film. There is no denying the seminal role of BOAN in American film history. There is also no denying the seminal role of BOAN in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the popular rewriting of the history of the Reconstruction South.

Controversies surrounding the screening of BOAN have often emerged from the intersection of those two truths. “Why shouldn’t we screen the runaway hit of 1915 that entertained hundreds of thousands?” “Why should we screen a film that has been actively used as recruitment propaganda for the Ku Klux Klan?” These questions were asked and argued on the Indiana University campus in the beginning of the 1979 spring semester when over 900 people came to see BOAN at two very different screenings.

BOAN has long been prized for its cinematic innovations and its role in the rise of film as popular entertainment. Many fans of classic film have screened BOAN simply as that – an entertaining film from the early days of the movie industry. This sort of screening was what the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists (AGO) had in mind when they sponsored a screening of BOAN at the IU Auditorium with live accompaniment from famed silent film organist, Dennis James, with a two-dollar ticket fee, as a fundraiser for the chapter. The screening was scheduled for Saturday, February 3, 1979, and was part of an ongoing silent film series.

The AGO screening was immediately met by pushback from IU students and faculty. The first complaint dealt with the issue of timing – screening BOAN in the first week of Black History Month, an observance that had only been federally recognized for three years at that point. AGO conceded this point in the face of protests and moved the screening to March 19th.

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Protesters outside the IU Auditorium direct attendees to the counter-screening at Woodburn Hall, March 19, 1979. (Photo: Terry John)

The second complaint was more complex. An argument was made from faculty, students and members of the local community that BOAN should not be shown as a de-contextualized entertainment. AGO withdrew their sponsorship, but then amidst new counter-protests, decided to continue, asserting that the film had historic, artistic, and educational merit.

What makes this case study in the history of BOAN screenings so interesting, however, is that the original protestors never called for the film’s banning. The major concern dealt entirely with framing the screening. “We don’t advocate complete censorship of the film,” IU student and Black Student Union member Deborah Bailey told the Herald-Times. “What we advocate is a proper time for debate and discussion before and after the film.”

Framing concerns came to a head on March 19, 1979, when the IU campus offered two concurrent screenings of BOAN. The AGO screening with live accompaniment moved on in the auditorium, while across the campus in Woodburn Hall, a counter-screening and teach-in was scheduled to begin a half an hour later. Guided by professor of Afro-American studies Phyllis Klotman (who founded the Black Film Center/Archive at IU two years later) and film studies graduate student, Andetrie Smith, the Woodburn Hall counter-screening was inspired and organized by the Black Student Union, with support from the IU Students Association, the Residence Halls Association, and local organizations like the Monroe County NAACP branch and Black churches.

On the eve of the screenings, demonstrators gathered outside the auditorium, directing attendees to the Woodburn Hall event and handing out leaflets that advertised “Free Admission” and proper contextualization at the counter-screening. The Woodburn Hall counter-screening and teach-in ended up with around 300 attendees, nearly a full house. The IU Auditorium screening brought in 600 attendees, twice as many as the teach-in but a fairly small attendance given the venue’s 3,154 seat capacity.

Just hours before the screening and counter-screening, Dennis James, the organ accompanist, canceled his then-upcoming screening of The Ten Commandments, planned for April 15 at the IU Auditorium, saying that “I have no concept now of judging the college audience.”

~Dorothy Berry

 


Memorabilia from Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame on Exhibit at Grunwald Gallery

Phil Moore Plaque from the Supremes

Phil Moore Plaque from the Supremes

A number of items from the Mary Perry Smith/Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame (BFHFI) Archive Collection will be on display at the IU Grunwald Gallery from Friday, October 23 through Wednesday, November 18th as part of its exhibition “The Wunderkammer: Curiosities in Indiana University Collections.”

An opening reception will be held on Friday, October 23rd from 6:00-8:00 pm at the Grunwald Gallery and a noon talk will be presented by the curators and managers of several of the represented special collections on Friday, November 6th at the Gallery.

The BFC/A’s selections include movie memorabilia that was collected by the BFHFI as part of its plan to eventually open a brick and mortar museum. Featured are a painting of film actress Madame Sul-Te-Wan, hand prints created by Lena Horne and Stepin Fetchit on paper with graphite under the supervision of Oakland artist Casper Banjo, and several personal effects belonging to Hollywood composer and arranger Phil Moore.

Painting of Madame Sul-Te-Wan

Painting of Madame Sul-Te-Wan

Although the BFHFI was never able to establish its own museum, the BFC/A is excited for this opportunity to display some of the more unusual and eye-catching items from its archives as a way of illustrating the BFHFI’s far-reaching impact on thirty years of independent film and filmmakers and celebrating the life of BFHFI co-founder Mary Perry Smith.

Items from the collections at the IU Archives, Archives of African American Music and Culture, Lilly Library, Kinsey Institute, Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Art Museum, Department of Biology Herbarium, and Elizabeth Sage Costume Collection will also be represented as part of the exhibit.

Additional information about the exhibit is available on the Grunwald Gallery’s site at http://www.indiana.edu/~grunwald/exhibitions.php?pid=the-wunderkammer-curiosities-in-indiana-university-collections.


SEMBENE! directors Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman visit Indiana University, Oct. 19-20

With a filmography spanning over forty years, Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007) earned international renown as a revolutionary artist and as the “Father of African Cinema” for his indigenized filmmaking practice. Sembène eschewed Western languages and narrative style for a new cinematic aesthetic drawing from African storytelling traditions, performed in African languages (Wolof, Diola, Bambara), and expressly produced for African audiences. Sembène has been heard to say: “Africa is my ‘audience’ while the West and the ‘rest’ are only targeted as ‘markets.’” Fifty years on from his first feature production, the Black Film Center/Archive and IU Cinema celebrate his legacy with a series featuring a new documentary and digital restorations of two of his earliest films.

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In addition to the October 19 screenings of La Noire De … (Black Girl) and Borom Sarret (The Wanderer), the new biographical documentary Sembène! will be shown at IU Cinema on Tuesday, October 20th, with filmmakers Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman scheduled to attend. This will follow a roundtable discussion with BFC/A director Michael T. Martin.

Reviewing its 2015 premiere at Sundance, Bilge Ebiri wrote that, of all the festival’s entries this year, “no film demonstrated the power of cinema more resonantly than Sembène!” The documentary chronicles Ousmane Sembène’s fascinating life as a militant artist, self-taught novelist, and “Father of African Cinema.” Using rare archival footage, animation, and the firsthand experience of Sembène expert and colleague Samba Gadjigo, the filmmakers present an honest and complex portrait of a man whose significance to modern African culture cannot be overstated.

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Jason Silverman and Samba Gadjigo

 

Sembène! emerges also as Gadjigo’s story, as he recounts the ways that Sembène’s work transformed his life. The Mount Holyoke professor was born in Senegal, where his life was changed by Sembène’s novel, God’s Bits of Wood. After earning his PhD from the University of Illinois, Gadjigo returned to Africa to connect with the artist who had such a formative impact on his life. “We worked together for 17 years,” Gadjigo told Indiewire. “and it was an honor to help him bring his stories into the world. On the day of his death, I promised that I would not let his stories be forgotten. That’s why we made this film.”

Jason Silverman, who is the director of the cinemathèque at the Center of Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, reached out to Samba Gadjigo as part of an effort to include more African film in the center’s programming. “I knew Jason was so knowledgeable about the cinema world,” Gadjigo told BOMB Magazine, “so I told him I had all this [Sembène] material and wanted him to help me organize it. A film really wasn’t the idea so much as building a website to share all this material with the world. He looked at me and said, ‘No. We should make a movie!’”

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Ousmane Sembène

 

In conjunction with the IU Cinema and BFC/A screening series, Sembène: Father of African Cinema, Black Film Center/Archive director Michael T. Martin will moderate a roundtable discussion of Sembène’s work and legacy. This discussion will follow from the previous evening’s screenings of the World Cinema Project‘s digital restorations of La Noire De … (Black Girl) and Borom Sarret (The Wanderer).

Roundtable discussion participants include:

Akin Adesokan, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature

Samba Gadjigo, Professor of French, Mount Holyoke College, and Co-Director of Sembène! (2015)

Eileen Julien, Director, Institute for Advanced Study, and Professor of French and Comparative Literature

Michael T. Martin, Director, Black Film Center/Archive, and Professor of Cinema and Media Studies, The Media School

Jason Silverman, Cinematheque Director, Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe, and Co-Director of Sembène! (2015)

The event is free, and begins at 3:30 PM, before the evening’s screening of Sembène!  This series is sponsored by the Black Film Center/Archive, The Media School, the Cinema and Media Studies program, and the departments of African Studies, French and Italian, and Comparative Literature.

~Jezy Gray


Mary Perry Smith, Co-Founder of the BFHFI, Passes

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Mary Perry Smith. In addition to her roles as an educator, a philanthropist, and a promoter of black cultural heritage, Mary Perry Smith was a co-founder of Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Inc. (BFHFI).

For over thirty years Smith played many roles within the BFHFI, as well, including serving as the first chairperson of the advisory board, coordinator and chair of the Educational Programs Committee, and board president from 1984 through the mid-1990s. Much of the organization’s archives, including records documenting its early history as a project of the Oakland Museum’s Cultural and Ethnics Affairs Guild in 1974, fell under Mary’s vigilant care.

Cultural and Ethnic Affairs Committee chairpersons Mary Perry Smith, Margot Hicks and Donald Therence with Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame inductee, Sammy Davis, Jr., 1974

Cultural and Ethnic Affairs Guild chairpersons Mary Perry Smith, Margot Hicks and Donald Therence with Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame inductee, Sammy Davis, Jr., 1974

The annual highlight of the BFHFI from 1974—1993 was its Black History Month Celebration, which included the star-studded Oscar Micheaux Awards Ceremony and a celebrity dinner and dance gala. Inductees and awardees included filmmakers and artists such as Paul Robeson, Stepin Fetchit, Gordon Parks, Sammy Davis, Jr., Diahann Carol, Dizzy Gillespie, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Julie Dash, Spike Lee, Brock Peters, Maya Angelou, Tempest Bledsoe, Jim Brown, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Richard Pryor, and many, many others. The celebration also included a film and lecture series, film symposium, and film competition co-hosted and co-sponsored by UC Berkeley, the Oakland Museum, and the BFHFI.

A large-scale volunteer effort, the Hall of Fame soon outgrew the resources and energy of the staff at the Oakland Museum and so it became an incorporated non-profit organization in 1978. In addition to its annual Black History Month Celebration, the BFHFI also sponsored and hosted master classes, workshops, film screenings, and other educational events throughout the year. Smith was heavily involved in the planning and oversight of many of these events. 1990 marked the start of Black Filmworks, a film festival designed to showcase landmark films and winning submissions to the annual film competition.

Mary Perry Smith with special directorial award presented posthumously to Oscar Micheaux by the Directors Guild of America, 1986

Mary Perry Smith with special directorial award presented posthumously to Oscar Micheaux by the Directors Guild of America, 1986

Besides administrative records and souvenir items, the BFHFI archives include highlights such as a dress and boots worn by Ruby Dee in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a pair of Harold Nicholas’s tap shoes, signed celebrity hand prints created under the supervision of Casper Banjo, two Oscar Micheaux novels signed by the author, an oil painting of Madame Sul-Te-Wan from the collection of early film aficionado Manny Weltman, and the papers, photographs, and audio recordings of jazz composer and arranger Phil Moore. The BFHFI’s long sought after goal was to establish a brick and mortar museum to house and exhibit items such as these. The archives also contain over 1000 video recordings that include footage of BFHFI events and nearly 20 years’ worth of submissions to the annual film competition.

Smith donated the BFHFI archives to the BFC/A in February 2014 (see previous story). Since then our staff has worked diligently to process approximately 300 boxes full of material. The media recordings are slated to undergo digital preservation as part of Indiana University’s Media Preservation and Digitization Initiative starting this fall through fall 2018. Several items will also be displayed as part of an exhibit hosted at the Grunwald Gallery located on the IU Bloomington campus from October 23rd through November 18th as a means of increasing awareness of the collection throughout and beyond the IU community.

Smith has left behind a breathtaking legacy. Her tireless efforts greatly influenced the shape and direction of the BFHFI and garnered recognition and support of black filmmakers and artists for over thirty years. Her careful stewardship of the collection has ensured that this and future generations will have access to this invaluable record of black filmmaking in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Details on a celebration of her life are forthcoming.

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A Sense of Ourselves: Filming Black Authors and the Burnham Ware Collection

In the field of moving image archiving, lost films are not uncommon. This issue is especially pervasive in Black cinematographic culture due to the difficulties in accessing cameras, films, and archives to preserve the work created by filmmakers. These films, created by and about Black people of color, represent the history experienced through the eyes of those with first hand knowledge and interaction with it. As the famed Roots author Alex Haley wrote, “Because for a long period of time it was against the law to teach slaves to read and write, much of black American history had to be documented by people other than blacks. As a result, much of our history has either been lost or severely distorted,” (Kern-Foxworth, 1994). All lost films are a detriment to the knowledge of the history of those who have come before us, but without organizations like the Black Film Center/Archive, the amount of absent information specifically related to Black films and filmmakers would be insurmountable.

The Burnham Ware Collection, 1980-1989 is one collection that escaped this unfortunate fate. Donated by the filmmaker Burnham Ware in 1993, the twelve, unique Super 8 films feature four prominent Black writers: Gloria Naylor, Houston A. Baker, Terry McMillan, and Alex Haley. In a history wrought with stereotypes and misrepresentation, this Collection gives great insight into African-American literature from the 1980s.

Alex Haley

Alex Haley at Georgetown College in Kentucky, October 1982.

Film was embedded into Mr. Burnham Ware’s (b. 1949) life at an early age. He and his father would watch movies together each week and his mother, a domestic worker, was able to secure him a photographic camera from her employer. His avid interest in Blues music coupled with photography led him to music festivals in the late 1960s. It was there in Ann Arbor, MI where Ware met up with the creators and staff of Living Blues Magazine, who agreed to pay him to write and take photographs for the magazine. As many can empathize, financial constraints led Ware to a more stable professional opportunity working for the Kentucky State Government in Libraries and Archives Department, as what he describes as a “laborer” for the next twenty-seven years.

Ware appreciated this feeling of constancy, but did not allow his new position to shrink his pursuit of filmmaking. He frequently made time to film different kinds of events around the state, from lectures at local colleges and universities, to a KKK rally and protest. Though he did not have any official credentials, Ware would typically head to a lecture and set up near the stage, filming the event with his newly purchased (and expensive!) Super 8 camera. He remembers Terry McMillan’s lecture at Kentucky State University fondly: she was “a funky lady, not your typical academic type,” brought on campus one afternoon by the English department to speak to students. Silent film and still photographs were taken of her, just as they were of Alex Haley at his speaking engagement at Georgetown College (KY) in early October of 1982. Ware set up his equipment like he typically did, and shot four reels of Haley before receiving a wave and smile from the author upon his departure. The Haley reels (see clips) were color with no sound, and were especially exciting for Ware because of Alex Haley’s fame due to his work on Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and Roots (1976).

Viewing the works of Mr. Burnham Ware allows us to reclaim a sense of ourselves in what can be a sea of negativity. In the age of a flourishing social media presence, one would think it would be simple for people of color to create and re-create our own history but, though it might be a new age, problems of racism, dehumanization, and scare tactics still exist. This fact highlights the importance of archiving and preserving films like those in the Burnham Ware Collection. Ware’s contributions equal those of other amateur Black filmmakers interested in documenting the less public parts of our society.

Mr. Ware continued to film and take photographs of small, but no less important, events in Kentucky until about 1998. His decision to not film any longer came with the grief of losing his father, a person that was fundamental in his relationship with film and the moving image. Despite that, however, he still feels the phantom effects of the camera in his life, and is always taking “pictures in [his] head” everywhere he goes. This small action gives us hope that other young women and men will take up the camera, in any and all of the ways it is formatted, and continue to write and preserve our history, black or otherwise.

The Burnham Ware Collection is available at the Black Film Center/Archive. The Alex Haley reels have been converted into a digital format and are available for viewing below. If you have more information on Mr. Ware’s Collection, please contact Brian Graney, Senior Archivist and Head of Public and Technology Services at the BFC/A, bpgraney@indiana.edu. An enormous thank you to Mr. Burnham Ware, Betsy Morelock (Kentucky State University), Brian Graney, Rachael Stoeltje (IU Libraries Moving Image Archive), and Andy Uhrich (IULMIA) for their help was integral to the creation, continuation, and completion of this project.

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~Amanda Ferrara

Amanda Ferrara is a Massachusetts native with a BA from Smith College (MA) and a MLS from Indiana University (IN). She is interested in increasing diversity of, and outreach to, people of color in academic and government archives. This is her first project integrating these topics with film and the moving image.

NOTES

Kern-Foxworth, M. (1994). Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in advertising, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.

Kerr, L. M. (2013). Collectors’ Contributions to Archiving Early Black Films. Black Camera: An International Film Journal (The New Series), (1), 274.

 

 


BLACK CAMERA Vol. 6, No. 2 Now Available

The latest issue of Black Camera: An International Film Journal is now available in print and online from the Indiana University Press.

Spring2015

The Spring 2015 issue includes two Close-ups: One on John Akomfrah and the Black Audio Film Collective, from guest editors Matthias De Groof and Stéphane Symons, featuring articles by Stoffel Debuysere, Kobena Mercer, Manuela Ribeiro Sanches, Laura U. Marks, Kass Banning, and John Akomfrah; and a second on Sexuality, Eroticism, and Gender in Black Films and New Media, from guest editor L.H. Stallings, featuring articles by Angelique V. Nixon, Kai M. Green, and Marlon Rachquel Moore.

The current issue also features a tribute to William Greaves by Noelle Griffis; an article on John Kitzmiller by Saverio Giovacchini; and an interview with Kevin Willmott by Derrais Carter.

For more information about Black Camera, please visit http://www.indiana.edu/~blackcam.  To subscribe, visit http://purchase.jstor.org/products.php?issn=15363155

 


Celine Sciamma’s GIRLHOOD at the IU Cinema this week, May 28-30

Girlhood is a mesmerizing exercise in the enlightenment that can happen when a filmmaker shifts the male cinematic gaze ever so slightly and uncovers what looks like a whole new world.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post

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Marieme/ Vic with her “bande de filles”

Director Celine Sciamma calls Girlhood (original title: Bande de Filles) the conclusion of her unplanned coming-of-age trilogy, following her 2006 debut Water Lilies and 2011’s Tomboy. Sciamma’s films bear little relation to the easily digestible, feel-good dramadies often associated with the coming-of-age moniker; instead, they draw from the genre’s strength–juxtaposing universal experiences of love, friendship, fear, and struggle with the particularities of an individual’s development–to bring to light stories and perspectives that are often neglected, both in reality and onscreen. Sciamma’s first two films explore queer sexuality and gender identity; Girlhood follows the everyday lives of France’s lower-class women of color. As Sue Harris writes in her Sight & Sound review: “This is no quietly incremental coming-of-age narrative, but a brash, at times distressing series of snapshots of the life of undereducated black working-class girls on the bottom rung of every social and economic ladder.”

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Karidja Touré as Marieme

Featuring non-professional actresses discovered at casting calls in the working class suburbs of Paris, the film follows a young teen named Marieme (Karidja Touré) as she transforms herself into “Vic” through her entry into a gang of teenage girls who commit petty crimes together but also watch out for one another, defending against the isolation and insecurity that stems from abusive personal relationships and their marginalized status in contemporary French society.

GIRLHOOD is playing at the Indiana University Cinema on May 28th and 29th at 7PM, and May 30th at 3PM. The Blu-ray edition of the film will also be available as part of the Black Film Center/ Archive’s permanent collection.