“New Progress of a Race” book on black history
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    Auction Finds

    History told in book of black film posters

    I was only a few feet away from my car in the parking lot of the auction house when Joe, another auction-goer, asked me over to look at some books he had bought at an estate sale.

    From paper bags he had used to hold and protect the books, he drew out a signed copy of a paperback by photographer Gordon Parks. One book that he especially wanted to show me was a beautiful coffee-table-heavy book with a white jacket featuring two stylized dancers in the center, and two devilish and angelic figures hovering around them.

    The dancers looked to be from the 1940s with their lips painted red and their bodies stretched in movement – the work of an illustrator I recognized but couldn’t attach a name to. The illustrator was Al Hirschfeld, and this was a poster for the 1943 movie “Cabin in the Sky.”


    This image on the jacket of the book “Separate Cinema” features an Al Hirschfeld illustration from the poster for “Cabin in the Sky (1943).”  Click on photo to see a full view of the poster.

    The book was titled “Separate Cinema: The First 100 years of Black Poster Art” by John Duke Kisch. I flipped through the book and saw page after page of wonderful film posters featuring African Americans. The book itself was in great shape, as if its pages had never been turned.

    The posters were a time capsule of the life of African Americans in this country, including society’s perverted view of them and their own realistic image of themselves. They spoke of the music of African Americans, how they lived, how they entertained themselves and what they feared – all bigger than life and bathed in colors.

    This was the first book I’d seen of black movie posters but not the first collection. A few years ago, I wrote a newspaper article about a man who collected not only posters but also photos, films, lobby cards, and personal items related to African Americans and the movies.

    This 2014 book contained selections of film posters from Kisch’s collection, with a foreword by historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. and afterword by filmmaker Spike Lee. The posters were from the early 20th century to present time. The book was lovely but like most coffee-table books, it came with a hefty price (the auction-goer got it for a bargain).

    "A Man's Duty (1919)," the most successful of Noble Johnson's films.

    “A Man’s Duty (1919),” the most successful of Noble Johnson’s films.

    Kisch’s Separate Cinema Archive contains more than 25,000 posters, lobby cards and photographs from more than 35 countries, according to his website. Kisch sells posters on the site.

    A friend gave him his first film poster in 1973, and he later started picking up others at antique and comic book stores after becoming a New York photographer.

    Of the film posters, he says in the book: “They’ve got a cleverness you don’t see in a run-of-the-mill museum exhibit. … Each poster is an ad – a cacophony of stuff that compels viewers to buy the product, see the film, dig the music, enjoy the show. These images are ticket sellers. That’s very American and very seductive.”

    The book starts with W.D. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation (1915),” a film herald for its technological advances at the time but whose message was both racist and denigrating. Blacks were appalled; they protested and marched against it. Emmett J. Scott, personal secretary to Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee University, tried to counter with a short film noting the accomplishments of African Americans, according to the book. The idea was to show it in movie theaters before Griffith’s film.


    “The Exile (1931),” the first all-black talkie.

    He was not able to raise enough money through his own film company and had to turn to white backers. By the time it was over, the film titled “The Birth of a Race” offered a message different from what Scott had in mind and had no black actors. It crashed at the box office.

    His prospectus for the film is said to be in the George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection at UCLA in California. The only available print of the final version of the film is located at the Library of Congress.

    One of the first black-owned-and-operated companies to make films offering positive images of African Americans was the Lincoln Motion Film Company. It was founded in Omaha, NE, in 1916 by Noble Johnson, a character actor at Universal Studios, with his brother George P. Johnson. They later moved the company to Los Angeles. Their films were successful among black movie-goers for a time, especially “A Man’s Duty” with Clarence Brooks and “A noted cast of Negro Actors,” as printed on the poster.

    Cowboy Bill Pickett in "The Bull-Dogger (1922)."

    Cowboy Bill Pickett in “The Bull-Dogger (1922).”

    There were others who also made what were called “race films,” but financial issues and the dawn of the talkies in the 1920s doomed them all. A white man named Richard Norman used his Norman Film Mfg. Company to also produce films with all-black casts. The poster for the Norman film “The Bull-Dogger (1922)” featuring cowboy and rodeo star Bill Pickett can still be found as reproductions (I came across one at auction a few years ago).

    And then there was Oscar Micheaux, who made his own film titled “Within Our Gates” in 1920 to challenge Griffith’s movie. For 30 years starting in 1918, Micheaux was able to sustain his output of films featuring African American actors. Many of his 40 films have been lost. He was also a novelist who wrote mostly about his own life and included much of it in his films.

    Even before any of these was Bill Foster, the first to make films for and about African Americans through his Foster Photoplay Company that was founded in 1910. His “The Railroad Porter (1913)” was a silent film, followed by a series of comedies.

    Here are some of the posters from the book:

    black movie poster

    The amazing Ethel Waters in “Rufus Jones for President (1933).”


    black movie poster

    The incomparable Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather (1943).”


    black movie poster

    A Japanese poster of Sidney Poitier in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).”


    black movie poster

    “Lost Boundaries (1949),” about an African American family passing for white.

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