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Forgotten Black Women of Early Hollywood On Display at CAAM

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Hollywood has long had a problem with representation and diversity, especially concerning anyone female and nonwhite. In the first half of the 20th century, black women were largely relegated to playing mammy and jezebel roles.

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 classic “Birth of a Nation” even depicted African Americans as rapists and imbeciles, leading to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The black woman’s unfortunate standing in Hollywood history is why the California African American Museum’s “Center Stage: African American Women in Silent Race Films,” which runs until October 15, is so significant.

It reveals how as early as 100 years ago, independent black filmmakers presented complex portrayals of women of color that major studios never fathomed.

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Iris Hall as Eve Mason in “The Symbol of the Unconquered” (1920). USA. Directed by Oscar Micheaux | Courtesy of the California African American Museum

These silent gems depict black women exploring their religious faith, fighting for the rights of African Americans and in loving relationships.

They underscore how even today Hollywood has much ground to cover in its depiction of black women.

Read more about the exhibition here.

The exhibition also includes images from Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920). This film is the oldest surviving feature by an African American director and includes the race film genre’s “First Lady of the Screen,” Evelyn Preer.

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Evelyn Preer (1896-1932)

 

The actress gives a compelling portrayal of a mixed-race African American woman, determined to do well in a world working against her, who finds strength in her embrace of black pride.

 

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