Dirt: Scroll at your own pace

Delighting in the "marginalia" of Black film history.

Dirt is a daily email about entertainment.

Kaila Philo on the digital exhibits of Maya S. Cade’s Black Film Archive.

In 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors thirteen years after it was approved. It was an unusual building: bronze latticework connected across a broad trapezoidal structure jutting upward, into the sky, presumably symbolizing progress. 

I visited a few weeks after its opening. It was the first time I’d gone to a museum and genuinely felt, as they say, #seen. A sprawling exhibit recounting the Transatlantic slave trade, for example, sat below stills from The Boondocks and Martin. For the first time in a long time, I got to interact with Black histories beyond the paltry, strife-laden collections usually found inside these large cultural institutions. This time, there was something more to be seen: normalcy.

This is the rare effect imbued upon viewers when they first scroll through Maya S. Cade’s Black Film Archive. Launched in early September, the website showcases 200 Black films made between 1915 and 1979, before major studios stopped investing in movies for Black audiences and indie directors like Spike Lee took the reins.

There’s no search bar; rather than functioning as a movie log like Letterboxd, the Black Film Archive serves as a digital exhibit for the viewer to stroll through, stopping every once in a while to admire a piece that’s caught their eye. 

Unlike my visit to the Black museum, I actually didn’t recognize most of the history presented here. There were movies that I’d grown up with, like Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz; acclaimed classics like Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Daniel Petrie’s A Raisin in the Sun; arthouse favorites I explored as a Black film buff like Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl and Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô; and blaxploitation epics like Gordon Parks Jr.’s Super Fly and Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown

But they’re outnumbered by movies I’d either never been exposed to or had only heard of in passing. Many of the films come from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, decades which, as Nina Metz wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “are often assumed to be devoid of Black film.” The Black Film Archive highlights not just the cinematic juggernauts but also the marginalia, like Roy Mack’s Rufus Jones for President starring a seven-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. in his first on-screen role.

Thanks to the archive, I get to discover more small, inconsequential Black stories like Hot Biskits, a 1931 short comedy about two men whose game of mini golf quickly intensifies, or the musical Ten Minutes to Live which finds a Harlem nightclub embroiled in a mystery. 

Some of the films are delightfully solipsistic. Carmen Jones (a Black twist on the French libretto Carmen) may have advanced the depictions of sex and Blackness in the media, but it does so by facing inward, looking at Blackness and trying to depict it through a famous tale. It’s a film that stands up and stakes its claim in popular culture. Rather than asking to be seen, it speaks with the confidence that your attention is already there. 

Meanwhile, Sembène’s short 1963 drama Borom sarret depicts a cart driver as he makes his way through a day in Senegal. The political message is clear: the country’s infrastructure hadn’t been magically fixed after gaining independence from France in 1958. But the film lacks urgency. Most of the film just shows the driver doing his job. This is his life; Sembène just wants you to take a look.

I think that’s my favorite aspect of Black Film Archive: Cade assembled a document of of Black history and asks you to take a look. “When we are intentional about making history accessible,” Cade told Vulture, “we can transform our collective memory.”

By serving as an open source, Black Film Archive invites the viewer to explore and learn more. There are no brochures, tour guides or teachers trying to tell you where to go, what to think; there are only little placards describing the work. The lesson is up to you. —By Kaila Philo

The Dirt: Black Film Archive is a self-guided tour