The Black Film Center and Archive is one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of films by black filmmakers. Among its stacks are films that were thought disappeared, destroyed, or too dangerous for distribution.
David Wall is a visiting professor in Indiana University’s Department of African-American and African Diaspora Studies. Wall is taking full advantage of the Black Film Center and Archive to study society’s relationship to movies.
“Film in many ways is a more insidiously dangerous medium than literature because what it does or what it can do,” Wall said. “One of the things they do is they have a claim on reality because they look like the world that we live in. It suggests we are looking through the window at the world, as opposed to looking at this weird thing that’s just flickering through a projector on a screen.”
More Than Entertainment
“[Films] are part of a cultural toolkit that we draw upon for both entertainment, information — for a sense of understanding particular issues,” said Michael Martin, director of the Black Film Center.
“I’ve always thought of film as something more than entertainment. I saw myself in film,” Martin said.
It is film’s capacity to reach its audiences on a profoundly personal level that gives it its culture-shifting strength. Michael describes part of one of his favorite films, Nothing But A Man, starring Ivan Dixon as Duff as a southern railroad worker in the 1960’s, and jazz singer Abbey Lincoln as Josie, his wife, a well-educated teacher.
“There’s a scene in which Duff is denied work and he’s very frustrated. He comes to her and she feels his frustration,” Martin said. “That was a very, very powerful scene because despite the problems the obstacles, they embrace one another. It implied a certain fundamental trust between these two people who happen to be husband and wife.”
A Hard Road To Hollywood
Mary Huelsbeck is the Black Film Center’s archivist. She explains that black filmmakers historically have had a whole other set of obstacles to face in getting their movies made.
“I really admire, especially those early black filmmakers because they did it themselves,” Huelsbeck said. “They didn’t give up. They didn’t let all that racism stand in their way in making films. And not just making a film, but making films that had a message to them and presented African Americans with a lot of dignity. You know, Hollywood was not portraying them with a lot of dignity at that time.”
But black filmmakers still struggle to get their movies made.
“Hollywood studios are often reluctant to pick up and pay for black films because they see them as politically difficult,” Wall said.
Wall shared that even Hollywood-friendly director Spike Lee had difficulty getting his film about Malcolm X off the drawing board. Had it not been for the support of Bill Cosby and Denzel Washington, the Oscar-nominated film might never have hit the theaters.
A Home For Unrecognized Films
The Black Film Center acts as host to all the black films lacking the star power to enjoy a wide distribution.
“You know, you can get any blaxploitation flick you want to see at Netflix, and that’s great, you know. But the Archive just has everything you can’t get hold of. It’s priceless,” Wall said.
The Black Film Center not only has films –- over 2,000 of them –- but they also have hundreds of movie posters, books, and trinkets for the die-hard film fans.
“They’ve got all like bits and pieces,” Wall said. “They’ve got kind of memorabilia there. They’ve got a nice set of handcuffs that were used in the movie called The Flying Ace from 1928. It’s’ all those sorts of things. So as a scholar it’s very good, but just as somebody who sort of likes that stuff – it’s great.”