A fascinating new book charts not only the increasing presence and importance of African Americans in film, but also how they have been portrayed on posters by artists in Hollywood and beyond
In 1973, John Duke Kisch was an art student in New York when a friend gave him a poster for an old black film called Caldonia. A musical from 1945, it featured singer and musician Louis Jordan who stands centre stage, his arms open wide as if in welcome. Kisch was immediately taken with the liveliness of the graphic design and spent the rest of the decade travelling around the country visiting comic-book stores looking for posters. “Nobody wanted them then,” he tells me on the phone from his home in upstate New York. “I could pick them up for a dollar.” Today, Kisch’s collection, which he maintains full time, includes more than 38,000 posters by designers from across the globe and is the world’s largest privately owned archive of black film memorabilia. “I knew nothing about black cinema before I started collecting,” he says, “but these posters have been like looking through a window into history.”
The best posters in Kisch’s collection have now been brought together in a book, Separate Cinema: The First 100 Years of Black Poster Art. While showcasing the evolution of poster art style – from simple two-colour silkscreens and lavish paintings to abstract imagery – it also provides a fascinating insight into the broader journey of African Americans in society. As film professor and author of Contemporary Black American Cinema Mia Mask tells me: “African American cinema is a metaphor for black experience because it is a history of the struggle for inclusion.”
In the early days of silent cinema, – the first decades of the last century – black characters would be played by white people in black-face and when African Americans were cast they were also expected to wear black make-up. It was against this backdrop that a parallel black cinema industry arose. The most significant figure in this era was Oscar Micheaux. The son of a Kentucky slave, Micheaux worked as a railway porter and homesteader before he went on to write, direct and produce more than 40 films, beginning in 1918. Micheaux was also a novelist and the poster art for his films such as The Exile and Murder in Harlem resembled the covers of schlocky paperback novels.
As Kisch’s collection highlights, early black film stars such as Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson found success by playing up to sexualised caricatures. In the poster art for films such as La sirène des tropiquesand La revue des revues, both from 1927, Baker is either near-naked or accompanied by black figures with cartoonish red lips, while in the poster for 1933’s The Emperor Jones Robeson is shirtless. It was the arrival of Sidney Poitier in the 1950s, with films such as 1958’s The Defiant Ones, that marked a new stage in the representation of black people on film; the Japanese poster for 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, for example, sees a smiling, tuxedo-clad Poitier embodying what Mask describes as “a very urbane, controlled and sophisticated black masculinity”.
Featuring work by designers from more than 30 countries, Kisch’s archive is also revealing about attitudes towards race in different continents over the decades. The posters that designers from Sweden, Japan and Poland created for films such as 1936’s The Green Pastures and 1949’s Intruder in the Dust, for example, are more subtle and stylish than the American versions, perhaps because they could find creative distance from the bruising reality of racism in the US. That reality would be challenged by the likes of Poitier and Harry Belafonte in films such as 1967’s In the Heat of the Night and 1957’s Island in the Sun; it was also being exploited by black indie film companies that were producing B-movies with lurid titles such as 1966’s I Crossed the Color Line, which exploited white fears of miscegenation.
In time, Poitier would be criticised, as Josephine Baker was, for pandering to white fantasies, as the civil rights era gave way in the mid to late 1960s to the black power movement, which rejected integration and argued for a purely black society. By the early 1970s, this social movement had spawned the blaxploitation genre and films such as 1971’s Shaft and 1972’s Super Fly. The posters, like the films themselves, perpetuated some of the very stereotypes about black people that earlier generations of African American film-makers had sought to challenge. They were a way to “stand up to The Man,” says Kisch, “but by the mid-1970s audiences were tired of the drug dealers and the pimps. After that there was a big lull until the arrival of Eddie Murphy and Spike Lee, who proved that it still took an independent film-maker to go places Hollywood would not.”
Most recently, black cinema has seen the rise of mainstream black film-makers and actors such as Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Halle Berry, as well as auteurs such as Spike Lee, Tyler Perry and Steve McQueen. Meanwhile Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino have made acclaimed films about black subjects. The success of last year’s 12 Years a Slave was not only an indication of how mainstream African American stories are now becoming – it also suggested that, as with the foreign designers who created some of the finest poster art, sometimes the outsider can better tell an American tale. “If that film had been put in the hands of an American they would have butchered that story,” says Kisch.
Kisch’s collection reflects both how much black cinema has progressed but also how African Americans are still facing many of the same institutional challenges to have the full range of their voices heard. “We have African American film stars but what percentage of films are directed or written or produced by someone who is African American?” asks Mask. “There is still a paucity of representation.” Singular success at the Oscars, like singular success at the White House, does not mean the struggle for representation is over on screen or in real life.
Separate Cinema by John Duke Kisch (Reel Art Press, £45) is published on 6 October.