Black History Month: Why it gotta be Black
February has everyone notoriously seeing red, with heart shapes, cherubs and chocolates literally shoved in our faces thanks to Hallmark Day. If you’re keeping an eye on our social media, you’ll notice that we’ve been seeing Black, in honour of a far greater celebration. Welcome to Black History Month.
Yes. We know. Black History Month is technically an American tradition. But so is Halloween. Quite frankly, it’s scarier to think South Africans would rather carve out a pumpkin, or play dress up, than educate their children around the struggles, sacrifices and achievements made by Black Americans. It’s sadly a cultural representation that still seems undervalued in the US, and an even bigger challenge for young South African filmmakers.
Without delving too deeply into the horrifying similarities between Black South African and African American history (this is, after all, a historical piece and not a socio-political drama), it’s important to know where Black History Month actually came from.
It began because of a man called Carter G. Woodson (historian and author of The Journal of Negro History, 1916) who got the idea after attending a celebration in Illinois for the 50th anniversary of the 13th Amendment. The amendment was a monumental decree that abolished slavery, under the the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, whose birth date happened to fall on the 12th of February, is one of the reasons we celebrate Black History Month in February.
It is believed that this festival inspired Woodson to form the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH), an organisation dedicated to the study of positive accomplishments made by Black Americans. Over time, the awareness around positive Black role models and accomplishments needed a much bigger platform to even the playing field. What started as a one week celebration in 1926, grew into an official month long National commemorative holiday recognized as “National Black (Afro-American) History Month”, honouring greats such as Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and Maya Angelou.
WHY IT GOTTA BE BLACK?
While there are some truly amazing South African narratives creeping out of the woodworks (Thabang Moleya, Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, Mandla Dube, & Sibs Shongwe- La Mer – Neck Tie Youth – won many awards), Black South African filmmakers were never legally allowed to tell their story because of Apartheid. Creativity and pride in heritage is still something that young creatives struggle to convey. Director, Scottnes L. Smith offers some insights around this topic in our latest Director Showcase.
We decided to take a small break from the usual behind the scenes shenanigans to pay homage to the pioneers of Black Filmmaking for Black History Month. These are a few pioneers who paved the way for Black storytellers. They shared narratives and truths about the hardships and joys surrounding Black Life.
WE SALUTE YOU:
- Maria P Williams (1866 – 1932). She was the first Black female film producer recorded in history
- Noble Johnson (1881 – 1978). The founder of all-Black-owned and Black-run production Studio Lincoln Motion Picture Company along with his brother George in 1916. The studio was the birthplace of the “race film” genre which produced positive films starring black actors.
- Lester Walton (1882 – 1965) is the first full time Black reporter who became the first Black film critic.
- Oscar Micheaux. Hailed as the first Black filmmaker. He directed and produced 42 feature films from 1919 to 1948. He wrote, directed and produced Body and Soul, which was included in the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2019. Oscar Micheaux was an inspiration for contemporary Black filmmakers such as Prince-Bythwood, Julie Dash, Nia DaCosta, Lee Daniels and Dawn Porter Within Our Gates (silent movie)
- Hattie McDaniel was the first Black performer to be nominated, and win an Oscar. She won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. She appeared in 97 films and was among the first Black entertainers to star in her own radio and TV Series, Beulah.
- Sidney Poitier was the first Black Actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor in Lillies in the Field. He played a handyman helping a group of German speaking nuns build a chapel.
- Mapantsula (1987): Mapantsula, starring the legendary late Thomas Mogotlane, became the first anti-apartheid feature film for and about Black South Africans. It was the winner of seven South African Film Awards and selected as the South African entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Sadly, the film was not accepted as a nominee and the movie was banned in South Africa.
- Tsotsi 2005. Tsotsi, starring Presley Chweneyagae, became the first South African film in history to win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film was directed by South African director Gavin Hood, and depicts a beautiful South African narrative.
- Killer of Sheep (1978) – Charles Burnett
- Losing Ground (1982) – Kathleen Collins
- Daughters of the Dust (1991) – Julie Dash
- Fruitvale Station (2013) – Ryan Coogler
- Boyz N The Hood (1991) – John Singleton
- The Hate U Give (2018) – George Tillman Jr.
- Queen & Slim (2020) – Melina Matsoukas (worked with her on Absolut Vodka TVC)
- Selma (2014) – Ava DuVernay’s
- If Beale Street Could Talk (2019) – Barry Jenkins
- BlacKkKlansman (2018) – Spike Lee