Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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The Historiography of Early African-American Filmmakers
Aimee Dixon

Last modified: 2010-03-04


With very little research done on the existence and participation of the earliest existence of African-American women in film, the early history of film is still short a very valuable part of the film heritage. Approximately eight women have been mentioned in the few essays on this subject starting with filmmakers from the 1910s through to the 1940s. Most of the research on this part of film history is focused on Zora Neale Hurston and some discusses other women such as Tressie Sounders, Maria P. Williams, Alice B. Russell (Oscar Micheaux’s wife), and Eslande Cardoza Goode Robeson (Paul Robeson’s wife). In my recent thesis, I took a historiographical approach to understanding who these women are and what they may have contributed, if anything, to the film industry’s beginnings (and at minimum, the beginnings of African-Americans in film).

A more intensive focus will be on the work of the African-American women Zora Neale Hurston and Eslanda Goode Robeson. Similar to Gloria J.Gibson’s essay which compares Hurston’s work to Eloyce King Patrick Gist’s films, I want to pose the question that Gibson has touched upon in her essay: “What makes a filmmaker?” Both women who’s lives possibly crossed because of their associations with Columbia University (Hurston as a student and Robeson as the wife of student Paul Robeson) and through their associations with the Harlem Renaissance of New York City. But through these studies I would like to look more into Hurston’s past as a filmmaker. While it has been assessed by Gibson that she was an ethnographic filmmaker, a more recent study on Hurston reveals that she did pursue Hollywood, like other Harlem Renaissance writers. With regard to Robeson, my presentation will discuss her role as “manager-wife” along with her desire to make write films and work more significantly in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Additionally, like Hurston, Robeson also became an anthropologist and through her interests in Africa, took film footage in the continent during her visit to that part of the world as documented in her book African Journey (1946) as well as in extant film footage. A comparison and contrast of these two women’s roles in filmmaking will offer an interesting grounding for the realities of women, and more specifically, African-American women, in the early years of film.

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