WBEZ Chicago: Independent Black cinema got its start on Chicago’s South Side

“Today, New York City is seen as the backdrop of Spike Lee’s most famous films, Atlanta is known for Tyler Perry Studios, and Ava Duvernay’s ARRAY is based in Los Angeles. But it was on Chicago’s South Side where the start of Black cinema took root.

“Even before the first wave of the Great Migration in the 1910s, Chicago’s Black population had already been steadily rising. And like with other industries, Black Chicagoans found their way into film.

“During the early 1900s, as silent film production was growing, Black film companies lined State Street in what would eventually be considered Bronzeville — the first of which was Foster Photoplay Company, owned by William Foster. Foster Photoplay is considered to be the first Black-owned film production company in the U.S. that featured an all-Black cast.

“But unfortunately, Foster’s films and those of most of his contemporaries have been lost. (Although the exact number of how many silent films have been lost is unknown, it’s estimated that only about 25% of all feature-length silent films made in the U.S. have survived. But for “race films” — those created for Black audiences — around 80% have been lost and it’s likely that number could be even higher.)

“‘Black history is so many times lost, forgotten, thrown away,’ said Sergio Mims, a film critic and co-founder of the Black Harvest Film Festival. ‘[Black silent films were] not preserved, and so, no, we don’t know a lot about William Foster or the other filmmakers.’

“But William Foster was a writer, using the pen name Juli Jones, and so even without his films, his writing and the work of the filmmakers he influenced helps unwrap the origins of Black cinema in Chicago — and the legacy it leaves behind.

“In 1913, Black Chicagoans would have lined up early to get a good seat at the Pekin Theatre. Located on 27th and State Street, it was Chicago’s first Black-owned theater and large enough to hold up to 1,200 people.

“Pekin was a popular attraction because Black audiences could watch Black talent perform musicals and comedies, especially Vaudeville — a popular type of comedy that was similar to a variety show. Pekin is thought to be the country’s first Black-owned theater to have a stock company, a troupe of actors that perform regularly.

“But on this particular day, the audience wasn’t there to see a live performance. They’d come to see Foster’s first silent film, The Railroad Porter. A short comedy, the film tells the story of a Pullman porter whose wife is being wooed by a cafe waiter and is credited as being the world’s first film with an entirely Black cast and director. Music accompanied the film as it was projected on the screen, and one of the stars of the movie, Lottie Grady, sang live between reels. (Nettles, WBEZ Chicago, 10/21/20)

Listen to the full story at WBEZ Chicago

Independent Black cinema got its start on Chicago’s South Side: William Foster was the first Black director to make a film with an all-Black cast. But most people have never heard of him. This is his story, Arionne Nettles, WBEZ Chicago, 10/21/20


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