Allyson Nadia Field, Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity
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(Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).
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Historically unacknowledged and understudied in academia, the contributions of African Americans to early American cinema is spotlighted in Allyson Nadia Field’s Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity. As a strategic engagement with the philosophy of uplift, instilled through the pedagogy of Booker T. Washington, Field posits “uplift cinema” through the use of archival ephemera as substitutive of the non-extant films in question. She centers the function of archival silences to reveal genealogical traces of black modernity while simultaneously problematizing the function of uplift ideology. Both Tuskegee Institute’s and Hampton Institute’s cinematic practices in the early 20th century were reflective of their commitment to proving the utility of African Americans to U.S. civility through uplift. However, their intention of establishing an alternative function of cinema that would appeal to philanthropic donors later proved detrimental to their branding efforts. Uplift Cinema does the work of dismantling epistemological assertions that African American cinema emerged as simply a response to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and instead affirms the ideologically motivated uses of uplift and film to promote the educational and psychological advancements of African Americans post Reconstruction.
Although the book primarily focuses on the filmic practices of Tuskegee and Hampton in the 1910s, Field begins the text by fast-forwarding to 1925 and the work of African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. She uses the controversy surrounding Micheaux’s filmmaking style, and specifically his film Body and Soul to introduce the ways that uplift functioned in policing visual culture’s representations of blackness. Essential to the rhetoric of turn-of-the-century African American advancement, “uplift meant that material improvements (and ensuing elevated social status) would be attained through individual striving and the self-sufficiency of the race—rather than political or social equality with whites created though legal means.” Following the brief preface that identifies Micheaux’s narrative engagement with uplift, Field uses this philosophy to formulate the ideological commitments of early African American cinema and examine the consequences of this allegiance through the work of Tuskegee and Hampton.
In chapter one, Field spends a significant amount of time framing the specific uses of aesthetics as a means of visualizing African American success that resulted from hard work, education, and self-reliance. Prior to Tuskegee’s and Hampton’s engagement with motion pictures, illustrations and staged photographs were the primary medium for relaying the benefits of uplift. These images were purposed to center institutional education as the lynch-pin for African American possibility and opportunity by illustrating before-and-after visuals of men and women that relied on stereotypes of black criminality and poverty and their transformation into the after-image as poised, disciplined, and “useful” members of society. This chapter argues that visualizing uplift presented a complex predicament that African American leadership sought to balance between racial advancement and white philanthropic appeal. Testing this balance would prove to be extremely tenuous when both Tuskegee and Hampton decide to explore the possibilities of uplift cinema.
Chapters two, three, and four detail the accomplishments and failures of Tuskegee’s and Hampton’s endeavors into the production of actualities. Booker T. Washington’s leadership in the uplift movement as well as his insistence on the control of Tuskegee’s image exemplified the rigid boundaries that uplift propagated. With the philanthropic contributions of white donors holding a high priority, the dissemination of Tuskegee’s image through motion pictures presented a complex predicament in regards to exhibition and audience. Field uses Tuskegee’s partnerships with northern entrepreneurs George W. Broome and Louis B. Anderson to juxtapose the complicated uses of cinema which attempted to engage in themes of progress and self-reliance while simultaneously appealing to white benefactors. Broome’s A Trip to Tuskegee and Anderson’s A Day at Tuskegee were purposed to visualize the school’s mission of uplift by showcasing the exteriors of buildings as well as students performing the industrial and agricultural trades that supposedly produced respectable and useful African American citizens. However, while Broome advocated for using his film to appeal to both black and white audiences, Washington’s insistence on the uses of the cinema being strictly for fundraising caused a rift between the two that was never repaired. By the time Anderson began exhibiting his film as a travelogue for Tuskegee, Washington conceded to entrepreneurial strategies of distribution and supported the widespread exhibition of the film. Chapters three and four extend a similar analysis to Hampton’s exploration of cinema purposed for spreading the message of uplift.
Field’s exemplary archival research and ability to speculate into the silences of history reveal the precarious function and application of uplift in chapter four. The inclusion of an epilogue at the end of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, intended by Hampton faculty, to showcase the advances made by African Americans since reconstruction and combat the detestable imagery of African Americans in Griffith’s account, proved not only insufficient, but almost equally as harmful in the project of uplift. Field is successful in fully detailing the overall shortcomings in uplift rhetoric and its inability as a cinematic tool to combat the deep-seated power of white supremacy embedded within cinema’s representational apparatus. Field extends this analysis into the final chapter by discussing the reverberation of “uplift cinema” into northern black entrepreneurship. The absolute breadth of this chapter far exceeds the allotted time and space available in the text, which suggests the need for a follow-up project.
Overall Uplift Cinema remarkably explores the influence of uplift within the cultural production of African American imagery in the early 20th century. Field concludes the text by returning back to Micheaux’s Body and Soul and dissecting the ways that he both reproduces and rejects uplift as a tool for representational advancement and its subsequent influence on African American film practices over time. Similar to her colleague Jacqueline Stewart, Field masterfully intervenes into the larger field of American film and modernity by asserting the formidability of African American cinema practices.
Philana Payton is a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. Her research focus uses Black ontology, performance theory and queer theory to explore blackness and visual culture through Black women’s performance practices. Philana has also done extensive research in early 20th century Black Silent Cinema as well as race and gender representation during the classical period and into the Blaxploitation Era. She is from Atlanta, GA.