Students in the digital humanities program at the University of California, Los Angeles have developed an online database that tracks the history of the African American silent film industry. The database, entitled “Early African American Film: Reconstructing the History of Silent Race Films, 1909-1930,” includes information on actors, crew members, writers, producers, directors, and others who were involved in silent films.
Relying partially on the work of historians who have unearthed documentation of these forgotten filmmakers, the UCLA student team set its parameters to include films from 1909 to 1930 that featured African-American cast members, were produced by an independent production company and discussed or advertised as a race film in the African-American press.
Most of the films and the records of these films has been lost. A major component of the database is the records of filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who kept detailed notes and records of the actors and crew members with whom he worked.
Miriam Posner, digital humanities core faculty member and program coordinator, stated that “even though so few films remain, they offer this alternative vision of African-American life in the first half of the twentieth century that’s so much more rich and complex than many things in mainstream film. You have these incredible actors and personalities like Lawrence Chenault, Evelyn Preer, and Noble Johnson. You can just get lost imagining what it must have been like to have been so committed to your craft at a time when your work was so terribly undervalued.”