Between 1910 and 1950, parallel to the rise of Hollywood’s Golden Age, a new movie genre — race films — was born. Though their history is largely forgotten, they were made specifically for African American audiences, starred black performers, and were wildly popular in their time. In Center Stage: African American Women in Silent Race Films, CAAM highlights five significant race films with female leads by a variety of filmmakers. The first of its kind in Los Angeles, this exhibition emphasizes how particular race films created in the early 20th century afforded black actresses the opportunity to play a range of characters, from heroines to archrivals, that were atypical of Hollywood in the early 1920s.
Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920) is the oldest surviving feature by an African American director and includes the race film genre's "First Lady of the Screen," Evelyn Preer. The actress gives a compelling portrayal of a mixed-race African American woman, determined to do well in a world working against her, who finds strength in her embrace of black pride. Micheaux’s The Symbol of The Unconquered (1920) features Iris Hall as Evon Mason, a young woman who saves the day by alerting her town of an impending Ku Klux Klan attack. Hall’s role was rare for the period and conveys the progressive nature of race films and their highlighting of black women as valiant figures.
Harry Gant’s By Right of Birth (1921) presents Anita Thompson as Juanita Cooper, a young, adopted, educated woman searching for her birthparents and love. Gant’s film achieved enormous success for its time, and it was praised for portraying African Americans — especially women — in a positive light, making a strong statement against the Jim Crow era’s rampant racial stereotyping.
The Scar of Shame (1927), written by David Starkman, follows the troubled path of Louise Howard (played by Lucia Lynn Moses). The young step-daughter of an alcoholic, she is rescued from the poor influence of her father, a budding concert pianist portrayed by Alvin Hillyard. Louise's role explores and scrutinizes the socio-economic caste system in place among African American communities during the early 20th century and often reproduced on film.
Finally, Spencer Williams’s The Blood of Jesus (1941) introduces modern viewers to religious and feminine subjects in a way that highlights the centrality of Christianity within the black community, particularly for black women. The character of Martha, played by Cathryn Caviness, finds herself in purgatory after an accident. While there, she faces temptation from Lucifer but defeats him and finds solace at the foot of the Cross. Striking for its images of a leering Satan and a literal blood baptismal, The Blood of Jesus and Caviness’s performance provide audiences insight into the spiritual undertones of this era’s race films, especially with the advent of sound.
Through film screenings and original posters, Center Stage illuminates how African American women—inside an industry of their own, and despite Hollywood's subservient roles—delivered nuanced and exemplary portrayals of black femininity that resonate with audiences to this day. As conversations surrounding diversity in Hollywood continue to dominate public discourse, these films provide historical insight into the modern quest for three-dimensional representations of black womanhood.