Thursday, July 7, 2022

Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World by Wil Haygood

One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World
by Wil Haygood
464 pages
October 2021
Hardcover ISBN: 9780525656876

“If Black Americans were to fight back against what cinema had now done to them, they would need their own filmmaker. They needed someone to tell their stories, stories with nuance and honesty and respect and comedy and joy—all the things that this magical thing called cinema was offering to mainstream society. And if such a person were to emerge, he would have to possess fortitude, and a wide vision that would remain steadfast against the forces sure to rise and be arrayed against him.” — Wil Haygood

From the beginning of film history, black representation has been a struggle. Stereotypes and racist depictions caused harmful ripple effects in our culture that ultimately lead to real life consequences. Deeply rooted racism in Hollywood held back black performers and filmmakers from realizing their true potential. Even with all the obstacles in the business and in society at large, these black visionaries persisted. Oscar Micheaux, Paul Robeson, Lena Horne and Hattie McDaniel paved the way for Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Pam Grier and Melvin van Peebles who made strides for Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Spike Lee and Martin Jenkins. The industry still struggles with black representation on screen and off. While we still have a long way to go, understanding and appreciating black film history is crucial for making strides in the decades to come.

Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World by Wil Haygood is a rich resource of information on black film history that will both educate and enlighten. Haygood draws parallels between filmmakers and actors and the particular moment in history in which they were working. This book is filled to the brim with stories and related context. The focus is more on individuals however numerous films are discussed at length. Each chapter has a particular theme and some are followed by short "flashback" chapters that hone in on an important moment in film history as it relates to the previous chapter. For example, a chapter examining Sidney Poitier's life and career is followed by a flashback chapter which recounts the night of his historic Oscar win. 

Topics discussed include: 
  • D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation and its harmful impact on black representation
  • Oscar Micheaux's extraordinary career as an independent filmmaker
  • The relationship between authors Fannie Hurst and Zora Neale Hurston
  • Hattie McDaniel, "mammy" and black maid tropes, and her landmark Oscar win
  • The debacle that was Porgy and Bess.
  • The different paths Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte took with their careers.
  • The amazing story behind Melvin Van Peebles career.
  • The impact Pam Grier had on the representation on black female beauty.
  • Berry Gordy, Billy Dee Williams, Diana Ross and the films of Motown Records
  • and many more

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“The wonder of it all is that the moviemaking life didn’t crush Oscar Micheaux. He had come into Black filmmaking when it hardly existed, creating much of its origins and giving it ballast and a heartbeat.” 
On Baby Face “But to Negroes the real star of the movie was Theresa Harris…Chico and Lily were one of the first, more honest Black-white friendships to be showcased on a major motion-picture screen. They were equals, and the reality of this at the time was its own kind of shock.” 
“Sammy Davis Jr had the wherewithal to survive the sexual and interracial-marriage paranoia against the backdrop of Hollywood and America, but Dorothy Dandridge did not.”  
“Poitier and Belafonte have become cultural icons, two handsome Black men, defiant soul brothers who claimed their stake in the air of American celebrity…”

Colorization is quite dense and does take some patience to get through. There is a bit of jumping back and forth between subjects within in a chapter which made me go back to reread some parts to get back on track. However, it was well worth the effort because of the book's abundance of details, insights and context. Haygood does a superb job demonstrating the effect history had on film and vice versa. I took over 11 pages worth of notes because there were so many takeaways that I didn't want to forget.

I highly recommend this one for anyone who wants to go a lot further with their knowledge of film history and for anyone interested in black representation in media.

This is my second review for the 2022 Classic Film Reading Challenge.

Thank you to Knopf for sending me a copy of Colorization for review!

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