Traditional notions of African American culture in the 1920s are based on urban communities during the first Great Migration that began during WWI. The musical, literary, and visual arts produced in Harlem, South Chicago, and East St. Louis represent an era of Black expressionism depicting the dreams and aspirations of a structurally marginalized caste in the American landscape that has contributed to a larger understanding of that nation’s relationship to modernity through assimilation. Blackness is largely seen as something nested within a pluralistic national culture that has been shared by all people regardless of race.
With recent attention being paid to the 1919 obliteration of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street” in the media, particularly the mini-series Watchmen, the world is becoming aware of a new African-American diasporic paradigm centered in what is commonly called the West. New mythologically enhanced representations of this movement, like The Harder They Fall, whose characters are based on real-life black settlers, now call attention to this dimension of African American migration. The aspirations of what Nell Painter has called “Exodusters” were, however, already prominent in the short-lived independent African American cinema of the 1910s and ’20s.
Films like By Right of Birth, The Symbol of the Unconquered, and Black Gold have been overlooked due to their deterioration and destructionor were rediscovered, often in fragmentary form, after the main histories of the movies were written. Another problem, however, is their inability to assimilate into a larger cultural melting pot. These movies used images and ideologies of t the West and its associations with masculinity to influence the development of Black families and social institutions. They are defined not by a legacy shared across a cultural spectrum but within an ephemeral set of conditions that were wiped out not only by economic forces and de facto racism, but by the changing priorities of race leadership during the Great Depression. Black Westerns depict lost time back to the present in ways that cannot be absorbed into our contemporary sense of race, power, and culture.
Three producers are well represented in the remaining historical record. The first is the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which was owned by a consortium of Black Los Angeles businessmen, including actors Noble Johnson and Clarence Brooks. The second was impresario Oscar Micheaux, whose life experiences as a farmer in North Dakota formed the basis of his movies. The third was the white, Florida-based cola bottler Richard Norman, who set his Westerns in African American towns in Oklahoma and used the celebrity of rodeo “bulldogger” Bill Pickett to lure audiences to the theater. The output of these three companies presented the West as a place that fused the societal aims of racial progress with the personal aims of self-actualization. Over time, they absorbed more traditional Western film tropes in order to keep up with modern tastes.
Johnson’s, Brooks’ and Micheaux’s Westerns focused on racial progress through personal self-reliance. Using Los Angeles and Arizona settings, Lincoln extolled the virtues of professional success, either through mastering a lucrative trade or military valor in The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916) and The Trooper of Troop K (1917). Michaeux’s literary endeavors, The Conquest (1913)and The Homesteader (1918), were autobiographical, based on his grandiose plans to farm the plains of South Dakota’s undoing by what he felt were anti-progressive attitudes fostered by Black churches. His first movie, The Homesteader (1919) was based on the latter novel, whose material would resurface not only in a 1948 remake but in his first talking picture, The Exile (1931).
Thematically, these movies reflected the dominant concerns of African American educators, religious leaders, and businessemen in the first decades of the 20th Century. Their attempt to achieve parity for segregated communities was based on promoting trade-based paths to financial security developing high moral character to sustain a work ethic. Reflecting the philosophy of educator Booker T. Washington, the heroes of early Black Westerns were what Hazel Carby called “race men,” who embodied a posture of masculine comportment in overcoming professional adversity, thereby presenting a positive image for Black men to emulate. These stories demonstrated that such men were more attractive to women than the Stagger Lees who did nothing to benefit community advancement. Black filmmakers realized that the public’s association of the West with personal opportunity made it the perfect setting for demonstrating entrepreneurial strife and reward.
After the Great War, these companies struggled to stay afloat. Johnson’s notoriety as a contract player for Universal brought attention to Lincoln’s films, but to keep working for Carl Laemmle’s studio, he had to sign an exclusive contract preventing him from appearing in outside productions. Brooks stepped in as lead actor, and in 1919, the studio went through a second revival, producing a documentary on daily routines of the 10th Cavalry in Fort Huachuca, Arizona and their first feature film, By Right of Birth, which they released in 1921. The latter, like their debut, concentrated on the upwardly mobile aspirations of a young student athlete at USC who woos a co-ed who unknowingly is the heiress to an Osage oil fortune, . When Brooks seems to be getting the upper hand in wooing a young woman, the villain, who knows of the woman’s fortune, kidnaps her, resulting in a big car chase through L.A. streets as the hero comes to her rescue.
From the available plot synopsis, what seems like the overt messaging of the pre-war films is relegated to the background in the service of melodrama. The film’s posters depict the “West” not as a rural, sparsely inhabited badland but as a thriving urban environment. The characters wear suits and dresses, not chaps and Stetsons, although a horse prominently photobombs the poster.. The affluence of early-20th-century Los Angeles is tethered to a sense of self-improvement and character. The self-actualized “race man” seems shadowed by the adversarial gangster who craves the trappings of the hero’s reward but seeks it through nefarious means, which not only threatens the hero’s well-being, but the representation of Black men to America as well.
Oscar Micheaux had already begun implementing this formula during the War, contrasting the character-building of yeoman farming against what he called the “foolishness” of Black metropolitan religiosity. His protagonists lived in white domains of South Dakota to provide a positive example of Black endeavor and success. Their attempts to gain financial support from their in-laws cripple their entrepreneurial spirits, as the in-laws embezzle and lose their capital in their idolization of fast and easy living. Moreover, Michaeaux’s heroes fall in love with young white women who share their ideal, butrealized that interracial marriage would not only isolate him from white associates but send a disparaging message to the Black men they want to influence. Only last-minute reveals of their romantic partners’ miscegenetic parentage allows for marriage to go forward. Micheaux’s race men are also hounded by their more negative counterparts (often taking the form of fathers-in-law in positions of religious authority), who come off as tragic figures undone by the negative customs and habits of urbanization.
1920’s The Symbol of the Unconquered (the only surviving Black Western of the silent era) subordinates the strife between the Washingtonian ubermensch and his community to a melodrama in which a Black prospector tries to extricate himself, and a neighboring new arrival from a land scheme perpetrated by a self hating black innkeeper, an “Indian fakir” and the Ku Klux Klan.. While retaining the cross-racial marital dynamic, Michaeux realizes that the romantic trappings of the popular Western melodrama are more cinematic, and the film offers a more palpable sense of his hero’s romantic redemption through violently vanquishing his enemies and securing a birthright for his progeny. Horses and Western garb evoke a more rustic pastoralism, in contrast to By Right of Birth, where the absence of such tropes offered a fulfilled promise of prosperity and racial progress. Symbol presents itself as an origin story for a frontier-oriented path towards racial progress.
This divergence was not accidental, as Micheaux advocated to broaden the appeal of African American cinema, in contrast to Lincoln’s investors, for whom the edification of the community was the prime factor. Lincoln’s attempt in the 1920s to form a multi-studio alliance of independent Black filmmakers faced a stumbling block with Michaeux, who was receptive to the idea but whose willingness to exploit uncomfortable topics of race mixing, lynching, and critiques of institutional power within the Black community chafed against Lincoln’s more cautious nature. Michaeux’s numerous bankruptcies and disputes over repayments to investors also exposed the inherent liabilities of securing a cooperative solution to sustain race film production. By Right of Birth was, in fact, financed by a “white angel,” who, based on the film’s limited profits, declined to produce a follow up drama based on the exploits of the all-Black 10th Cavalry along the Mexico-Arizona border.
One white investor who had no qualms about investing in Black cinema was Richard E. Norman, a successful cola manufacturer who founded a movie studio in Jacksonville, Florida. After achieving modest success in white-led movies, Norman experimented in more adventure-themed, Black-cast melodramas. His barnstorming film, The Flying Ace (1926), loosely based on the life of aviatrix Bessie Coleman, still exists, but sadly, his Westerns, which included The Bulldogger (1921), The Crimson Skull (1922), and Black Gold (1928), do not. While his pictures don’t reveal his predecessors’ concerns over the representation of Black masculinity, they acknowledge the “Exoduster” experience and offer positive images of African American achievement that were otherwise ignored or demeaned in mainstream movie fare.
Norman is believed to have financed his films by shooting background footage and exterior scenes in small towns and then splitting the profits with the local hosts once he completed the projects in Florida and released them via regional distributors. He was receptive to investors in majority-Black Oklahoma towns, like Boley and Tatums, whose respective associations with cattle ranches and oil fields lent a romantically entrepreneurial context to his otherwise fanciful melodramas. The Bull Dogger appears to have recorded an African American rodeo competition featuring Bill Pickett, the inventor of many competitive rodeo events. Several minutes of bull dogging footage from this movie still survive. The film was augmented with staged barroom-brawl shenanigans starring Pickett that may have been integrated into The Crimson Skull. The latter film and its follow-up Black Gold involved conspiracies to steal land and resources from the heroes, who ultimately beat their rivals while being aided by strong frontier women. While implausibly plotted and rife with bizarre details (why the bad guys in The Crimson Skull disguise themselves in skeleton costumes remains a mystery for the ages) they provided the rare spectacle of Black cowboys inhabiting an American pastoral landscape on their own terms, shorn of the paternal sentimentality of minstrelsy and white nostalgia.
In the 1920s, one sees a progression in Black Westerns from a strictly pedagogical depiction of the Black frontier designed to model masculine expectations to an integration of those ideas into more universally recognized narrative formulas, making the genre more romantic while preserving a more traditional approach to racial advancement. Said romances, influenced by dime novels and traditional Western film plots, reveal a taste among Black filmgoers for mainstream adventure fare. This stands in contrast to the type of African American-produced art usually associated with the liberalization of urban mores in metropolitan culture, best represented in the sensuality of Josephine Brooks and Harlem jazz. Black Westerns expressed a desire to see people of color in imaginary settings that symbolized American themes and values. Their loss over time diminishes the complexity of cultural attempts to define African American identity in the decade between WWI and the Great Depression.