Cover image from Al Herschfeld’s poster for Cabin in the Sky (1943). Courtesy of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
A new book from film poster collector John Duke Kisch presents 100 years of black film posters, charting the evolution of African-American cinema and changing attitudes towards race…
Separate Cinema: The First 100 Years of Black Poster Art presents a compelling visual history of the representation of African-Americans in film, from early productions perpetuating racist stereotypes, to ground breaking films by black directors and contemporary releases such as Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave.
The book features hundreds of film posters from Europe, Asia and the US, which were sourced from Kisch’s Separate Cinema Archive – a collection of more than 35,000 posters from 30 countries.
A former music and fashion photographer, Kisch began collecting film posters in 1973, after he was given one for 1945 film Caldona by a friend. The archive is now the largest private collection of African-American film memorabilia in the world, and Kisch says it aims to educate audiences on the evolution of black cinema and the lesser known existence of an African-American owned and operated film industry in the early 1900s.
Introduced with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr, the book begins with a look at D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation – a film which was pioneering in its use of artistic editing techniques and close-up shots, but caused outrage due to its explicit racism.
Featured posters from the 1920s and 30s include a selection for films by influential director Oscar Micheaux, including The Exile, which proved controverisal for its depiction of an inter-racial couple. Posters for films starring actress Josephine Baker present the actress in a highly sexualised way, while others for animations such as Little Black Sambo and Tom and Jerry highlight the cruel stereotypes portrayed in cartoons of the era.
Swing, Oscar Micheaux, 1938. Courtesy of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
Siren of the Tropics, starring Josephine Baker (one of a series of posters depicting the actress in a highly sexualised way. Courtesy of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
The book also contains examples of posters for lesser-known films made by and for African-Americans, and productions by Norman Films, which was set up by white film-maker Richard Norman to challenge the stereotypes presented in many mainstream releases, as well as posters for jazz and military films.
Harlem is Heaven, Bill Robinson, 1932. Courtesy of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
The book goes on to explore the evolution of a new wave of black cinema in the 60s and 70s, with the release of ‘blaxploitation’ films such as Shaft and Super Fly, and political documentaries, promoted by posters featuring defiant, assertive images of black protagonists. It also presents posters for influential films which challenged racial and cultural stereotypes in the 1980s and early 90s, including Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It.
The Connection, 1961 (British) and the Dutchman (below) courtesy of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
As well as presenting a timeline of African-American cinema, the posters highlight cultural differences in attitudes towards race. Designs from Europe and Japan, even in the 40s and 50s, feature more stylisted, expressive artwork than those from the US, often employing abstract or typographic designs. A chapter devoted to Poland, where African-American cinema and music was hugely popular in the 50s, features some beautiful examples of posters by Wiktor Gorka, which use visual motifs to allude to themes of racism and oppression.
Spread showing posters for The Harder They Come & Rockers, courtest of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
Polish posters for A Patch of Blue (1965) and To Sir, With Love, 1967, courtesy of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
As Tony Nourmand, co-founder of Reel Art Press, who helped compile the book, writes in his introduction, the posters reflected artistic styles of the period – from painterly styles in France and Italy to abstract art in Eastern Europe – yet some of the most stunning examples are those produced outside of the mainstream for African-American productions, often made on a limited budget and using crude techniques.
When collating examples, Nourmand says the biggest challenge was narrowing down Kisch’s vast collection: the final selection is intended to represent the most important milestones in black cinema over the past 100 years, but designs were also chosen for their artistic merit. “The final, edited selection is … a delicate balance between representing an overview of the most important milestones on the journey of black cinema in the past 100 years, and also an aesthetic appreciation for poster art … it is meant to represent a flavour; a visual summary [but] is not an exhaustive encyclopedia,” he writes.
Super Fly, 1972, courtesy of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
Spreads showing posters for Wild Style (1983) & Beat the Street (1984), influenced by graffiti and hip hop culture, courtesy of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
The book is a fascinating look at cinematic and cultural history, and accompanying text provides an informative look at the evolution of cinema, and the struggle among black film-makers to have their voices heard. As well as some shocking and unsettling posters, the book includes a rare glimpse of some beautiful examples of graphic art.
Spread showing 1959 poster for Come Back Africa (left) and for the film’s 2010 re-release, courtest of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
Posters for Right On (1970), about rap group The Last Poets and Gill Scott-Heron film Black Wax (1982), courtesy of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
In closing, Kisch notes that there is still work to be done – more thought-provoking films about race, and ‘colour neutrality in the casting room’ have yet to be achieved, he says – but US cinema has come a long way since The Birth of a Nation.
As Gates Jr notes in his foreword: “The posters these films generate and inspire constitute their own art form and pattern of representation, like a parallel visual universe, mirroring (not literally but figuratively, as acts of interpretation) what an artist or a producer felt to be the dominant message about race in America that these films contained: ninety minutes, say, reduced to one image, an image that over time, became both an icon and a work of art of its own.”
Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee (1969), courtest of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
In The Heat of The Night (1967), courtest of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
She’s Gotta Have It (1986), courtest of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
12 Years a Slave (2013), courtesy of Separate Cinema / Reel Art Press
Separate Cinema: The First 100 Years of Black Poster Art is published by Reel Art Press on October 6 and costs £45. To pre-order a copy, click here.