cover image Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World

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

Wil Haygood. Knopf, $30 (464p) ISBN 978-0-525-65687-6

The struggle of Black directors and actors to make movies on equal terms is explored in this sweeping historical study. Journalist and biographer Haygood (The Butler) surveys the Black presence in American cinema back to the silent era, starting with D. W. Griffiths’s racist Reconstruction epic, The Birth of a Nation, and pioneering Black director Oscar Micheaux’s heroic Black characters. He goes on to probe the demeaning Mammy stereotypes that Gone with the Wind star Hattie McDaniels wrestled with; the emergence of Black crossover stars, among them Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, and Will Smith; ’70s blaxploitation flicks like Shaft and Foxy Brown, with their confrontational depictions of Black power; director Spike Lee’s race-conscious oeuvre; Black-themed blockbusters like 2018’s Black Panther; and modern-day controversies over the dearth of Black Oscar nominees. Haygood centers his narrative on punchy biographical sketches of Black filmmakers and piquant making-of tableaux—“Everyone was game, despite the wildness and weirdness,” he writes of the set of Melvin Van Peebles’s blaxploitation epic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, where one could “[smell] the marijuana wafting about during breaks in the filming”—while ably filling in historical context from the Harlem Renaissance to the George Floyd protests. The result is an engrossing account of a vital but often slighted cinematic tradition, full of fascinating lore. (Oct.)