- Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking: Reprocessing and Digitization
In 2014, the Black Film Center/Archive received support from the Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant program of the National Endowment for the Humanities to conduct the Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking: Reprocessing and Digitization project. This estimated two-year, three-pronged endeavor aims to reintegrate the dispersed papers of pioneering race film producer and distributor Richard E. Norman, produce and publish a comprehensive new finding aid to the collection, and digitize thousands of unique documents and other items in the collection for free public access online.
The Norman Collection represents one of the greatest caches of material relating to the burgeoning study of early African American moviegoing culture and race films. Consisting of forty linear feet of historical materials, ranging from personal and business correspondence to censorship reports to production documentation to promotional posters, the Norman Collection provides a corpus for scholars seeking to explore the industry of independently produced, African American–themed films starring Black casts and exhibited to Black audiences that thrived from the late 1910s through the mid-1950s.
In the 1910s, Norman, who had previously been working in niche “Home Talent” movies, became aware of independent, underground race films being screened at Black-operated theaters throughout the segregated South and Midwest. Though he was white, he turned to race films as his principal business enterprise and produced a series of successful all-Black feature films including The Green-Eyed Monster (1919), The Bull-Dogger (1921), The Crimson Skull (1922), and The Flying Ace (1926). The films highlighted African American action and romance in—at the time—almost fantasy settings. The Flying Ace, for example, followed the adventures of one Captain [End Page 253] Billy Stokes, an African American pilot in the US armed forces, a career that was entirely inaccessible to Black men until 1940.
Norman was a meticulous record keeper in both his professional and personal life and the collection he left behind is remarkable as a near-complete record of the Norman Film Manufacturing Company, benefiting researchers of Norman specifically as well as historians of social migration, itinerant filmmaking, and the silent era race films. Beyond Norman’s substantial achievements, his well-documented relationships with the many performers, filmmakers, studios, and theater operators connected to the race circuit make this one of the most significant collections of a scarcely documented culture. In the July 2014 grant proposal to the NEH, highlighting support for the Norman Collection digitization and reprocessing project, film historian Matthew H. Bernstein writes, “It is impossible to overstate the importance of Norman’s papers.” Bernstein explains its value not only to film history, but to understanding “a distinct strain of black popular culture in the 20th century.” He continues, “Beyond the realm of race filmmaking, the Norman papers are the most illuminating archival resource in existence for reconstructing black film culture.”
Megan MacDonald, the Richard E. Norman project archivist, has worked with African diasporic collections at Indiana University for nine years. Before joining the Black Film Center/Archive staff in 2015, she was an archivist for IU’s Liberian Collection working with one of the largest collections of Liberian materials in the United States.
As part of this NEH-funded processing project, MacDonald has coordinated the reintegration of the Norman Collection, which had been distributed across two campus repositories following its donation by Norman’s son, Captain Richard Norman, in the 1980s. In this conversation from March 2016, MacDonald discusses the complications and discoveries that accompany a large scale archival access project.
Can you tell me your position at the Black Film Center/Archive?
Yes, I am the project archivist and processing archivist for the Richard E. Norman Collection.
Can you give a little background on what that collection entails?
Yes, he [Norman] was a filmmaker in the 1920s, late 1910s, making at first . . . itinerant movies, where he would take the same movie plot and go around from city to city and film it with a new cast, a local cast, and then play it there for the townspeople to see. Then he got into race films, which...