- Generative Tensions:Building a Digital Project on Early African American Race Film
In February 2016 the American Academy of Arts and Sciences came under intense scrutiny because of its failure to nominate any actors of color for any of the top four award categories. The controversy, which became known as #OscarsSoWhite, was a topic of conversation for students at the University of California, Los Angeles, too, since we tend to be very aware of our proximity to Hollywood.1 Students in the Digital Humanities program wondered whether a digital project might offer a productive intervention in the conversation. It struck us that most of the conversations about race and Hollywood framed the Academy's failure to acknowledge actors of color as a kind of inability to see the vibrant work being done by actors and other film workers of color. But we knew that the story was actually longer, and more disturbing than that: a vibrant, viable, discrete, and artistically innovative community of Black filmmakers had existed for about fifty years in the United States. Its economic annihilation, and its subsequent expulsion from popular memory, were the result not of Hollywood's failure to see filmmakers of color but of a deliberate campaign of suppression by Hollywood studios.2
We were aware of this sphere of activity, often called the "race film industry," because the University of California, Los Angeles, holds in its Library Special Collections an extraordinarily valuable set of documents called the George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection.3 Johnson was a writer, producer, and distributor for the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, one of the most active and influential production companies in the race film industry. He documented his own work as well as the work of other film companies, films, and actors from 1916 until his death in 1977.4 When a group of students and faculty gathered in spring 2016 to formulate a digital humanities capstone project, we knew that we wanted to use the Johnson collection to expose for a wider audience the films and artistic contributions of this group of actors and filmmakers. [End Page 709]
In developing Early African American Film: Reconstructing the History of Silent Race Films, 1909–1930, a database about early American race film, we, a research team composed of undergraduates, a graduate student, and a faculty member, wrestled with a host of problems. Some are familiar to any scholar who grapples with questions of race, and some are particular to the problem of translating complex, multifaceted historical identities into "data."
Anyone who has led discussions about race with undergraduate students will be familiar with the line of questioning: if race is, as the professor claims, a social invention, then why are we reifying it as a category by designating such areas as African American history or a Black studies department? The answer, of course, is that discursive categories such as race, whether or not they are based in fact, have wide-ranging, deeply experienced, and historically critical implications. But our students are right to wonder how a historian can acknowledge the diversity and variation of human experience while being explicit about how these experiences are affected by structures of power such as race, gender, nationality, or ability.
The scholar's dilemma—of honoring individual experience, on the one hand, and acknowledging structure, on the other—is magnified when working with data, which often tolerate less nuance than one might wish. One can write about race film, a term historians have applied to films made for African American audiences in the twentieth century, with a great deal of subtlety, acknowledging that a film can be simultaneously a race film and not be a race film: not all race films, for example, were made by Black people, or seen by Black audiences, or traveled in the Black theatrical circuit.5 Not all Black actors or producers were Black throughout their careers, or necessarily Black in the same way, since colorism was rife within the race film industry. But a data set must either include a film or person within its ambit or disclude it or them; there is no room for half-measures. Here...