The history of 300 silent films that Hollywood shunned, and why they matter.
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UCLA

There’s an entire genre of films from the early 1900s that you’ve probably never heard of.

It’s made up of hundreds of black-and-white silent films featuring stories of adventure, romance, politics, comedy, and more. These films captivated audiences of their time, but most of them no longer exist for us to watch today.

Poster for the film "Black Gold" (1928), which has been lost. Image via Norman Studios/Wikimedia Commons.


What makes them any different than films starring Charlie Chaplin or Clara Bow?

The films of this little-known genre, called “race films,” featured African-American casts, were produced by African-American-owned companies, and were created specifically for African-American audiences. They existed outside the Hollywood system and were often created to counter the caricatures of black people common in mainstream films.

For four months this year, seven students at UCLA meticulously documented these films (plus their actors and companies) in a database.

Students at UCLA working on the database. Images via Miriam Posner, used with permission.

But remember, most of these films don’t actually exist anymore. “They were run into the ground,” Miriam Posner, Ph.D., wrote in an email. Posner, a professor of digital humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, was the coordinator of the research project.

“Some of these race film companies could only afford to make one copy or a few copies [of a film], which they then personally escorted around the company until the prints fell apart,” she said.

How exactly does one go about documenting hundreds of films from nearly a century ago — when those films no longer exist?

“We were venturing into pretty unknown territory,” research team member Shayna Norman told UCLA Newsroom.

A poster for "The Gunsaulus Mystery," a 1921 film that is now believed to be lost. Image via Micheaux Film Corporation/Wikimedia Commons.

Posner explains that the team used a combination of primary and secondary sources. They would start with established filmographies, then trace the data back to production notes, newspaper clippings, and movie posters to confirm the data entry and the spelling. “It was super time-consuming, but also really engrossing.”

Posner’s team of UCLA students is certainly not the first to dig into these films. “There’s a wonderful wealth of scholarship on this community,” she said. But “no one had systematically pulled people, films, and companies from this scholarship and gathered it in one place.” In that sense, the work these students completed was truly groundbreaking.

The result of the team’s hard work is a comprehensive, searchable database of over 300 films produced from 1909 to 1930.

Oscar Micheaux, Evelyn Preer, Lawrence Chenault, and E.G. Tatum are just a few of the black artists whose histories are preserved in the database.

A newspaper ad for "Within Our Gates." Image via Micheaux Book & Film Company/Wikimedia Commons.

Take, for example, the 1920 film “Within Our Gates,” one of the most famous of these films, and one that still exists today (you can even watch it on YouTube). According to the UCLA Newsroom, this film “is one of the few examples of a race film that garnered some attention — and an audience — from the white press.”

The UCLA team’s database lists everyone who worked on or appeared in “Within Our Gates,” but it also shows how those people are connected to others in the race film community. The visual result of these connections is a webbed map showing the entire network. The data, when displayed in this way, is mesmerizing.

A visual representation of the network of people involved in the race film community. Oscar Micheaux, who directed "Within Our Gates," appears at the center of this network. Screenshot via "Early African American Film"/UCLA.

As discussions like #OscarsSoWhite continue to make an annual appearance, it’s so important to recognize black artists’ contributions to early filmmaking.

#OscarsSoWhite is the trending hashtag that reappeared around the 2016 Academy Awards when only white actors and actresses were nominated for the top categories.

“The [database] project illuminates in an unprecedented way how African American artists are deeply embedded in film history,” Marika Cifor, a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA, wrote in an email. “Their presence can be traced back to the medium’s earliest days.”

Or as Posner puts it, “THEY HAVE BEEN THERE SINCE THE BEGINNING.”

The filmmakers and artists whose work is chronicled in this database are people who “[persisted] in developing their craft in spite of the most heinous odds, and in spite of a culture that actively represses their art,” Posner continued. “They deserve to be remembered, and their role in the history of filmmaking deserves to be acknowledged.”

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Vanna White appeared on "The Price Is Right" in 1980.

Vanna White has been a household name in the United States for decades, which is kind of hilarious when you consider how she gained her fame and fortune. Since 1982, the former model and actress has made millions walking back and forth turning letters (and later simply touching them—yay technology) on the game show "Wheel of Fortune."

That's it. Walking back and forth in a pretty evening gown, flipping letters and clapping for contestants. More on that job in a minute…

As a member of Gen X, television game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" send me straight back to my childhood. Watching this clip from 1980 of Vanna White competing on "The Price is Right" two years before she started turning letters on "Wheel of Fortune" is like stepping into a time machine. Bob Barker's voice, the theme music, the sound effects—I swear I'm home from school sick, lying on the ugly flowered couch with my mom checking my forehead and bringing me Tang.

This video has it all: the early '80s hairstyles, a fresh-faced Vanna White and Bob Barker's casual sexism that would never in a million years fly today.

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