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Viewing turn-of-the-century African American history through the lens of cinema, Envisioning Freedom examines the forgotten history of early black film exhibition during the era of mass migration and Jim Crow. By embracing the new medium of moving pictures at the turn of the twentieth century, black Americans forged a collective--if fraught--culture of freedom. In Cara Caddoo's perspective-changing study, African Americans emerge as pioneers of cinema from the 1890s to the 1920s. Across the South and Midwest, moving pictures presented in churches, lodges, and schools raised money and created shared social experiences for black urban communities. As migrants moved northward, bound for Chicago and New York, cinema moved with them. Along these routes, ministers and reformers, preaching messages of racial uplift, used moving pictures as an enticement to attract followers. But as it gained popularity, black cinema also became controversial. Facing a losing competition with movie houses, once-supportive ministers denounced the evils of the "colored theater." Onscreen images sparked arguments over black identity and the meaning of freedom. In 1910, when boxing champion Jack Johnson became the world's first black movie star, representation in film vaulted to the center of black concerns about racial progress. Black leaders demanded self-representation and an end to cinematic mischaracterizations which, they charged, violated the civil rights of African Americans. In 1915, these ideas both led to the creation of an industry that produced "race films" by and for black audiences and sparked the first mass black protest movement of the twentieth century.
From Al Jolson in blackface to Song of the South, there is a long history of racism in Hollywood film. Yet as early as the 1930s, movie studios carefully vetted their releases, removing racially offensive language like the "N-word." This censorship did not stem from purely humanitarian concerns, but rather from worries about boycotts from civil rights groups and loss of revenue from African American filmgoers. Cinema Civil Rightsnbsp;presents the untold history of how Black audiences, activists, and lobbyists influenced the representation of race in Hollywood in the decades before the 1960s civil rights era. Employing a nuanced analysis of power, Ellen C. Scott reveals how these representations were shaped by a complex set of negotiations between various individuals and organizations. Rather than simply recounting the perspective of film studios, she calls our attention to a variety of other influential institutions, from protest groups to state censorship boards. Scott demonstrates not only how civil rights debates helped shaped the movies, but also how the movies themselves provided a vital public forum for addressing taboo subjects like interracial sexuality, segregation, and lynching. Emotionally gripping, theoretically sophisticated, and meticulously researched,nbsp;Cinema Civil Rightsnbsp;presents us with an in-depth look at the film industry's role in both articulating and censoring the national conversation on race.