In What Happened in the Tunnel (1903), a sixty-second short directed by Edwin S. Porter and released by the Edison Company, a man on a train makes a pass at a lady passenger. She gently strings him along, and he keeps flirting. As the train heads into a tunnel, he jumps forward to kiss her. Seven seconds later, when the light returns, the man discovers that he kissed the woman’s black maid by mistake. He panics, curses, and rushes back to his newspaper while both women laugh.
Unless used for a cruel joke, race was generally ignored in the first decades of American cinema. When black characters were depicted, they were comic buffoons played by white actors in blackface, like in the Mack Sennett comedy Colored Villainy(1915), or A Nigger in the Woodpile (1904). The occasional “serious” works were little better: in Thomas Edison’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903), blackfaced whites knelt and cried for their massahs in front of the camera, while genuine black performers milled about in the distance. The most notorious exception was D. W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), which famously blamed the failures of Reconstruction on an unruly black populace.
A handful of proto-race movies predate Griffith’s film, though. A Fool and His Money (1912), directed by French expat Alice Guy-Blaché, featured an all-black cast and was marketed to black audiences. The Railroad Porter (1913), a comedy in the Keystone Kops vein, became the first film by a black director, William Foster. A writer for the Chicago Defender, Foster was early to recognize cinema’s power to influence, and dreamed of building his own studio to produce positive race-themed films. “Our brother white is born blind and unwilling to see the finer aspects and qualities of American Negro life,” he wrote in 1913. But it was the indignity of The Birth of a Nation that triggered the first film companies owned and operated by African Americans.
The year 1916 saw the launch of the Frederick Douglass Film Company, whose first production, The Colored American Winning His Suit, was advertised as an attempt to “offset the evil effects of certain photoplays that have libeled the Negro and criticized his friends.” Before folding, the company completed two more films about noble black men, The Scapegoat (1917) andHeroic Negro Soldiers of the World War (1919). In 1918, the Photoplay Corporation mounted The Birth of a Race, an ambitious rebuttal to Griffith conceived by Booker T. Washington and his secretary, Emmett J. Scott. In the fragments that survive, the film frames the history of mankind as an ongoing struggle of man against man, from Adam through Noah, Moses, Christ, Lincoln, and the First World War. In every era, God’s message of brotherly love and equality is thwarted. “Among the vast throng that listened were men of all races,” reads one title card. “But Christ made no distinction between them—His teachings were for all.” This expensive production was a major flop, but it was daring in its unabashedly pro-integration message.