15 Path-Breaking Black Performers of Old Hollywood — and Early American Indie Film

I heard the names of the trailblazers of Black film – Oscar and Lena and Paul and Hattie— long before I ever saw their work. I learned early on that despite the fact that Hollywood hadn’t been welcoming, Black people have been a part of American film since the dawn of the medium. What these pioneers accomplished and what they went through is endlessly fascinating. Their history is a privilege and a thrill to discover. But if we’re only reading the stories and looking at photos about Black filmmakers behind the scenes, the experience is incomplete. The art they made should be as well known as the change they brought.

Happily, more of these early works are now widely accessible. Hence the birth of IndieWire’s Black Pioneers Must-Watch List. This gallery captures some of the most memorable performances of pathbreaking actors and filmmakers from 1920 to 1950. 

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Theresa Harris in a publicity still for 1940’s “Love Thy Neighbor” - Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection
Theresa Harris in a publicity still for 1940’s “Love Thy Neighbor” - Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection

Courtesy Everett Collection

The Selection

In college one of the first directors I really admired was Spike Lee. The artists on this list are the ones folks like Spike idolized. It builds on the collective wisdom and generous recommendations of film historians and researchers and curators including Donald Bogle, Michele Prettyman, Rhea L. Combs, and Doris Berger, and the descendants of Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers: Horne granddaughter Jenny Lumet, Fayard Nicholas’s son Tony Nicholas, and Tony’s daughters Cathie and Nicole Nicholas. Other sources include the documentaries “Midnight Ramble” and “Oscar Micheaux — The Superhero Of Black Filmmaking,” Charlene Regester’s book “African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility” and myriad books by Don Bogle including “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams,” Hollywood Black” and “Lena Horne: Goddess Reclaimed”.

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