Film Forum Asks, What Is the Experience of Black Women in Film

With over 60 movies and special events, this series tells the history of how they told their stories, both overtly and subversively.

Film Forum’s latest series, “Black Women: Trailblazing African American Performers & Images, 1920-2001,” opening Friday, is an event. Not just something to mark on your calendar, but an event to line up for. Among the women featured here are Josephine Baker, Evelyn Preer, Pam Grier, Diahann Carroll and Janet Jackson.

It’s rare to see a film series of this size devoted to black actresses, many of whom — like Theresa Harris and Francine Everett — were underappreciated in their lifetimes, relegated to uncredited roles as maids and servants. (Though, interestingly, the Museum of Modern Art is about to host an eclectic series of its own, “It’s All in Me: Black Heroines,” from Feb. 20-March 5.)

With over 60 films and special events, including tributes to Ella Fitzgerald and the archivist Pearl Bowser, the Film Forum series has many themes. Maybe too many. But what is clear is that each work helps tell the history of black women in film and how they operated — both subversively and overtly — to tell their stories, even when scripts failed to flesh out their characters. To put the series in perspective, I spoke recently with the film historian Donald Bogle, author of books like “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films,” who programmed this wide-ranging series with Ina Archer, an experimental filmmaker and media preservationist.

While things are changing, black actresses and other actresses of color still struggle in a white, male-dominated industry (just look at this year’s Oscar nominees), fighting for some control over their roles. “We do have more women working now, more women in general, but these problems continue,” Bogle said in a recent phone interview. “Of all the stereotypes, the mammy figure is the one that America cherishes the most.”

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

This is quite an extensive series: four weeks of films, covering 81 years.

Originally it was to be cut off at 2000. Then I said, “Well, no, Halle Berry’s Oscar comes from the 2001 film ‘Monster’s Ball.’” So it covers a lot of history.

Where did you begin? What did you just know you had to include?

Dorothy Dandridge in “Carmen Jones,” from 1954. Dandridge was the first African-American, male or female, to be Oscar-nominated in the leading role category. I felt that was significant. And her performance in it, she’s this very dynamic, assertive, independent woman who of course is punished for her independence and her assertiveness.

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