Streaming platforms abound with homogeny. I used to scroll them seemingly endlessly, looking for icons with faces that looked like mine. The irony of erasure is that you can’t unsee your own invisibility. You’re relegated to “Black Voices” subheadings far down the page, only trotted out during the shortest month of the year. Then came the summer of 2020. Streaming sites have given us more prime real estate. As the saying goes, they Heard us, and now we See ourselves more.
Writer and digital strategist Maya Cade has taken things a step further. She long understood that Black films online lack not just visibility but also accessibility. “Everything I do is in service of Black people.” That’s one of the first things she shared with me about the Black Film Archive. An idea she’d been ruminating on for years, she was able to bring it to fruition this past August. It’s a database of classic Black films, with links to where they are available to stream. Currently it catalogues over 200 films, ranging from 1915 to 1979 and spanning multiple genres and countries of origin. But that description is too clinical; Cade wants the BFA to be a living platform that constantly evolves, though with its service of Black film and people always at the forefront. Cade and I spoke about the Archive over Zoom – a fitting venue in which to discuss an online resource.
Cade had previously mused about her ideas for a project like this on Twitter, but it wasn’t until the global uprisings for racial justice in 2020 that she was finally convinced the world could no longer wait. “People were having these really flat conversations about Blackness onscreen, and I knew about this abundance of Blackness across time that just wasn’t entering these conversations. The flat idea that representation can be liberation, right? It sounds like a contradiction with what I’m doing, but it’s really not. I think representation’s the least you can ask for.” Now Cade wears many crowns, as the BFA’s creator and sole historian, archivist, copywriter, editor, and more.
When the Archive launched, I combed through it with the glee of a kid looking through a friend’s binder of rare Pokémon cards. I lit up at every title I recognized, and audibly squealed at lesser-known gems. I quickly filled my browser with tabs of films that shot to the tops of my various watchlists. As a Black cinephile, I felt seen in ways I never had before. Being seen by the society you share with everyone else is nice, but to be seen by your own is, in a way, to see yourself for the first time.
The wider response to the Archive has been similarly raucous, and cinephiles have naturally championed more movies for consideration. Right now, Cade has a list of about 50 such films to add. Unfortunately, plenty of other good suggestions cannot be put in simply because they aren’t currently streaming anywhere. Others are available to rent, but that was not her focus for the launch, since she’d decided to emphasize accessibility (she still made sure to include some essentials that could only be rented).
When I asked about what movies she wishes she could share, I was stunned to learn what title is most often requested (“The girls are knocking my door down”) but can’t yet be added: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978). On the more positive side, she’s excited that the 1960 concert documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day is finally available to rent. Ultimately, Cade must focus on what she can work with. “I don’t think many of us can do something with specific people in mind and then reach those people. It’s nothing I take for granted, and it’s the reason I keep going.”
The film that first sparked Cade’s interest in classic Black Hollywood was 1954’s Carmen Jones, a large-scale all-Black musical. It’s currently the only film in the archive with a description featuring writing other than her own, citing James Baldwin’s legendary 1955 critique “Carmen Jones: The Dark is Light Enough” (from Notes of a Native Son). She explains that “what he writes about Carmen Jones is very true. He [said] it was one of the most sexually explicit films Hollywood turned out [at the time], it has Harry Belafonte, it has the who’s who of the day, [but] it has a white director [Otto Preminger]. When I was a child looking at it, I was thirsty for more of these films. I was very into TCM, so for this to be my first Black TCM film kind of flickered something in me. There has to be more like this.” The selections for the Archive speak to that hunger for more. “The films I have displayed here are in conversation with each other, and represent so many different facets of Black life across time.”
We shared Carmen Jones as a flashpoint of our childhoods, as well as 1978’s all-Black Wizard of Oz adaptation The Wiz, which is also part of the reason the database stops where it does. The Archive begins in 1915 because that year marks the accepted birth of the Hollywood feature, while 1978-79 was auspicious as an end of sorts. Cade calls The Wiz, another large-scale musical featuring the brightest Black stars of the day, “a celebration of Black abundance.” Though beloved by its intended audience, the film failed to connect with white audiences and didn’t recoup its budget. It remains a Black cultural touchstone, yet for a long time it was blamed for Hollywood’s divestment from Black cinema.
In truth, the responsibility lay with the greater industry, which already had little interest in celebrations of Black life and used The Wiz as a scapegoat. Cade explains: “When films only exist to commodify, The Wiz was never going to be what it was set up to be: a litmus test for white people, to see if they could have an in interest in Black cinema post-Blaxploitation.” Producers held the musical up as proof of the supposed limited appeal of Black films, and funding for such films was severely limited for decades after. 1979 is therefore a logical cap to the BFA’s purview. While there’s been a resurgence in recent years, it’s not too difficult to find where you can stream such titles.
The limited availability of classic Black films hasn’t gone unnoticed, and one shouldn’t have to go to film school to learn the reasons for that lack. The BFA serves as both entertainment and education. “What do I say to people who maybe don’t have an interest in earlier films?” says Cade. “I say that there’s something here for you. The first thing that we can do is give them more access to knowledge, right? When I’m operating off the same six older films [that most people know about], it’s harder to think about all the dark comedies, mysteries, romantic dramas and romantic comedies. I think the archive is cool because it presents it all in an accessible way. People often approach film history from a sense of shame, like, Oh I didn’t know about that, I didn’t have access to that. I want to remove that barrier. I want to make it so you don’t ever have to feel like you’re going without.”
Over the course of the year Cade spent compiling the films, she noticed a trend: The same 200 Black films were being shuffled between the major streaming platforms. She’s made it a goal to get 200 more added to that lineup. “I want people to know, and now I’m in a position to advocate. I know that this film exists. Where can I find it, who has it, whose license is it? Can you put this on streaming? Now that I’m in a position to advocate for more films, I will. But as long as I’m pitching to streamers, I am at the whim of the programmer, if they have one.”
Cade’s affection for her community is obvious. “The Black Film Archive exists because people poured into me, and I want to pour into Black people. That’s it. That’s the tweet. That’s the message,” she again affirms. “All the love and support I’ve gotten in my life makes this possible, and I just want to share that love and support in a way that makes sense for me, with people I know, people I don’t, people I hope to know. And for people to feel seen from one thing I imagined? That’s a reward. For people to challenge their ideas of Black film? That’s another reward. I really am proud, and I really am thankful most of all.” For what it’s worth, I’m proud of her too. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the Black Film Archive. I want to watch 1946’s Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.
Maya Cade will be introducing a screening of Pinky (1949) on 11/30 as part of Film Forum’s ongoing Nina Mae McKinney retrospective. If you have a suggestion for a title to add to the Black Film Archive, she welcomes your input.