When Movies Were Black and White- Jim Crow

Jim Crow sign entrance Movie poster To Have and Have Not

For many, movie going meant being turned away from the box office of a white theater, climbing outside stairs to the balcony section “reserved for colored” moviegoers, being allowed to enter a white theater only late on Friday nights after the last showing for white audiences or going to a Black Theater.  (T) Movie poster for 1944’s  “To Have and Have Not”  (B) Jim Crow Race Sign of the times 1932


What was black and white and divided by color?

Some with a long memory might answer the movies. Today some might just answer Hollywood.

Accusations that the movie business is a “white industry” had been  pretty much confirmed by the dearth of color in Oscar nominations until this season. This years class of Oscar nominees is among the most diverse with both Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman up for Best Picture and Spike Lee for Best Director.

Is Hollywood finally shifting in the right direction for racial diversity? That remains to be seen.

As white as the film industry remains today, it is still a far cry from the not-so-distant past when Hollywood had no place for African American’s in film except as shuffling buffoons and obedient servants .

Even as moving pictures evolved from black and white to color, the movie industry was slow to follow suit.


Celluloid Color Lines

Movies Big Sleep Race Colored In Balcony

(Top) Movie Poster “Big Sleep ” a 1946 film noir directed by Howard Hawkes starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. (Bottom) Jim Crow racist sign from Grand Theater in Birmingham Alabama

Heck, to even see a Hollywood movie, most African-Americans in the first half of the twentieth century couldn’t even see a first run film except from a balcony or at an after hour “midnight rambles” when films were shown to African-Americans after midnight in white movie theaters where under Jim crow laws they would never have been admitted at any other times.

Dreaming in the Darkness: a Dark Part of our History

Americans flocked to the movies in record numbers during the first part of the 20th century. Going to the movies was an escape…for some.

Jim Crow in his many draconian roles as segregation enforcer, also wore the hat of a movie critic who determined the experience of and access to movies. It was a time in America of the big sleep.

Jim Crow determined the experience of and access to movies. It was a time in America of the big sleep.

If there was no place for Blacks at the movies, they created their own.

Black Theaters

Black Movies Temptation Harlem on the Prairie

Oscar Micheaux was known as the King of Black Film Makers. His 1936 movie “Temptation” touted Ethel Moses the star of the film as the “Negro Harlow.” (R) When Herb Jeffries donned a ten gallon hat in 1937’s “Harlem on the Prairie” the singing cowboy became a real movie star appearing in 4 movies. Image Source: “A Separate Cinema” by John Kisch

Once upon a time, there were hundreds of “colored” movie theaters across the country, offering safe havens of comfort and entertainment to African-Americans.

It was a chance to watch a movie without being reminded of Jim Crow realities

Unlike white movie theaters, entrances and seating were not restricted by race. And unlike a white theater where the only blacks were the porters and maids, here the manager, tickets takers, ushers, and concessionaires were all black.

Yes, Negro Theaters were less grand and operated in specifically defined and constrained neighborhoods . They were generally not air conditioned at a time when air cooled movies would lure customers in with their big sign  announcing in shimmering blue  icicle lettering “It’s Kool Inside.”

Black movie theaters were usually considered last run possibilities for major Hollywood studio movies. Bogie and Bacall usually took a year to make their way into black theaters and some prestige film never made it at all.

But there were the “race movies” and there was no shortage of them.

A Great Colored Cast

Movies Chicago After Dark gang Smashers PicMonkey Collage

(R) Chicago After Dark 1946 (L) “Gang Smashers” was a 1938 Million Dollar Pictures starring Nina Mae McKinney as a tough talkin’ dame who runs Harlem’s underworld rackets. Image Sources: A Separate Cinema by John Kisch

If there was no place for Blacks in the movies they made a place for themselves and created  their own.

Black audience movies also called “race movies” with all black casts were made in the first half of the 20th century and distributed to all black cinemas.

It gave new meaning to the term Film Noir.

These movies produced away from the big Hollywood movie studios flourished, offering genres ranging from melodrama, musical, and comedies.

Black Movies Ebony on Parade Life Goes On

(L) “Ebony on Parade” 1947. An all-star compilation of Black stars- Cab Calloway, Count Basie, The Mills Brothers and a young Dorothy Dandridge. (R) ” Life Goes On ( His Harlem Wife )” 1938 courtroom drama starring Louise Beaver. The talented actress was probably best known to white audiences as TV’s Beulah, the star of the 1950s sitcom where she was known as “queen of the kitchen” playing a more stereotypical mammy character. Image Sources: “A Separate Cinema” by John Kisch

Unlike mainstream Hollywood movies that invariably offered demeaning stereotypes of African-Americans these low-budget black films produced by black writers, producers and directors between 1916 and 1950, gave African-Americans a chance to play leading roles, while showed positive portrayals of Blacks .

In the safety of these  Black Theaters Africa Americans could do their own dreaming in the dark without the dark history that often accompanied them to the movies.


Copyright (©) 2019 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved






  1. Wow–that’s a fascinating bit of film history I never knew about. Wonder if they’d make a special marathon on TCM some weekend or something and show these films.


Leave a Reply to sallyedelstein Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: