African-American Firsts in Film and Theatre

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What are Some African-American Firsts in Film and Theater?

Collage of African-American Firsts in Film and Theater. Public Domain

 Who was the first African-American to produce a full-length feature film? Who was the first African-American to win an Academy Award? 

This slideshow features African-American firsts in the entertainment industry! 

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Lincoln Motion Picture Company: First African-American Film Company

Poster for "A Man's Duty" (1919) by Lincoln Motion Picture Company. Public Domain

In 1916, Noble and George Johnson established The Lincoln Motion Picture Company.  Founded in Omaha, Nebraska, the Johnson Brothers made Lincoln Motion Picture Company the first African-American film production company. The company's debut film was entitled "The Realization of the Negro's Ambition." 

By 1917, Lincoln Motion Picture Company had offices in California.  Although the company was only in operation for five years, the movies produced by Lincoln Motion Picture Company would work to portray African-Americans in a positive light by producing films that were family-oriented.

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Oscar Micheaux: First African-American Film Director

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Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux and a poster of the movie, Murder in Harlem. Public Domain

Oscar Micheaux became the first African-American to produce a full-length feature film when The Homesteader premiered at movie houses in 1919.

The following year, Micheaux released Within Our Gates, a response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. 

For the next 30 years, Micheaux produced and directed films that challenged Jim Crow Era society.

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Hattie McDaniel: First African-American to Win an Oscar

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Hattie McDaniel, first African-American to win an Oscar, 1940. Getty Images

 In 1940, actress and performer Hattie McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Mammy in the film, Gone with the Wind (1939). McDaniel made history that evening as she became the first African-American to win an Academy Award.

McDaniel work as a singer, songwriter, comedian, and actress was well-known as she was the first African-American woman to sing on the radio in the United States and she appeared in more than 300 films.

McDaniel was born on June 10, 1895, in Kansas to former slaves. She died on October 26, 1952, in California.

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James Baskett: First African-American to Win an Honorary Academy Award

James Baskett, first African-American to receive an honorary Oscar, 1948. Public Domain

 Actor James Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award in 1948 for his depiction of Uncle Remus in the Disney film, Song of the South (1946). Baskett is best known for this role, singing the song,  "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”

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Juanita Hall: First African-American to Win a Tony Award

Juanita Hall in South Pacific first African-American to win a Tony Award. Carl Van Vechten/Public Domain

In 1950, actress Juanita Hall won a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing Bloody Mary in the stage version of South Pacific. This success made Hall the first African-American to win a Tony Award.

Juanita Hall’s work as a musical theatre and film actress is well regarded. She is best known for her portrayal of Bloody Mary and Auntie Liang in the stage and screen versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals South Pacific and Flower Drum Song.

Hall was born on November 6, 1901, in New Jersey. She did on February 28, 1968, in New York.

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Sidney Poitier: First African-American to Win an Academy Award for Best Actor

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Sidney Poitier, holding Oscar and looking in mirror backstage at the Academy Awards, 1964. Getty Images

 In 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. Poitier’s role in Lilies of the Field won him the award.

Poitier launched his acting career as a member of the . In addition to appearing in more than 50 films, Poitier has directed films, published books and has served as a diplomat.

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Gordon Parks: First Major African-American Film Director

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Gordon Parks, 1975. Getty Images/Hulton Archives

Gordon Parks work as a photographer made him famous, but he is also the first African-American film director to direct a full-length feature film. 

 Parks began working as a film consultant for several Hollywood productions in the 1950s. He was also commissioned by  National Educational Television to direct a series of documentaries focused on African-American life in urban environments.

By 1969, Parks adapted his autobiography, The Learning Tree into a film. But he did not stop there. 

Throughout the 1970s, Parks directed blaxploitation films such as Shaft, Shaft’s Big Score, The Super Cops and Leadbelly.

Parks also directed Solomon Northup's Odyssey in 1984, based on the narrative Twelve Years a Slave

Parks was born on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kan. He died in 2006. 

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Julie Dash: First Woman to Direct and Produce a Full Length Film

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Post of "Daughters of the Dust," 1991. John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images

In 1992 Daughters of the Dust was released and Julie Dash became the first African-American to direct and produce a full-length film.

In 2004, Daughters of the Dust was included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

In 1976, Dash made her directorial debut with the film Working Models of Success. The following year, she directed and produced the award-winning Four Women, based on the song by Nina Simone.

Throughout her career, Dash has directed music videos and made for television movies including The Rosa Parks Story.  

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Halle Berry: First to Win an Academy Award for Best Actress

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Halle Berry, first African-American to win Best Leading Actress, 2002. Getty Images

In 2001, Halle Berry won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Monster’s Ball. Berry became the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award as a leading actress.

Berry began her career in entertainment as a beauty pageant contest and model before becoming an actress.

In addition to her Oscar, Berry was awarded an Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Dorothy Dandridge in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999).

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Cheryl Boone Isaacs: President of AMPAS

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, first African-American to be appointed to First President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Jessie Grant/Getty Images

 
Cheryl Boone Isaacs is a film marketing executive who was recently appointed as the 35th President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Isaacs is the first African-American and the third woman to hold this position.