Birthed from a Twitter thread, which was itself birthed from the much-ness of being Black during a pandemic and another round of Black Rights protests, writer Maya Cade’s Black Film Archive is now live.
Specifically tailored for the cinematically curious in the digital era, the archive catalogues Black films from 1915 to 1979 that are currently available on streaming services and online platforms. The films are categorized by decade, with easily accessible links to where they are streaming. Cade, who is an audience development strategist at the Criterion Collection, meticulously scours through streaming services on a regular basis, updating the archive weekly.
However, what’s so revolutionary about the project isn’t its collection, or even the daunting job of scouring through myriad streaming platforms, watching all of these films, and curating them in one place on a regular basis. The thing that truly sets her effort apart from other “best of” and “deep cuts” lists you’ve previously encountered is Cade’s goal to provide context to a history of Black cinema that is often forgotten. Knowing this, Cade has personally watched every film that she’s included on the site.
Slate caught up with Maya Cade to ask her about the process of creating the Black Film Archive, brutality in Black cinema, and the meaning of accessibility.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nadira Goffe: What inspired you to create the Black Film Archive?
Maya Cade: Honestly, during the pandemic, I kind of just asked myself a question I’m sure many of us were asking ourselves: What sustains me? If I’m sitting home alone in my own thoughts, what do I have? And so I started a really long time ago watching a film a day, mostly new films to me.
I started the Twitter thread of just listing the films. And then, midway through the thread, I’m like, this is bigger than just a listing … an issue a lot of people have with films of the past is, “Okay, cute. This one’s available. But, what does that mean for me?”
What’s so cool about this project is that it emphasizes Black film history, providing context to Black films that’s largely unknown or forgotten. What made you want to make Black film history accessible in this way—and what does accessibility mean to you?
I think making Black film history accessible is an act of transforming collective memory, because like you said, a lot of what is considered Black film’s past [are from] the ’80s and ’90s, and we are somewhat more familiar with those films—mostly the ones that played on BET, that are kind of just around. So for me, I think to intentionally preserve, intentionally collect, it means to remember—and to remember is to reimagine what Black cinema in America can hold.
Is that collective memory why you decided to only include films from before 1979?
After the commercial failure of The Wiz, major Hollywood studios used it as a reason to not invest in Black cinema anymore. I’m pretty sure it was the most expensive film up to that date. And so for it to fail … you have Motown who is investing in this, they get their top players to be a part of this film. You’ve got the who’s who of Black Hollywood at the time coming together.
So major studios are saying, you know, we did everything we could—we also got a major Hollywood studio director to direct this film, so they’re thinking from every avenue. We got Lena Horne, we got Diana Ross, we got Michael Jackson in this film—we have all of these people coming together and at this time they’re not seeing it, why should we invest in Black cinema? So the ’80s ushers in a very independent Black film that almost feels like a separate kind of moment than the rest.
How did you define a Black film for the purposes of this project?
I think that the films here are in conversation with each other, but not every director has the intention to speak to a Black audience. What does that mean next to films that are abundantly clear that this was made for Black people, whether or not we agree with the message of the film? I think the context of today evolves of course, but there’s something to be said about films that do speak to Black people.
In this first iteration, it was really important for me to say: This is available. I want to give you the context that you need to decide to watch this film, and you can make the choice if you want to. … I am not the person who is dictating what a Black film is. I’m giving you the tools for you to decide if this is something you want to engage with.
I just thought that the service would be better suited to put the decision in the hands of people and not me at this moment. I think part of the reason why it’s an evolving archive is because Black film is expansive and the conversations that we have to have about Black cinema are also expansive.
When creating archives, there’s always the question of: How much of this can I make that celebrates the multiplicity of Blackness but is removed from the white gaze? I love centering Black ownership of creative projects, but I hesitate to eliminate that white gaze, because doing that can negate an entire history of exclusion and oppression, both generally and in the film industry specifically. Acknowledging that history, to me, makes the efforts of Black filmmakers more triumphant. It enhances the revolutionary act of making a film as a Black person.
Exactly. I hope people see this as, “let me comb through my Auntie’s DVD cabinet and find something to discover.” I hope [at] the bare minimum that’s what this is, because I think there’s a lot to be said about how film is segmented. It’s something I think about all the time. If you think of how Black cinema exists online, it’s as a pie. As more [streaming services] come up, the pie keeps getting cut in smaller and smaller pieces. And so it’s harder and harder to know where to find things. Which is exciting—it’s a task I brought on myself, which I’m elated to do, because I think acts of service for your community are essential.
In a moment like now where you have films like Candyman, Get Out, Antebellum, and Sorry to Bother You—which include brutality and trauma against Black bodies as a core part of the film—what do you think the archive offers for people to counter that notion that Black films are generally based in brutality and trauma?
I think the first thing that the archive negates is that all Black films are traumatic. … Just a quick scroll through and that is removed. The second thing it negates is the fact that we’re seeing Black film as a binary in general. It’s not either “this” or “that.” There are multiple “and”s—I think the archive offers those “and”s. A part of this conversation that’s missing is that a lot of the Black film trauma conversations are based on the idea that conflict has not happened in other films.
There’s a complexity here, because horror has been a canon that Black auteurs have used to work through the traumas of the Black experience. And yes, that is what we’re seeing now. But there were also comedies that came out last year, romantic dramas that came out last year— there was just so much. What is written about: I think that is the criticism.
And what’s recognized and nominated for awards …
Black people, I think we should do our own digging. How we want to be represented in a film doesn’t begin and end at a news article. There’s a lot of complexity about what white decision-makers in cinema want the representative of the race on screen to be. But … there’s so much more than that in our conversations about Black representation. There’s just so much more than what has been written about. And I challenge us all to kind of discover those gems.
What did building this archive make clear to you about the way Black films interact with each other?
I think it made clear to me that only certain Black films are even in the space of interacting with each other. When people program for certain streamers, they’re only thinking of certain films. … But then there’s a wealth of film that we haven’t even begun to touch, to think about, to consider. So, for me, how these films are in conversation with each other … it’s with the known things to some people and the unknown—how what we know about some films that maybe you’ve seen once or twice can be paired with films we’ve never seen or we’ve heard of, but never had the opportunity to see. So that conversation I think is important.
What I’m hoping is coming up is making that conversation clear, having pages that really do double features and talk through what that means. Perhaps to have a film like Shaft with a Blaxploitation by a white director, what are the differences there? What are some similarities?
[To have people question,] “These are available. I know these now, what am I going to do with that knowledge?” I think for white people that are visiting the site, who are in a position to champion films, “how in my capacity am I going to champion films to be preserved, celebrated and seen?”
I also have a new favorite film from looking at this. So that’s exciting.
What’s your new favorite film?
It’s a new favorite, not the favorite. Killing Time.
It’s a short. It’s a dark comedy. Essentially, this woman is trying to decide what to wear as she prepares to kill herself. And she goes through a lot of “what does it mean to be a person and ponder life?” [It’s] incredible. It rarely plays, but it happens to be streaming right now. I would not have known about this film if it wasn’t for this project.
What do you see as the future of the film archive?
So, I think the future of the site is that it is a place where people can come to evolve their Black film knowledge and really feel like they belong, whether that’s in the films themselves or in the platform itself, it doesn’t matter to me. For people to have a relationship with cinema, it’s really important. Especially as we’re having these conversations about trauma and, “there’s only this in Black cinema; there’s only that in Black cinema.” To know that there is so much, and [for the archive] to be a place that answers: What is Black cinema history?