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Digital humanities students shine a light on the history of African American filmmakers

By Jessica Wolf

While the #OscarsSoWhite controversy raged over the dearth of people of color nominated for Academy Awards this past year, a group of digital humanities students at UCLA channeled their frustration into meticulously building the little-known history of silent films made for and by African Americans in the early 20th century.

 

Photo from Within Our Gates (1919), the oldest known surviving film made by an African American director.

What they found, and sought to highlight, is that African American artists are deeply entwined in the history of filmmaking,  and can be traced back to the medium’s beginnings.

The result of their efforts is “Early African American Film: Reconstructing the History of Silent Race Films, 1909-1930,” an informational website and searchable database that tracks the African American actors, crew members, writers, producers and other artists who were making films during the silent era.

“We were venturing into pretty unknown territory and I really wanted to be a part of telling the stories of this generation of African American people and their contributions,” said Shayna Norman, who graduated last spring. “The fact that the #OscarsSoWhite controversy blew up at the same time we worked on it made this project feel even more relevant and important.”

Hands-on research

Students worked closely with UCLA Library Special Collections, combing through old journals, production notes, posters and fliers to reconstruct what was once a thriving and collaborative network of African American writers, directors, actors and producers who were making what were known as “race films.”

Relying partially on the work of historians who have unearthed documentation of these forgotten filmmakers, the UCLA student team set its parameters to include films from 1909 to 1930 that featured African American cast members, were produced by an independent production company and discussed or advertised as a race film in the African American press.

While the community was vibrant, it struggled to gain mainstream traction. In the silent-film era, productions that fit the “race films”description, like those produced by the Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes, A Trip to Tuskegee (1909), John Henry at Hampton (1913) and A Day at Tuskegee (1913), could be shown only in certain theaters, or often in African American churches, and were played to segregated audiences. Most of these films, therefore, received scant mainstream media attention. The actual film reels were not preserved in any systematic way or protected in hermetically sealed vaults, which has led to physical degradation.

Motion picture director Oscar Micheaux (center) with an actor and a possible crew member appearing in an advertisement for the Micheaux Film Corporation.

Finding forgotten films

Few films survive, though Miriam Posner, core faculty and program coordinator for the digital humanities at UCLA, was partially inspired to ignite the project thanks to the recent release of a compilation of films from Kino Lorber called Pioneers of African-American Cinema.

The scarcity drove the students.

Coming up empty on internet searches caught students particularly off guard, Norman said.

“We’re not used to that kind of obscurity, but so much of the data has been lost or damaged, is not in any history textbooks in our educational system, and is not easily searchable,” she said.

A centering figure in the students’ archival exploration was Oscar Micheaux, author, filmmaker and founder of the Micheaux Film Corporation, one of the most prominent producers of the era’s race films. He kept copious notes and records on the actors and crew members he worked with, providing much-needed fodder for the database. Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1919) is one of the few examples of a race film that garnered some attention — and an audience — from the white press.

Making data accessible worldwide

The project exists as a perusable database on the code-sharing site GitHub that others may use, build upon and correct. The site maintains a trail of attribution to the UCLA project.

“Not everyone knows how to work with data like ours, so we also spent a lot of time building tutorials that show people exactly how to create their own network graphs, maps and other kinds of analysis using our data,” Posner said.

Capstone activities like this are extremely important in the digital humanities field because students have the best, most meaningful experiences while apprenticing on an active project, she said.

“We love the way that students and faculty come to rely on each other, developing mutual respect for each other’s skills and abilities,” Posner said. “In a lot of cases, the capstone projects like this are specifically designed to live on after the q

Poster for Black Gold, Richard E. Norman’s lost final feature. Norman was a pioneer in the development of films for African American audiences.

uarter has ended. In all cases, we ensure that we preserve a ‘snapshot’ of the work from the time the quarter ended, and that all students are credited for their work.”

Working on a project like this has made lasting impact on the students.

“We get to work on a project that leaves an important footprint,” Girma said. “That’s the amazing part of the digital humanities.” A World Arts and Cultures major, Girma said she added a digital humanities minor in her fourth year after she heard from a friend that the coursework was “life-changing.”

Norman said that she hopes to pursue a career that allows her to continue working at the intersection of entertainment and digital technology.

“I’m a media junkie and by being involved in digital humanities projects like this one, I can see how such digital research methods and skills are relevant and needed in this growing age of mass consumer media.”

LEARN MORE:
Explore the students’ research,
“Early African American Film: Reconstructing the History of Silent Race Films, 1909-1930,”on their website at http://ucla.in/2fhm3BQ

 

 

 

Watch race film Within Our Gates at https://youtu.be/h1E0NrcnwAE

 

UCLA acquires major collection of Sephardic Jewish past

Symbolic key from the 1932 dedication of L.A.’s Temple Tifereth Israel (courtesy of STTI Archive)

The UCLA Sephardic Archive has acquired one of the most significant collections ever assembled chronicling Los Angeles Sephardic Jewish history. The materials tell of the migration of Sephardic Jews to California from the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa at the turn of the 20th century; the shaping of Sephardic culture in Los Angeles; and Sephardic Jews’ contributions to the Jewish and urban fabric of L.A.

Marking its first major acquisition, the archive partnered with UCLA Library-Special Collections to acquire the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel (STTI) archive, which includes a rich trove of photographs, papers, audio-visual materials and rare books dating to the mid-19th century. Many are written in the endangered language of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), the language of Mediterranean Jews descended from the medieval exiles from Iberia.

Launched in 2015, UCLA’s Sephardic Archive is the first of its kind in the U.S. and aims to be one of the world’s largest collections—as yet unseen—of Sephardi Jewish life. An early focus will be on the local Ladino-speaking community, whose immigrant pioneers came to L.A. from modern-day Turkey and the Balkans in the early 20th century. The archive will then be expanded to include L.A.’s North African, Persian and other Middle Eastern Jewish communities.

“UCLA is the ideal institution to safeguard and steward a collection of such enormous significance,” said Sarah Abrevaya Stein, director of the archive, professor of history and holder of the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies. “We are in L.A., which is home to one of the oldest and largest Sephardic communities in the country, and we have the world-class resources to pioneer a comprehensive and invaluable archive of Sephardic culture.”

Jerusalem rabbinate’s 1912 recognition of the L.A. Sephardic Jewish community (courtesy of STTI archive)

Most archives and libraries dedicated to preserving documents and objects of the Jewish past have focused on European Jewish histories. In contrast, UCLA’s archive will span the southern Mediterranean and Middle East. Made possible by a lead gift from the Sady Kahn Foundation with additional support from the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies Community Advisory Board and the Maurice Amado Foundation, the archive complements UCLA’s unparalleled academic expertise and course offerings related to the study of Sephardic Jewish history.

Chris Silver, UCLA doctoral student in Jewish history and the archive’s project manager, said that the recent acquisition of the STTI archive would launch UCLA’s efforts in the most meaningful way, given its connection to the local community (the Temple is located on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood). The STTI archive was created in 1981 and stewarded by Maurice I. “Bob” Hattem, a descendant one of the earliest founders of the Sephardi communidad in L.A. The diverse collection includes institutional records, research papers, newsletters, pamphlets, scrapbooks and newspaper clippings. The archive also possesses an impressive audio-visual collection of reel-to-reel, cassette and VHS tapes.

According to Stein, time is of the essence. “Materials held in these collections can be acutely vulnerable and at risk of being lost forever—often languishing in garages and other facilities ill-equipped for preservation,” she said. “It is imperative to collect, preserve and make them available for scholars and members of the community.”

The UCLA Sephardic Archive hopes to reverse the historic neglect of these primary source materials.

19th-century Ottoman birth certificate of a Sephardic Temple congregant (courtesy of STTI Archive)

Michael Hattem, son of Bob Hattem and member of STTI and the archive’s community advisory board, said, “The partnership between STTI and UCLA will keep the rich heritage of Sephardim alive for generations to come.”

After gathering and cataloguing the materials, Stein and her researchers plan to create a visually rich and historically informative interactive exhibit available online to users all over the world. The digital exhibit will be accompanied by a temporary physical exhibit at the Sephardic Temple featuring items drawn from the STTI archive and marking the community’s centenary anniversary. Finally, the archive will serve as a research resource for UCLA graduate students writing their dissertations on related topics and for community members interested in learning more about their past.

To learn more, please go to the archive’s webpage.

UCLA receives $1.65 million from Mellon Foundation to continue urban humanities program

By Margaret MacDonald

 

A $1.65 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will strengthen UCLA’s Urban Humanities Initiative. The program, initially launched by a $2 million award from the Mellon Foundation in 2013, is dedicated to studying contemporary issues in Los Angeles, Tokyo, Shanghai and Mexico City.

The new funding will help UCLA provide graduate and undergraduate students with vital scholarly skills, support curricula and new faculty research on historical as well as contemporary urban issues, and pay for scholars to travel to cities around the Pacific Rim.

Together, the two Mellon grants are the largest received by UCLA for curricula that span the School of Arts and Architecture, the Division of Humanities, and the Luskin School of Public Affairs. The grant continues UCLA’s participation in the Mellon Foundation’s Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities initiative, which since 2012 has provided funding to a total of 16 institutions in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and South Africa.

At UCLA, urban humanities scholars use innovative means to study cities, merging approaches from architecture and urbanism with historical-critical approaches from the humanities and, in particular, cutting-edge film and mapping techniques from digital humanities.

“The study of urban life in the Pacific Rim embraces global issues that are particularly situated and made visible through the overlapping lenses of design, history, ethnography, visual and literary studies, and spatial analysis,” said Dana Cuff, a UCLA professor of architecture and urban design.

Cuff is the project’s lead principal investigator, along with Todd Presner, a professor of digital humanities; Maite Zubiaurre, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese; and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a professor of urban planning.

In its first three years, the Urban Humanities Initiative engaged 75 graduate students from across campus in a certificate program, supported more than 30 faculty members, held symposia and produced numerous publications. The program will be extended to undergraduate students in the next three years. After the Mellon funding concludes, it will be administered jointly by the deans of the schools of arts and architecture and public affairs, and the humanities division in the UCLA College.

“We are immensely gratified that the Mellon Foundation is continuing to support our efforts, ensuring that this excellent program will continue to serve our students for many years to come,” said David Schaberg, dean of the humanities division.

Founded in 1969, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation endeavors to strengthen, promote, and, where necessary, defend the contributions of the humanities and the arts to human flourishing and to the well-being of diverse and democratic societies by supporting exemplary institutions of higher education and culture as they renew and provide access to an invaluable heritage of ambitious, path-breaking work.