Maya Cade’s Black Film Archive is just the beginning
The archivist discusses the overwhelming response to her new project and why she believes in the future of Black film
What does it mean to make Black film history accessible? This is the question that sent screenwriter and cinema lover Maya Cade on a yearlong quest to create the Black Film Archive, an online resource that provides history and context to over 200 currently streaming Black films made from 1915 to 1979. Launched on Aug. 26, the archive includes blaxploitation classics, silent-era dramas and flashy Hollywood musicals, each presented with descriptions by Cade.
The archive is an answer, but for Cade, who also works in audience development at Criterion, a home video distribution company, it’s an answer that should be constantly evolving. Because upon exploring the archive and its accompanying newsletter, another question emerges: What is Black film? When the discourse on representations of Black life on screen often revolves around the complications of depicting Black trauma, the archive aims to offer a more expansive, holistic vision. The hope is that those who use the archive can come to their own conclusions.
Cade spoke with The Undefeated about what she’s learned in the weeks since the archive was launched, what’s next for the archive and why she believes community care — not just money — will sustain this project.
There has been such an outpouring of love and excitement about what you’re doing. Can you talk a little bit about how you’re feeling at this moment?
I’m feeling multiple things, right? My measure of success has always been: I know who I am, what I have to offer. Public perception, that’s out of my concern. It’s outside of my purview. Because I felt I did the best I could, that was enough for me. When I pressed send on that tweet [announcing the launch], it was kind of just like, ‘OK, Maya. You did your best.’ I did this with Black people in mind. I did this with a community in mind, and it reached that community. And not many people can say that. The amount of thank you notes and emails and DMs and texts and all of that that’s come has just been incredible. Beyond the interviews, beyond whatever else comes next, I think that I reached the people I meant to and I’m extremely grateful for that.
Walk me through what it took to get here.
In the pandemic, I knew for certain that Black films sustained me. I was watching a new film a day. Because I’m alone [laughs], I had nothing else. I had to think to myself, ‘OK, Maya, what’s gonna keep you going?’ And this is what keeps me going. So it started with that idea of like, OK, I have all this Black film knowledge. My grandma [is] always like, ‘You don’t know something until you can teach it to another person.’ So I was thinking, ‘OK, I have this knowledge I’ve accumulated. What is the best way at this moment, right now?’ Not when I have that dream budget or that dream occasion, what is it right now that I can do to share this with other people? So I was like, ‘OK, a thread. A cute thread.’ I was like, ‘Y’all, I’m going to try to list where as many [Black] films as possible are streaming.’ And it was cute. It was a moment.
And how did the thread ultimately become the Black Film Archive?
I think what people kept giving me was like, ‘OK, this is cool. But what are these films?’ And I thought, ‘You’re right. What are these? What does this mean for you?’ Anyone can tell you where things are streaming, that’s available. So my thinking as I kept doing this thread was, ‘Maya, this is more than just this singular thread. And Twitter can be taken away at any moment.’ This is more expansive and people have a deeper need than, you know, just a referral site.
There is a void of resources to tell people about Black cinema. And I think the listing of films is the least I can do. That’s why it’s the first iteration. If this is an act of service, that’s the bare minimum. I think this is the foundation of a Black-directed film that I’m building upon that juxtaposes a white vision of Blackness.
I think that is the power of the archive: It allows you to consider different perceptions of Blackness, how they brush up against each other and what they mean. Can you talk a little bit about that conversation and what you think people who visit the resource can gain from that?
[I built] the list during the summer protests. The ideas of identity and representation were coming to a head, and I’m noticing a disconnect between modern Black cinema and how I feel about it. It doesn’t represent me. I think my intentionality here, at this very state, is to give you what you need to know for you to make your own decisions about what Black cinema is.
Often people are like, ‘You shouldn’t feel this way. That’s anti-Black to feel this way.’ I trust people to think for themselves. The conversation that I’m really hoping for is that, as people watch these films, they can see the varied perspectives of [Blackness]. Because what I’m hoping to do in the next iterations is dig deeper on that.
The archive has this specific window of time — 1915 to 1979 — and the explanation you’ve given on the site for why it ends at 1979 is the commercial failure of The Wiz. How did that affect which Black movies got made in the subsequent decades?
I think the financial failure of The Wiz speaks to many things: To my understanding, The Wiz was used as a measure of white moviegoers’ appetite for Blackness on screen. When that ‘experiment’ failed, it had an immeasurable impact on what could’ve been. Would the early ’80s have ushered in an era of studio-led investment in Black cinema? The ’80s, as we know, was a boom for independent Black films like Do the Right Thing (1989) and Kathleen Collins’ underseen Losing Ground (1982) … I don’t know for certain if either of these would exist in a studio system. So really, the cultural impact of The Wiz was Black directors making a way out of no way … taking Black representation on screen into their own hands.
I think it’s really interesting that you turn an eye to this period because Black cinema is not synonymous with Black trauma. There is this long, rich history of movies that are about everything. And that’s why these archives and people like you who are presenting these resources are so important, because it holds the powers that be accountable for the narratives that they create.
Exactly. … When I enter conversations about representation, they often are like, ‘OK, but these are the only films the media is talking about.’ And I’m like, ‘OK?’ [laughter] ‘Cause I’m like, people — especially my friends who are critical of the media in so many other ways — they’ve resigned the ideas of Blackness to the media in this way to frame, to say, this is what all Black films are. Which is actually so confusing to me. Like, I’m not even trying to be funny. It’s actually very confusing to me. And I just really hope that with [Black Film Archive], instead of people thinking that Blackness exists on a binary, they see that it’s expansive. It’s mythical. There’s Westerns, there’s romantic dramas, romantic comedies. There’s so much here. I want us to not feel limited by the seemingly limited expression of today.
When I used to do more film criticism, being one of the few Black women in a very white and male industry, there was a sense that I had to have a level of expertise about white filmmakers. And yet my white peers had no knowledge or interest in the history of Black film. And so any knowledge that I had in that realm was dismissed and disrespected.
I think in the process of building this [archive] I’ve come to celebrate the fact that this is a separate cinema. Because when people write the history of cinema, they’re thinking about the 1930s, you know, they are often removing some films because they’re like, ‘Oh, no, we don’t need to do that.’ And the process of removing certain things is removing a whole cinema, right? You’re saying, ‘Do I need everyone to know about Heaven-Bound Travelers? Do I need everyone to know about The Emperor Jones?’ I think I’ve just come to celebrate, ‘There’s not one film history, there are multiples.’ And the secondary question I’m trying to answer is how can I be that light that shines on this history.
You mentioned that this is the first iteration of BFA. What are your hopes for expanding this archive?
Streaming is cool and to the film, it’s a tangible thing you can do now. But I also think context doesn’t begin and end at the description. There are book excerpts that you can read and to discuss. There’s other resources that exist. I’m also pretty soon going to list all the resources that I used to build the site.
What are your prophecies for what Black film is going to be in the coming years?
I think a lot of films are made because of people advocating for them. I think if we’re in a position to advocate for things that we want and know they are possible, inside and outside the system, to me, you know, the future of film seems bright in that lane. But I trust Black filmmakers. I believe in the vision that artists have for their work. Every film is a miracle. And it’s just possible because people loved it into being.