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Something Significant to Say About the Black Experience: Maya Cade on the Black Film Archive

Maya Cade is the compiler and curator of the new Black Film Archive, a treasure trove of films from 1915-1979, ranging from the notorious to the neglected. Most encouraging, all of the films she has collected are available for streaming, bringing audiences to a selection that includes and transcends every genre and extends from the era of Jim Crow through the Civil Rights movement and Blacksploitation. In an interview, Ms. Cade spoke about her hopes for the archive, which she will continue to monitor and expand, some of what she discovered, and her plans for the archive's newsletter.  

Before we get to The Black Film Archive, tell me a little bit about you up to this moment. When did you fall in love with movies and what brought you to this project? 

The first film I remember seeing is "Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory." The second film I remember seeing is "The Wiz," and both of these are guiding points for my life. The fantastical imagination of "Willy Wonka" and the celebration of Blackness in "The Wiz" are both things that I still hold really dear to me. But when did I really fall in love with film? I think that really happened while I was at Howard. I was the arts editor of Howard's paper, The Hilltop my sophomore year. I was writing about film and music and all these other things that I'm deeply interested in. My teachers noticed that I had this really intense love of film and that I was deepening my knowledge and would give me all kinds of resources to read. Also, just over time has really just gravitated towards Black film books.  The kind of conversations people are having more widely about trauma now, those conversations happen on HBCU campuses often. What does it mean to be Black? And what does it mean to be represented as a Black person? That question guides me as well. 

TCM was my entry point to classic films. I was looking through my old tweets recently, and I when I was a senior in high school, "Why isn't anyone watching classic films?" It's been clear to me that I've gravitated towards this for a while.

It's always so transformational to be in a place where you are the majority, the norm, you're just you, you do not have to assimilate or explain yourself.

Yes, I think that's it's something that was so special and it really solidified my ethos of only doing things with Black people in mind. That's something that's very, very true. For me, that's at the heart of all the things that I do, whether it's my personal work, or how I show up in other capacities. That is my main frame of mind.

I know it is just outside of your time period, but as that will be expanding and as it was filmed in your home state of Louisiana, I have to ask you about "Cane River," which we showed at Ebertfest in 2019.

Oh, my gosh, what a film. It is one of those films that challenge this idea that Black films are on a binary. It is a film that can talk about serious things, but also it holds you in how loving it is, and the depth of the film. It does challenge this idea that trauma is the ploy that people play with. But really, we can discuss our traumas, and also our love and have an impactful film. So, yes, I love "Cane River."

I'm sure it will be included when you get up to 1982. What are your criteria for this database?

It has something significant to say about the Black experience, and it can either speak to Black audiences, have a Black star, writer, producer, or director. And in the first iteration of Black Film Archives, that criterion for selection is broad. Because my intention, really is to that people aren't feeling left behind. So really, for the first iteration. I wanted every film that has something significant to say about Black life is included, from the 1915 to 1979. And that it is available streaming. I had to leave out "Killer of Sheep" because it is not currently streaming anywhere and that breaks my heart. It's one of those films that kind of pops up and goes away. Milestone has it and it was available for rent I would say, within the last six months, but for some reason it no longer is. 

You could not have picked a better image for the site's home page than that mesmerizing mini-clip of a gorgeous dancer. What is that from?

That's "Birthright" (1938) directed by Oscar Micheaux. 

These films tell us something about the era when they were made but distance can give us an appreciation beyond what viewers saw at the time.

Yes, for example "Sounder" is another film that challenges the conventions of what a Black film can be because it's a film that talks about some of the worst atrocities that can happen to a singular family, but also does understand the love that exists there, and also talks about the role that Black women often have to do of stepping up for whatever reason when the patriarchy leaves. I just hope that this gets its due again.

I think some people will be surprised by the wide range of genres in the archive, everything from romance to thriller, horror, western, musical, drama, and comedy and films that transcend and play with genre. And there are some remarkable, even revolutionary gender issues.

Yes, we will be launching genre categories on the site soon. And a search box. "Aaron Loves Angela" is a great romance. There are those 30s thrillers, a lot of these films still religious allegories, but still playing with form, I think it's quite fascinating. "Heaven-Bound Travelers" is a film made by a husband and wife, James Gist and Eloyce Gist. She wrote the scope for this 1935 film, and they were true companions in making the film. Even though it only exists in fragments, it's really such a special film. This man falsely accuses his wife of adultery and abandons her and the child. It's fascinating, what it says about womanhood. 

"Killing Time" is about a woman who decides to kill herself but cannot decide on the appropriate outfit to die in. It says a lot in seven minutes. And then there is "A Dream Is What You Wake Up From" (1978), co-directed by Carolyn Johnson. It delicately balances a mix of narrative and documentary techniques to showcase how gendered violence keeps Black women behind in their pursuit for the "American dream." When women are at the helm, there is such innovation and when we have the opportunity to say what we want and how we want to represent it, it really is fascinating. There really are a lot of great things that happen when women are at the helm of their own stories and their own reputations. 

Tell me about the site's newsletter.

The newsletter is going to be where I have the most in-depth conversations about Black film. So I really want the one I'm writing for this month to really talk about Black trauma. I think there's been this broad misunderstanding about my intention about what Black trauma means in movies. Another journalist gave the example of "Boyz n the Hood" as a traumatic film, but I was just like, "the people in that film are so loved, I wouldn't consider that." But I think that's the point, right? What my intentions were, the next newsletter and the newsletters to come is to really dig into conventions that people have and how we subvert them and how we push past them and really hone in on the idea that Black cinema's past really does lead the way to Black cinema's future. 

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at

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