AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And for my next guest, I needed to know one thing before we got started. So am I talking to a film nerd, buff, scholar? How do you relate to films?
MAYA CADE: (Laughter) I think I am all of the above in any given day (laughter).
CORNISH: That's Maya Cade. And I had to ask because during the last year, she's pulled together a collection of films made between 1915 and 1979. It's called the Black Film Archive. Now, her day job is with Criterion Collection, which curates what they deem to be important films. And last summer, like many Americans, Cade was at home, trying to make sense of the world around her, and she began looking for something uplifting.
CADE: This all started for me in the early pandemic - remember the times (laughter) - we're in the middle of the Black Lives Matter protest, and I'm asking myself a question, like many of us were, about what sustains me. And with that as my guiding light, it became an easier task to find those films and seek them out. So I had a manual spreadsheet, where I wrote down as many Black films that I knew between the periods of 1915 and 1979. And just - we're off to the races.
CORNISH: How did you find the films? So were - do you know what I mean (laughter)? Like, were you basically, like, physically in a library? Were you emailing guys at work and being like, hey, do you mind if I go in the basement? Like, I don't - how did it work?
CADE: I first listed in the spreadsheet every film - Black film - I could think of from the decade, and then also read probably 10 to 12 books (laughter) that focuses on this time period that really give me that information. Some books are from the Criterion personal library at work, yes. Some are my personal library at home. And really just diving into information that's available and also making sure it's accessible for everyone.
CORNISH: So going beyond the classics, let's talk about some of your finds - right? - especially since you described this as a project by someone who's thinking about what sustains you, which is a really beautiful question. What was the first film you came across that you really felt like, I haven't heard of this? Tell us a little bit about it.
CADE: Oh, my gosh. There's this film called "Killing Time" by Fronza Woods. And it's a dark comedy short. The protagonist is trying to find an outfit to commit suicide in. And she just uses that moment where she cannot find that perfect outfit to ponder the complexities of life and, you know, what does it mean to have the will to live? And I - there is comedy here, but it is dark. But it was the one film that really, really surprised me, and it's from 1979.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KILLING TIME")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Last read book - first thing is a way of life.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Oh, that looks really nice.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Dear God, I'm really sorry. It's not your fault. But I feel like my life is a joke without a punchline. I just can't keep up.
CORNISH: Did you come across any films that, in a way, felt like they needed a new genre or category, you know, that were kind of so creative and - or unusual in how they approached story?
CADE: There's "Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A." from 1946.
CORNISH: 1946, OK.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DIRTY GERTIE FROM HARLEM U.S.A")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) It is a privilege and a pleasure to introduce to you at this time the greatest star that has ever hit this island that (unintelligible) directly from Harlem, Miss Gertie La Rue.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, cheering).
FRANCINE EVERETT: (As Gertie La Rue) Howdy, folks, howdy. I think you're all swell.
CADE: The director is Spencer Williams, who a few people may know. But if this film was made just a few years later, I'm certain it'd be a beloved classic. It just has all the makings of a film that people just sort of really gravitate towards. It follows the titular singer-dancer as she leaves Harlem for warmer climates after being caught cheating on her boyfriend. And even that just little tidbit (laughter) is enough to kind of pull you in.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DIRTY GERTIE FROM HARLEM U.S.A")
EVERETT: (As Gertie La Rue) Hey. There isn't any chance of anyone climbing that tree from the ground floor is there?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) What do you care?
EVERETT: (As Gertie La Rue) I wish some good-looking man would climb up here and get me.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) (Laughter) Don't worry about that, girl. People don't bother you much on this side.
CORNISH: Can you talk to us about a film that, you know, you wanted to reach out to your relatives or your grandparents or your parents and say, why didn't you tell me about this?
CADE: Yes. There's a 1975 documentary that's a nearly three-hour look at the inner workings of the U.S. welfare system called "Welfare."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WELFARE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Make an appointment with legal maintenance people.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) For tomorrow.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Yeah. Do what's right.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) What do I do for tonight? What do I do for rent money? What do I do for food money? I haven't eaten in three days now - except what I steal. Except what I steal - I can't steal a chicken. I can't steal a steak. It doesn't fit in my pocket.
CADE: And it spotlights how these bureaucratic machines, if you will, can dehumanize those that they're designed to help. This exists. These are conversations we're having now, conversations I had in my household, but maybe necessarily didn't have the language to express. And there's just this brilliant quote that the documentary says that there is no middle class anymore. There's just rich and poor, and I'm one of the poor.
CORNISH: I think that today people have a certain idea about films featuring Black and Brown people. How did seeing this vast archive help you think differently, you know, about those kinds of categorizations?
CADE: A conversation I keep hearing id a lot of films are Black trauma films, like that kind of catch-all phrase. And I think when...
CORNISH: Trauma meaning the kind of slavery epic or...
CORNISH: ...Things where Black people are suffering physical as well as emotional violence.
CADE: Exactly. And I think this archive really says, when we have a deeper engagement with Black cinema history, it reveals that slave films, or films that people automatically designate as trauma films, only are a small percentage of Black films that have been made. Seeing this archive and working on this and still, you know, discovering films, I just know that there are just so many radical ideas and expression of Blackness in Black cinema's past that can really help shape Black cinema's future.
CORNISH: In the end, who do you think that this is for, so to speak? Right? Now that it's gone beyond your sort of pet project, and it's really been, I think, highlighted quite quickly. It's - information about it has spread quickly. Who is it for, to your mind?
CADE: I think I do everything with Black people in mind, but I also understand everyone can learn from this. You know, whether you're a Black person who has only seen a small amount of Black films because you've disregarded them or you're a non-Black person looking for a place to start in classic Black cinema, I think there's something on Black Film Archive for you.
CORNISH: It's fascinating how much falls outside of the spotlight. I think that's what I learned from your archive the most.
CADE: Yeah, definitely. My truth intention is that that is no longer the case, that these films can get the beacon, the spotlight that they deserve.
CORNISH: Well, Maya Cade, thank you so much for speaking with us, and best of luck with the archive.
CADE: Thank you so much. Thank you for your time.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.