What Is A ‘Black’ Film? Maya Cade’s Black Film Archive Has An Answer
Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage

What Is A ‘Black’ Film? Maya Cade’s Black Film Archive Has An Answer

Award-winning film archivist Maya Cade speaks on why she archives Black films

Culture & Entertainment

The Black American film canon is an often untapped resource that many people, even the most ardent of film fans aren’t familiar with. That’s why film programmer and writer Maya Cade launched The Black Film Archive last year.

The Black Film Archive is a personal passion project of Cade’s dedicated to cataloging decades of Black American film histories from as early as the 1910s with the mission to share it with the masses. What began as a Black History Month Twitter thread she wrote for the Criterion Collection turned into a full on archival project.

Sparked by her general love for film and her reaction to the Summer 2020 uprisings against police brutality when people were turning to film to help process their feelings of rage and helplessness, Cade’s archive shows the vastness of Black life documented on screen. Her work has been eagerly embraced and celebrated by the film community, garnering her awards from prestigious institutions: the National Society of Film Critics Film Heritage Award and the New York Film Critics Circle Special Award. xoNecole caught up with Cade about the year she’s had since launching the site and what Black films mean to her.

xoNecole: When you decided to make the archive, did it feel intimidating or were you excited to do it?

Maya Cade: Intimidating – that's an interesting word. I'm a very self-assured person when I have set my sights on something. My only question is: How can I have the support I need to get this done? But as someone who knew that I didn't want to bring this to an institution, I knew I wanted to do this on my own, support really meant talking my friends’ ears off about it. It meant like allowing other film friends to fact-check the site and copy-edit the site for me. You know, those kinds of things that I just knew that I had that support. I knew that I could set out and people could look at it before it launched and be like: “Okay girl, great! Go on and go forth.”

I really am self-assured. I am a person who calculates every possible wrong thing. But I knew that my reasons for doing it, which really are to bring and collate Black film knowledge in one place outweighed any risk that could possibly have been. And my investment of time and energy was just so well worth it from the joy that it has brought people and the joy it's brought myself. I knew when I launched the site that how people reacted to it was outta my hands. I knew that I had done the best thing I possibly could have and that's all I set out to do.

xoNecole: Were you surprised by the reaction it got?

MC: My God, deeply. If I had launched it at 11-ish, by 1:00 PM, I had received 50 emails that were people saying: “Hey can I interview you for this? Are you interested in this thing and that thing?” And I'm just like, wow. And as a person who studies the internet – just as a user and my life before I started working in Black Film Archive full time, I was a social media strategist. So from what I know, there are very few internet-based projects for people who aren't necessarily famous in the way that we think of it. There are very few people who have launched something and it changed the direction of their life. Like, I can name very few of those who didn't have institutional support. So the surprise really comes from me that I was able to garner trust in a community, which is very hard. It's nothing you can buy. But to have people's trust and for them to feel like I'm – or the site is guiding them to where they wanna go with their full knowledge. That's the ultimate surprise, right? Trust is the hardest thing to garner, and for Black people to trust me? I mean, that's the gift.

xoNecole: There's a debate amongst cinephiles and film historians about what is a Black film. Whether it's just a film created by a Black filmmaker, a film with a predominantly Black cast who might have a white filmmaker. What was your thinking when creating the archive?

MC: I think that's a very valid debate. Black film, Black aestheticism in film, there’s an amorphous kind of quality to it. For the archive, I define Black film as any film that has anything significant to say about the Black experience. And to me, that was a central starting point because these films are in conversation with each other.

It's one of the first times that many people will be engaging with a large swath of Black film history in this way. For instance, if I said only films directed by Black people – Nothing But a Man – this essential film from 1964 would be missing. So there's the way Hollywood maneuvers means that what people would even consider a Black film would be excluded [from the Archive]. I think those conversations are something that with this foundation that I've built are able to be had.

Thinking about Black aestheticism between a Black director and a white director, and how they imagine Blackness and how they haven't is on screen often, most obvious to Black people as spectators.

xoNecole: What is something that you've learned in the year since launching the Black Film Archive as a person and as a creator?

MC: This year has really taught me that you cannot take trust for granted. You cannot take community care for granted. And also I've really learned how precious it is to be changing the public dialogue around what Black film is. That's a very precious gift that I have in my hands. I do not want to do wrong by the films, the filmmakers, the actors, and the audience. I think the other thing that I've really come to focus on and I saw this really early on, but it really is quite special to be changing how Black films are seen. To change and transform collective memory around Black film.

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