How Maya Cade turned a Twitter thread into a sprawling archive for Black films
The Black Film Archive now hosts over 200 films, all with "something significant to say about the Black experience."
In 2020, a series of insurrections reverberated out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, following the murder of George Floyd. The uprisings enlivened many communities facing the harsh grips of a global pandemic. Even during times of cresting revolution, though, the focus can’t be all political. People need ways to sustain themselves. For writer Maya Cade, film was already a source of refuge. But what started as a small effort to share her passion in a June 2020 Twitter thread has since evolved into the Black Film Archive, a curation of Black films from 1915 through 1979.
Launched in August 2021, the Black Film Archive’s internal origins are simple, Cade tells Mic: “It began as an exploration of what brings me joy. And Black film has always been [that] for me.” In her original thread, Cade shared films made before 1959 that were publicly available through services like YouTube and Amazon. It included works like Native Son, a 1951 drama starring Richard Wright based on his international bestseller, and Anna Lucasta, a 1958 drama starring Eartha Kitt as the titular character kicked out of her family home.
As she put the thread together, Cade realized how limiting Twitter was as a host for this information. There’s not a whole lot you can include in a tweet beyond a title, a link for where to watch, and a still from the film. “I realized that there was just more to share,” Cade says. “[Twitter] didn’t speak to the knowledge that I had. Nor did it give people a path of exploration.”
“I also began thinking that perhaps Twitter isn’t something I own,” Cade continues. “Perhaps there is a world of something that I can build that’s wholly for the archive and presents where I want it to go, [which is to be] evolving.”
With that in mind, Cade set out to build the Black Film Archive as an “ever-expanding” register of Black film. For the project, she defines Black film as “anything that has something significant to say about the Black experience.” She says she tried to stay away from a more curatorial “this is what you need to know approach,” telling Mic, “I wanted this to be a place that people’s film knowledge could grow.”
Currently, the Black Film Archive acts as a directory and includes over 200 films, with each entry written by Cade herself. And because it’s a one-person team, Cade herself has seen every single film she includes. That’s not an easy task — it’s over hundreds of hours of footage. But, Cade says, “I wanted to be an informed person. If there’s a film that I hadn’t seen that I was going to put on the site, let me watch it.” As for why the archive stops in 1979, Cade explains that major Hollywood studios stopped investing in Black film following the commercial failure of The Wiz, the reimagining of Wizard of Oz that starred Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. That led to an era of Black independent filmmaking “that makes 1979 feel like a natural stopping point.”
The Black Film Archive’s creation also stems from ongoing conversations about Black film’s association with trauma. Although not the definitive starting point, Cade recalls the discussion around the 2013 release of 12 Years a Slave. “It’s this idea that, ‘Okay, we’ve been asking for modern Black films. And they come out with this?’
“While that discussion was happening, I was like, there’s so much we haven’t explored about slavery in cinema. It accounts for such a small percentage of Black media. But how the conversation has evolved ... it’s saying we’re only seeing viral trauma,” Cade says.
Discussions about Black trauma in film crossed genres, too. After Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out, producers started taking more chances on Black horror, like Amazon’s new series, Them. This led to the genre facing increased scrutiny as “many Black viewers lamented what they saw as an industry pattern of exploiting Black pain,” as Hannah Giorgis wrote in the Atlantic.
There are a lot of reasons why Black people feel this way. Giorgis noted that while some Black creators use horror and its associated genres — like science-fiction — “to examine the grotesquerie of the country’s racist systems and history,” the resulting films can “feel more like brutal reenactments of senselessness than purposeful works of art, unintentionally compounding some Black viewers’ traumas.”
In her introduction on the Black Film Archive’s website, Cade writes that the idea that Black films deal in trauma only is “based on generalizations ... rather than a deeper engagement with history.” She realized that if people were asking where the Black romantic comedies and love stories were, then there had been a breakdown in the information chain.
“I always saw that there was such an abundance of things. How are [others] not knowing this exists?” Cade says. “And I thought, ‘What if it’s because it’s not in one place? What if it’s [because] there isn’t accessible knowledge or an accessible resource for it?’”
By finally putting all of these films in one place, Cade’s project disrupts notions that Black film has been limited to one topic. Instead, the diversity of the films it includes “showcases the abundant nature of Black representation on screen.” Cade says, “Describing film as only one thing lessens everything it is. These are contradictions in how we’ve been showcased. But there’s joy, there’s love, there’s a lot here. I really hope that people take the opportunity to watch it.”
Cade says that reactions to the Black Film Archive were beyond her wildest dreams. At an institutional level, the project has certainly gathered a lot of acclaim. Last month, Cade won the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ “Outstanding Achievement by a Woman in the Film Industry” award, and she also received the New York Film Critics Circle Awards’ “Special Award,” which is for “individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to the art of cinema.”
But the Black communities’ engagement with the project has touched Cade the most.
“Honestly, I could not have predicted that this many people would be active users or engaged with the site,” Cade says. “This older woman wrote the most gracious letter that I will never forget. She said, ‘I’ve always remembered these films but never was able to show them to my grandkids. Now I can.’”
Cade continues, “It’s like this overwhelming joy has come from this project.”
Encompassing the meaning of everything that film does would be impossible in a single article. But among its many purposes, Cade says, “Film allows us to understand the social codes of a moment. Understand how we’ve been portrayed in that moment.” And by watching film, she adds, people may also begin to understand the “gestures” of Black performers that speak directly to Black communities and couldn’t be included in the script.
As an example, Cade points to Ethel Waters’ performance in the 1949 drama Pinky, which follows Pinky Johnson, a white-passing woman who received nursing education in the North. She returns to the South after receiving a marriage proposal from a white doctor who doesn’t know about her Black ancestry. In the film, Waters portrays Dicey, a Black laundress and Pinky’s grandmother. Cade says, “In what could’ve been a humdrum role, she gives life. ... Life that Black people can easily see.”
As the Black Film Archive approaches its one-year anniversary, Cade wants the project to be seen as a means of shaping Black future. “The past has an abundant amount of things to teach us,” she says. “What I hope is that people take this moment to keep that exploration of the past close to them as they’re charting the ways in the future.”