What began as a Twitter thread that simply shared a list of Black films available to stream online has since evolved into what Maya Cade, the creator and curator of the Black Film Archive, calls “a living register of Black films from 1915 to 1979.” Cade, who moved to New York after graduating Howard University, currently works as an audience strategist for the Criterion Collection. But since summer 2020, she has been diligently building the Black Film Archive to serve as a resource for discovery and reengagement with Black cinema, especially the films made during a time period that is consistently overlooked. “I was connecting with people online, just talking about what I know about Black film, and suddenly I’m working in the film industry,” she told W over the phone one afternoon. “But no one knew I was building the Black Film Archive at the same time.”
In 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd and the wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the country, the coverage of America’s “racial reckoning” eventually reached Hollywood. The lack of films by Black directors available to watch on various streaming platforms was a particular problem audiences pointed out online. “It’s a transformative time for the industry overall,” Cade said. “People are asking questions that Black people have been asking for a long time, and to see an industry grappling with it and work in an industry grappling with it, is fascinating.”
The lack of education surrounding Black cinema cannot be understated, but what differentiates the Black Film Archive from most digital other resources on Black cinema is that all entries in the archive are also currently available to stream. Organized by decade, genre, and filmmaker, Cade researches and writes each entry herself, with the assistance of some copywriters and designers for the site. From under-the-radar silent movies to popular Blaxpoitation flicks, the Black Film Archive contains a treasure trove of available-to-stream Black films. “There is always a space for people to start where they are,” Cade said. “If I waited for someone to support my vision, it never would’ve happened. You can begin, and it doesn’t have to be this overwhelming site. If you have the urge to share something, follow that urge, do the research, come out with a thing. People are waiting for you—and even better yet, it doesn’t matter what’s on the other side. You’ve done the thing that makes you feel good and that is the reward.”
When you were growing up in Louisiana, what was your earliest engagement with cinema?
The film that really catapulted me into being like, “Oh, I’m a cinephile,” is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. [Laughs.] To the younger version of me, that was high art. My siblings and I had a running joke about the man who would not get out of bed for anything but chocolate. My family and I would rewatch the ending; I realized I was the one who was making everyone rewatch it. Also, The Parent Trap had just come out, and I thought, this can’t be the first film like this. So I remember investigating and using books to figure it out.
What are some of the earlier Black films that you remember seeing from a young age?
I became a cinephile of Black cinema when I saw Carmen Jones on TCM. I was like, I have to see every film like this. Even if I didn’t understand the inner workings of desire, femme fatale, all of those things, what I did understand is Black people singing musical standards and the lush colors. It just drew me in. I was like, okay, we need to stop pursuing these other films, this is what you really care about. That fascination has stayed with me. TCM and books that I’ve found have given me my film education.
The Wiz is also such a formative piece of Black cinema, especially for Black kids.
Yes! We watched The Wiz so much. There is no other film that has had such an impact on my life like The Wiz. I think Carmen Jones was an isolated curiosity. But the community curiosity and fascination was on The Wiz. To be a person who now deeply studies films, and to realize that there is such a disconnect between how Black people feel about The Wiz and what The Wiz did for Black cinema is so fascinating. The Wiz is the reason why Hollywood decided to stop investing in Black movies, which is jarring to me. This is the movie that, no matter when it was on, every Black person I know was watching it.
Hollywood’s abandonment of investing in Black films, especially after the 1970s, is so aggravating. The Wiz had some of the biggest Black stars—Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne—starring in the film adaptation of a very successful Broadway musical, and even if it was something of a commercial flop, you would think a Hollywood executive might at least recognize the camp factor.
I think a real flaw is that very few people are willing to talk to Black communities, market to Black communities. Or there is an assumption that you can market a film the same way to everyone.
Independently of your work at Criterion, you started building the Black Film Archive in 2020. What made you realize that you were actually building a living archive?
During the summer of protests, I was like, “I’m alone in my house, how do I fill my life with joy?” To me, that’s always been Black cinema. I finally had a moment to invest in what I love, invest in learning more, in understanding it in a deeper way. I was sharing with friends, having watch parties, and then the protests happened and I was like, I should be doing more. I started a Twitter thread, which was, “Here are Black films up to 1969 that are streaming.”
There were very dense conversations happening online about representation and how limited it is, and this is not to minimize anyone’s feelings because that’s not a position I come from, but the point of view I was taking was, there is so much people do not know—for numerous reasons! I saw it as a point of opportunity; I’m a very optimistic person.
When did you decide to shift the thread to a site?
I didn’t add context because at that moment I was thinking, there is so much noise telling you how to feel about Black films, so I just thought I’d list them. One of my friends pointed out there was more to add. I started taking that list and adding to it; I made a spreadsheet of Black films I knew, and started thinking through what does something with context added to these films look like, feel like? And how does that make Black people feel? Because my every intention is to do things exclusively for Black people. It really wasn’t a moment, it was an evolution. There was a community need, and I thought of how to fulfill that.
Why do you think there’s this gap in the knowledge of Black cinema?
Black contributions are minimized. Sometimes they’re diffused. I am always wondering about the fascination with rediscovery. It reminds me of the question Toni Morrison posed about Invisible Man: “Invisible to whom?” I never want to take a position that shames someone for not knowing. I wanted to say, this could be a point of discovery for people, a point of reengagement. There are many different entry points and I didn’t want to minimize any of them. That was my intention going into the Black Film Archive, and that intention still exists.
Archives can feel cold, dry, and impersonal, but it feels like there is life behind the Black Film Archive, which is apparent in the descriptions you put into every entry. What was your thought process like when you were beginning to establish the actual aesthetic and user experience of the site?
There were a lot of design intervals—that was one of my chief concerns. The main header has always looked the way that it looks; I knew I wanted you to be welcomed with a gif. I wasn’t satisfied until I could feel certain about answering the question, Does this speak to Black people? And not just Black people I know, or hope to know. My hope is to help people engage with cinema and meet them where they are, not necessarily where I think they should be. All the iterations speak to the idea that not everyone engages with film the way that I do.
I also want to stress that this is an evolving archive. This is the first iteration of the site, and I’ve been working on the second iteration. I’m still tinkering.
What is your favorite film?
It probably is The Wiz. It’s the film I watched the most in the pandemic. In this moment of longing for home and what home could be, I was grasping for it, watching it weekly. And watching it weekly while building the archive, which is my home. If home is a place of warmth, and sharing, and love, then this is my warm offering. This is me sharing love, and pouring all that I can into something for the people I love, because I love Black people.
You have a note in the Black Film Archive that the collection stops at 1979 because after The Wiz flopped, Hollywood stopped investing in Black films and, instead, left it up to the indie scene, which introduced new Black filmmakers like Charles Burnett and the other L.A. Rebellion directors of that time. Do you have plans to expand the archive into the ’80s and ’90s and beyond?
I want to be thoughtful about how I approach the ’80s and beyond, but to answer the elephant in the room: Yes, it’s part of my future plans. Currently, there is a tension between what is available for streaming and what I hope to spotlight from the 1980s for the Archive. But it is certainly the most-asked question!
You put together a Sidney Poitier tribute last month when he passed away, and created one for Melvin Van Peebles last year. How did you spring to action so quickly, and why did you want to honor Poitier?
The Sidney Poitier one amazed me. I have a backlog of 50 films because I took some time off. His films were on there, so I had to write the descriptions for 12 films that I added. How did I do it? I did it because it needed to be done. [Laughs.] Something I feel like was missing in the conversation about him was that he was such a talented actor—it’s interesting to see someone become symbolized, but I wanted to really touch on the fact that he could act. There have always been tensions in the Black community about how people feel about him, which I also felt was minimized. I had an opportunity to discuss him as someone who was a good actor and had a lot to say.
What are the most underrated or under-discussed films that you want everyone to see?
I would implore anyone to see Zora Neale Hurston’s directorial work. That is something that does not get discussed enough. I am very much here for elevating her as a filmmaker. I’m obsessed with A Dream Is What You Wake Up From, from 1978. This film gets at the heart of a conversation that we are still having, which is, how do Black women deal with the weight of the abuse that is thrown their way? There is gendered abuse inside and outside of relationships, emotional, physical abuse, the sometimes terror of being a Black person. This film attempts to answer that. It focuses on relationships and gets to it in a very triumphant way. That is a movie.
You’ve been nominated for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists Award, received the National Society of Film Critics Film Heritage Award alongside the late Peter Bogdanovich, and won a Special Award from the New York Film Critics Circle. How do you feel about the accolades you are receiving for your dedication to the Black Film Archive?
It gives me a triumphant feeling. I’m thankful to be seen, and the work should be celebrated. But mostly, I’m feeling shocked. We are so often told we have to wait, or that our moment will come eventually. I’m really thankful for the Black people who have e-mailed me and said they hope the Archive lasts forever. Someone told me I’ve changed how people talk about Black film. That wasn’t even the goal, but it happened. The goal was to reach Black people—and it feels like I did that and more. For that, I’m overjoyed.