With advances in moviemaking technology, particularly the introduction of “talkies,” the landscape of filmmaking shifted, and Black-cast movies grew in popularity. As Hollywood started producing sound films, entertainers and musicians like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Lena Horne found work in big screen musicals. Some of their appearances were designed strictly as musical interludes that have little to do with the film’s narrative arc, making it easier to remove them if there were issues (primarily in the South) with censorship boards.
Black films have always taken the concerns of Black life as their subject. This tendency accelerated in the postwar period as studio monopolies began unraveling, opportunities for independent cinema productions increased, and more nuanced stories about racism and interracial relationships started to hit the screen. Black writers Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin were powerful voices during this period, using their pens to surface changing perspectives. Many Black actors such as Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, and Paul Robeson used their fame to promote civil rights causes on and off the screen.
Black comedy’s many traditions–some incisive, some harmful–have been present since the beginning of Black film. Black vaudeville entertainers like Bert Williams offered brilliant satirical comedy onstage and played resourceful and independent characters in films. But other actors crafted long careers that relied on racist stereotypes that demeaned the very audiences for which they performed.