If you look at Hollywood movies made before the mid-1970s, you might think that Sidney Poitier was the nation's only African-American.
"When Hollywood needed a black actor, they called Sidney Poitier," said Mahmoud El-Kati, a professor of American studies at Macalester College. "He was in everything. Well, Harry Belafonte made two or three movies a year, but he was in everything else."
El-Kati has nothing against Poitier, generally considered one of the greatest actors of all time. It's just that when someone says that his career encompasses the width and breadth of African-American filmmaking in the 20th century, El-Kati has to strongly disagree.
In fact, it's not even close.
"The black movie industry was making silent movies as early as 1918," he said. "In the 1950s, '60s and '70s -- for 20 or 30 years there when Hollywood was making only 10 or 12 movies a year featuring black people -- there was an underground black film industry. And it was huge. Most people don't know that."
Some of those films are part of the Black History Month Film Festival, being held every Friday evening this month at the Golden Thyme Coffee Cafe in St. Paul. El-Kati has focused each program on a particular era, style or filmmaker.
"I hate to use the word 'classic' because it's tossed around so much these days that it doesn't mean anything," he said. "But these are classics in the true sense of the word [in that they've stood the test of time]. We don't show any movie made beyond the 1950s."
The screenings are an outgrowth of a monthly program that El-Kati and the coffee shop have been offering for three years. Fourth Fridays at the Movies has become so popular that the decision was made to make it a weekly event during Black History Month.
The movies are picked with an eye toward making the evening educational as well as entertaining, said the shop's owner, Mychael Wright.
"It's a change of pace of what people are seeing on TV these days," he said. "But there's a historical aspect to it, too."
In that regard, a major part of each evening is a post-screening discussion.
"It's not a lecture; it's a very informal discussion," El-Kati insisted. "Before the movie, I'll introduce it by giving some background information, talking about the history of black people in cinema and connecting some of the dots. After the movie, I ask [the audience], 'Tell me about what you saw.' I have no idea where the discussion is going to go."
Although the stars of the movies are black, the audiences are mixed. "We draw a wide array of people," Wright said. El-Kati agreed: The movie series is "not just for blacks. Our intention is to inform and educate all people who are interested in black cinema."
Each movie is intended to elicit a different type of discussion. This week's offering, "No Way Out," features Poitier in his first Hollywood feature film. Next week's program consists of a series of shorts that El-Kati is certain most people have never seen. The month ends with Lena Horne's musical "Stormy Weather."
"We figured that we should go out on a high note," he said.
One of the more rewarding aspects of the program for him is that it has led to the discovery of even more black movies.
"Finding them is catch-as-catch-can," he said. "I just go around asking people if they have any. Every now and then, I get lucky. I ran into a group in Illinois that devotes itself to preserving old movies, and they had 98 black movies.
"Some of them are in pretty bad shape, as you might imagine. But a few of them are in surprisingly good shape. And they run the spectrum from love stories to westerns."
There were black westerns?
Absolutely, El-Kati said. "And when you show them, it provokes all kinds of discussion."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392