African-Americans were not allowed to serve as pilots in the United States Armed Forces until 1940, but that didn’t stop Richard Norman from making a black fighter pilot the hero of The Flying Ace. In this 1926 film, Captain Billy Stokes returns home victorious after World War I to resume his civilian career as a railroad detective—without removing his Army Air Service uniform, a constant reminder of his patriotism and valor.
During WWI, thousands of black Americans enlisted in segregated regiments, though many more were restricted to work as laborers and quartermasters. Black leaders hoped that these men’s willingness to serve their country would prove to white America that the time had come for equal rights. But when the soldiers returned, Jim Crow still reigned supreme and lynch mobs continued to terrorize the South. In an editorial in the NAACP’s journal The Crisis, W.E.B. Dubois wrote, “Make way for democracy! We saved it in France, and by the great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.”
Captain Billy Stokes is a model for the ideals of racial uplift, fulfilling aspirations that black Americans were not yet allowed to achieve. At a time when Hollywood employed white actors in blackface to play shuffling servants and mammies, the Norman Film Manufacturing Company, based in Jacksonville, Florida, hired all-black casts to play dignified roles. Instead of tackling discrimination head-on in his films, Norman created a kind of segregated dream world where whites—and consequently, racism—didn’t even exist.
Richard Norman, a white man who grew up in Middleburg, Florida, began his business career as an inventor of soft drinks but, after a couple years, abandoned tonics for the movies. By the mid-’teens, Norman was traversing the Midwest making “Home Talent Pictures,” which combined stock footage with scenes of locals who later turned out and paid to see themselves on screen. In 1916, Norman made The Green-eyed Monster, a feature-length love story set on the American rails, but it wasn’t until he remade it as The Love Bug in 1919 with an all-black cast that he found himself with a modest hit. In 1920, he returned home to Florida and devoted himself to making what were known as “race movies,” all-black films geared toward black audiences.
Before Norman arrived, Jacksonville had established itself as “The Winter Film Capital of the World.” Unlike New York, where the movie industry was initially based, Jacksonville got plenty of sun all year long. It boasted lush landscapes and various styles of buildings that could serve as ready-made backdrops, and, in the early to mid-’teens, the city was home to around 30 film companies, including Selig Polyscope, Essanay, and Edison. By the time WWI broke out, the industry had begun its move west. When Norman came home to set up shop, he met little competition for Jacksonville’s filmmaking resources. He bought what had once been Eagle Studios and, from 1920 to 1928, made seven feature-length race films that he produced, directed, and distributed virtually single-handedly.
Norman was committed to portraying the strength and nobility of black America, but he also recognized that race films were good business. During the Great Migration in the early 20th century, thousands of black Americans had moved from the South to the North and from country to the city, where they constituted a significant block of new consumers. Norman estimated that urban movie theaters reached a black audience of three million, while ten million more saw movies in segregated theaters, vaudeville, or at churches and schools. When these audiences looked to Hollywood to see themselves, they were disappointed. Black characters, if present at all, tended toward the stereotypes that film historian Donald Bogle summed up in the title of his 1973 book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. Race movies like Norman’s offered something new: a world where blacks overcome prejudice or, in films like The Flying Ace, never even encounter it.
Norman Films was part of what the film scholar Thomas Cripps has called the “black underground” of more than 100 companies making race movies in the ’teens and ’20s well outside of Hollywood. (About half these companies were, like Norman Films, run by whites). But Norman’s skill as a filmmaker and a businessman soon catapulted him to the top of the heap. Norman Films became one of the three leading producers of race films in America, along with the Lincoln Motion Picture Company and the Micheaux Film Corporation.
Oscar Micheaux and George and Noble Johnson, the heads of the Micheaux and Lincoln companies, were black men who used cinema to confront American racism. Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920)—a response to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—included frank portrayals of whites raping and lynching blacks. The Lincoln Company’s The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916) told the more hopeful story of a black man overcoming racial prejudice and becoming an oil baron.
Norman and his competitors sometimes relied on each other to help distribute their films on the race film circuit, but Norman worried that explicitly political films would not sell. He once wrote that Micheaux, “due to the propaganda nature of his pictures and his business methods, seriously retarded the popularity” of all-black films. Norman instead made comedies, adventure stories, and romances, even mixing genres for maximum appeal. An advertisement for his 1920 film The Bull-Dogger, which starred champion black cowboy Bill Pickett, touted the “Death Defying Feats of Courage and Skill,” and promised not just “Thrills!” but “Laughs too!” A poster for The Flying Ace called the film “The Greatest Airplane Thriller Ever Produced” and featured a drawing of a man parachuting from a burning plane.
The Flying Ace does not include any plane stunts, but Norman’s initial hopes for the film were for more daredevilry, having previously contacted Bessie Coleman, “the world’s first col[ored] Flyer” and stunt flyer Captain Edison McEvey. When Norman finally made The Flying Ace, he cast J. Laurence Criner, a veteran of the Lafayette Players, Harlem’s prestigious all-black theater troupe, as the lead. Criner didn’t know how to pilot a plane, which probably ended up saving Norman money and does not seem to have interfered with the film’s success. The Flying Ace grossed more than $20,000 on the race film circuit.
While it’s impossible to measure the influence The Flying Ace had on its viewers, it is reasonable to assume that audiences found its lead character inspirational. Billy Stokes was a black male hero who would have never made it onscreen in a Hollywood movie of the time. Stokes sparked the imagination of at least one boy: Richard Norman Jr., who has fond memories of playing in the plane from The Flying Ace when he was young. “I used to dream about it,” he said, “and my dreams came true.” The younger Norman eventually became a pilot. Today, he serves on the board of a Jacksonville nonprofit that plans to turn the Norman Studio buildings into a museum on Northeast Florida’s rich history of silent film production. The Norman Studios Silent Film Museum will also include a learning center to teach the next generation of filmmakers to tell their own stories.
Presented at SFSFF 2010 with live music by Donald Sosin