Given our country’s rocky history in race relations, it should come as no surprise that African-Americans were often excluded in the early days of American film history. Many studios would not hire black actors, or even black crew members.
Nonetheless, there were a small but steady number of studios that specialized in what were then known as “race films” — that is, films that starred black actors and were geared toward black audiences.
One such studio, Norman Studios, was located in the “winter film capital of the world” — Jacksonville.
The studio started out in 1916 as “Eagle Film Studios”, a five-story production building located in the Arlington area of Jacksonville. Richard Norman, a young, white filmmaker from Middleburg, purchased the studio a few years later. Norman saw an opportunity to develop the growing yet disenfranchised market of African-American movie-goers, as well as the injustices faced by black performers attempting to build careers in Hollywood. This motivated him to launch Norman Studios and, as a white man, become an unlikely pioneer of African-American cinema.
According to IMDB, Norman produced eight films starring predominantly African-American performers. In addition to black actors, the studio also employed many African-American crew members to aide in the production of its films.
In 1926, the studio released what would be its most successful film, The Flying Ace. The film centers around a black fighter pilot who served in World War I returning home to his job as a railroad detective and finding his missions at home to be even more perilous than those he faced at war. It starred Lawrence Criner and Kathryn Boyd, and was notable for Norman’s use of camera trickery to make it seem like the stationary planes used during filming were in fact moving, and even flipping upside down during the film’s climax. The film was inspired by the legendary Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to gain a pilot license. Coleman had spoken with Norman prior to her death about the idea of making a film based on her life.
By the early 1930s, the studio started to stray away from production, focusing instead of distributing films produced by other studios. However, through its hit film The Flying Ace and several other successful movies, it had already made a massive impact on African-American cinema. Thanks to the progressive efforts of production companies such as Norman Studios, black performers would soon begin crossing over into mainstream Hollywood films.
Today, the production complex lives on in Arlington, having been converted into a silent film museum honoring Jacksonville’s cinematic history. The museum hosts Sunday viewings of historical films, as well as offering a wealth of knowledge concerning the history of film in the First Coast area. The Flying Ace has been restored by the Library of Congress, and efforts are underway to have the Norman Studios building declared a national landmark.
For more information on Norman Studios and how to get involved in its historic preservation efforts, check out their website.