Nearly a century ago, Jacksonville was the scene of all sorts of sordid and sensational goings-on. The town resembled a Hollywood studio back lot – and with good reason.
The brightest names in the industry played here: John and Ethyl Barrymore, Lillian Gish and Oliver Hardy, a South Georgia resident who came to Jacksonville in response to a classified ad seeking a “fat boy to play a comedic role.” Moviemakers in and around New York, the birthplace of the American film industry, had sought a milder, more film-friendly climate and found it in Northeast Florida via a railway that would become part of Henry Flagler’s Florida-East Coast Railway. But one filmmaker would make history by helping to break the racial barriers of the early film history.
Silent filmmaker Richard Norman began producing “race films.” While mainstream films of the day invariably depicted African-American characters in negative lights, race films, Norman’s films showed them in positive roles as heroes, business leaders and lovers.
“My father was disheartened about the state of race relations at the time, both in real life and in the movies,” says retired Air Force Capt. Richard Norman, the filmmaker’s son. “And he saw an untapped market. So, he set out to help give the black community a stronger place on film, behind the cameras and in the theatres.”
“Jacksonville in the early 20th century was a majority black city including a growing number of well educated and upwardly mobile community leaders and role models,” adds Carolyn Williams, author, history professor at the University of North Florida and advisor to the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum, Inc., a nonprofit organization working to preserve silent film history. “The presence of the large black population and the reputation of the city as center of high quality African American entertainment made it an ideal location for a film production company that highlighted various and positive aspects of African American life.”
The city of Jacksonville owns four of the five buildings that make up the Norman property – the nation’s only remaining full silent film era studio complex. In 2008 workers completed structural repairs and exterior renovations with state and federal grants totaling more than $685,000. Pending a formal agreement with the city, the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum (NSSFM) aims to raise funds to restore the interiors of those buildings to develop a silent film museum and offer film-related workshops, events and youth programs.
The NSSFM’s goals are gaining nationwide attention. The Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles features Norman films in its permanent exhibit and in several current and future special exhibits. And in February 2009, NSSFM was invited to screen “The Flying Ace,” the sole known surviving Norman feature, at the prestigious Lincoln Center in New York City as part of a film series and related conference presented by Columbia University School of the Arts and the Film Society of Lincoln Center titled“Faded Glory: Oscar Micheaux and Black Pre-War Cinema.”