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History through the lens of cinema

In ‘Colorization,’ Wil Haygood examines a century of ‘Black Film in a White World’

David Wilson for The Boston Globe

Wil Haygood was at a party during the shooting of the film “The Butler,” based on his book of the same name, when he had a revelation. “I looked around the room and there was such an array of Black and white talent. I just said to myself, to no one, that my goodness, somebody should write a book about this moment.”

The actor Terrence Howard overheard him and commented, “You’re the writer. So you ought to write this book.”

That was the moment a seed was planted, Haygood said. “Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Film in a White World” (Knopf) is the result: a book that the author said presents “the sweep of American history against the sweep of Black history,” through a century of cinema.


Haygood, a former Globe reporter, found himself watching far-right marchers in Charlottesville while writing about the time President Woodrow Wilson screened the racist film “The Birth of a Nation” in the White House in 1915. “One hundred and two years after the ‘Birth of a Nation’ premiere, here’s the same symbolism on an American street,” he said. “That tragedy certainly told me that the story needed to be told.”

The book is one of triumph and also sorrow, including the many Black actors and actresses who died young without ever finding the success their talents merited. “In a way this book is a kind of valentine to them,” Haygood said, “to how they struggled, how they tried to stay in the business.”

Slowly, things are getting better. “I think that Hollywood is going to become more woke. I think that the streaming services, their arms are spread wider, welcoming filmmakers from all racial backgrounds. And I think it makes the moviegoing experience — even though it might be on the small screen at times — richer.”


Wil Haygood will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday in a virtual event hosted by Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.