Reversing the Stereotype: Richard E. Norman and the Norman Studios

by Barbara Tepa Lupack

Richard E. Norman

A white Southerner who hailed from Jacksonville, Florida, Richard E. Norman was one of the most accomplished race filmmakers of the silent era. A worthy rival to his better-known contemporaries Oscar Micheaux and George and Noble Johnson, Norman began his career as an inventor and entrepreneur. By his early twenties he had entered the entertainment industry as a film developer and soon became a producer of “home-talent” movies, pictures that were based on short scripts that he wrote and built around stock footage of exciting events such as car crashes and train wrecks.

After returning to his home state of Florida, Norman began making feature-length race films almost exclusively for black audiences. After acquiring the former “Eagle Film City” studio in Jacksonville, he became the first early race producer to own and operate his own production facility.

Anita Bush in The Crimson Skull

Stella Mayo in Regeneration

Kathryn Boyd in The Flying Ace

Over the next decade, he completed seven popular films, including two race Westerns starring black rodeo star Bill Pickett (The Bull-Dogger and The Crimson Skull), a South-Seas adventure set on a desert island (Regeneration), and a thriller about the discovery of oil in Oklahoma (Black Gold). His best-known, most successful, and only extant film was a mystery-adventure story, The Flying Ace, which drew on the public’s fascination with flight and other new transportation technologies.

Unlike the degrading Black stereotypes in the dominant film of his era, Norman’s characters were dignified and dutiful examples of racial achievement. And his women, in particular, were models of Black modernity.

Scenes from The Flying Ace (1926), Norman’s only extant film

One of the most successful and prolific race filmmakers of his day, Norman elevated his female heroines from mere adjuncts to the plot to fascinating and consequential characters in their own right.



About the Presenter

  • Barbara Tepa Lupack

    Barbara Tepa Lupack

    Barbara Tepa Lupack, former professor of English and academic dean at SUNY, was Fulbright Professor of American Literature both in Poland and in France. From 2015-2018, she served as New York State Public Scholar. She was also the Helm Fellow at Indiana University (2013), the Lehman Fellow at the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies (2014), and the Senior Fellow at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA (2017-2018). She is author or editor of more than twenty-five books, including Literary Adaptations in Black American Cinema: From Micheaux to Morrison (University of Rochester Press, 2002; expanded ed., 2010), Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking (Indiana University Press, 2013), Early Race Filmmaking in America (Routledge, 2016), Silent Serial Sensations: The Wharton Brothers and The Magic of Early Filmmaking (Cornell University Press, 2020), and a forthcoming study of the representation of women in silent film.


Discussion Questions
  • Richard E. Norman produced seven race films, many of which were widely viewed in their day. Is the decision of Norman, a white race filmmaker, to tell aspirational stories of Black achievement an example of cultural appropriation?

  • In what ways did Ruth Sawtelle in The Flying Ace and Norman’s other female characters reflect social change and Black modernity?

  • How did Norman use modern technologies (planes, railroad, automobiles, boats) to advance the story-lines of his films? How did those technologies promote his notion of Black achievement and uplift?

Suggestions for Further Reading
  • Bernstein, Matthew, and Dana F. White. “’Scratching Around’ in a ‘Fit of Insanity’: The Norman Manufacturing Company and the Race Film Business in the 1920s.” Griffithiana 62/63 (May 1998): 81-128.

  • Kisch, John Duke. Separate Cinema: The First 100 Years of Black Poster Art. Reel Art Press, 2014.

  • Klotman, Phyllis R. “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: The Flying Ace, the Norman Company, and the Micheaux Connection.” In Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era. Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. 161-177.

  • Lupack, Barbara Tepa. Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

  • Lupack, Barbara Tepa. Norman and His Contemporaries. Permanent Digital Exhibit, Norman Studios Silent Film Museum, Jacksonville, Florida @ Norman & His Contemporaries WELCOME | Norman Studios Online Museum.

Suggestions for Further Viewing