Phyllis R. Klotman, a film scholar who helped unearth lost treasures of African-American cinema and established a major archive devoted to their preservation and study, died on March 30 at her home in Manhattan. She was 90.
Her daughter, Janet K. Cutler, confirmed the death.
At her death, Professor Klotman was an emeritus professor in the department of African- American and African diaspora studies atIndiana University in Bloomington. There, in 1981, she created the Black Film Center/Archive, the first significant repository of its kind in the United States.
Professor Klotman, who wrote and lectured widely about black cinema, founded what became the journal Black Camera. She convened symposiums and screenings, and championed the work of contemporary black filmmakers.
“She was one of the first to preserve black independent films, and in doing that, she encouraged us,” Charles Burnett, one of the most acclaimed black independent filmmakers of the postwar period, said in a telephone interview. “One of the first forums that we had was at her school. And for many of us, it was the first time that we had some exposure on this level, in a university setting.”
One of her department’s few white members, Professor Klotman became interested in black film history in the 1960s, while writing her doctoral dissertation on African-American literature at what is now Case Western Reserve University.
Seeking visual representations of black people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she learned of the existence of a body of work — long scattered, little known and unpreserved — by early black filmmakers.
She traveled the country, scouring attics and cellars and museum vaults, assembling a collection of films by and about African-Americans. Many had survived only in fragments.
“They were technically very poor: poorly lighted, bad sound quality, made in people’s houses to save money,” Professor Klotman told The Associated Press in 1981. “But they were a picture of the black experience.”
Among the films she amassed over the years were several made in response to “The Birth of a Nation,” D. W. Griffith’s unrepentantly racist Civil War film of 1915. These included “The Birth of a Race” (1918), directed by John W. Noble, which sought to overturn the stereotypes of African-Americans that Griffith promulgated.
There were also films by Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951), the country’s most famous early black auteur, whose work includes “The Symbol of the Unconquered” (1920) and “Murder in Harlem” (1935).
“The movies were called ‘race films’ the way jazz records with black artists were called ‘race records,’ ” Professor Klotman explained in the same interview. “It was a kind of buzzword.”
Today, the archive she founded comprises more than 3,000 films, spanning the silent era to the present day, along with photographs, posters and oral histories.
Phyllis Helen Rauch was born on Sept. 9, 1924, in Galveston, Tex. Her father was a door-to-door salesman and quite possibly a numbers runner, Professor Klotman’s daughter said. She married Robert Klotman, a violinist and music educator, in 1943. They later divorced but afterward remarried, and remained married until his death in 2012.
Combining a university education with motherhood, Phyllis Klotman earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from Western Reserve University, as it was then known, in the early 1960s, followed by a doctorate there. She joined the Indiana faculty in 1970 and later served as the university’s dean for women’s affairs.
After retiring in 1999, she moved with her husband to the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Besides her daughter, a professor of film studies at Montclair State University, Professor Klotman is survived by a son, Paul; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Another son, Eric, died at 2 of Tay-Sachs disease, a recessive genetic disorder prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews. After his death, Professor Klotman became an outspoken advocate of genetic screening to identify carriers of the disease.
Professor Klotman’s books include “Another Man Gone: The Black Runner in Contemporary Afro-American Literature” (1977); “Frame by Frame: A Black Filmography” (1979); and “Struggles for Representation: African American Documentary Film and Video” (1999), an anthology she edited with her daughter.
As recently as the 1980s, Mr. Burnett said, many African-American filmmakers felt they had to expatriate themselves to find an audience for their work.
“We felt that we were back in the days when people would go to Paris, like Josephine Baker, and get recognized over there,” he said. “In Europe, there was advertising in the papers about what we did. At that point, here, there was nothing — except for that little island at Indiana.”