The new collection Pioneers of African-American Cinema offers a look at the breadth of African American filmmaking between in the first half of the twentieth century.
It’s no secret that the movie industry in the United States is dominated by white men, nor that it’s been that way for some time. However, the movie industry is a big tent, and over the years women and people of color have also found ways to make movies and get them in front of audiences. One aspect of this alternative side of American cinema is the of so-called “race films” starring African American actors, sometimes directed and/or produced by African Americans, and intended for African American audiences.
Race films dominate the new collection Pioneers of African-American Cinema, but other types of films are also included, such as fieldwork footage shot by Zora Neale Hurston and a WPA documentary about work and educational programs available to African Americans. The films in this collection were first released between 1915 and 1946, and collectively offer a fascinating window into an aspect of American movie history that is not common knowledge among most movie fans. Some of these films are well known, at least to academics, such as Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925), which starred Paul Robeson, but most are obscure and were not been available for home viewing prior to the release of the collection. Both silent and sound films are included, with accompanying soundtracks for the silents by Max Roach, DJ Spooky, the Alloy Orchestra, and others.
Curators Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart made their selections with an eye to displaying the breadth of African American cinema, and thus included some films available only in fragments, or for which the only available copies were in pretty poor shape. I think they made the right call—had they chosen only to include films which existed in complete, well-preserved form, a lot of fascinating material would have been left out, and the collection as a whole would be less interesting as well as less representative. Besides, a collection like this serves several purposes, one of which is to spark the interest of researchers, so including fragments of damaged films could result in someone locating better copies of those films or discovering new, previously unknown films by the same filmmakers.
Pioneers of African-American Cinema includes almost 20 hours of material on five discs, and comes with some extras (detailed below) that will make it particularly attractive for libraries and film scholars. Besides their entertainment value, these films offer a window into their times, demonstrating how African Americans both adopted conventions from mainstream White filmmaking and altered those conventions to suit themselves. They also highlight issues of particular interest to African American audiences, such as whether to migrate North (mainstream cinema tended to look at migration as either moving from east to west within the United States, or moving from Europe to the United States), and whether to remain a part of the African American community or pass for white. These film also document African American communities and gathering places, and capture performances by contemporary entertainers that might otherwise be lost to history. A full listing of the films included can be found on the Kino Lorber web site.
Pioneers of African-American Cinema is distributed on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber. The discs include a number of informative documentaries, which help create a context in which to understand the films themselves (I watched the documentaries first, but then I’m a real film nerd). Topics covered by these documentaries include an introduction to the set (7 min.), the films of Oscar Micheaux (9 min.), the color line (5 min.), the restoration process (8 min.), religion in the films (7 min.), the films of James and Eloyce Gist (5 min.), the Tyler Texas Black Film Collection (6 min.), the films of Zora Neale Hurston (2 min.), the films of Spencer Williams (7 min.), and the end of the “race movie” era (5 min.). There are also introductions to two films included in the collection: Ten Nights in a Bar Room (4 min.) and Eleven P.M. (3 min.),
Also included on the discs are theatrical trailers for Veiled Aristocrats (4 min.) and Birthright (3 min.), and the 1937 WPA film “We Work Again” (15 min.; it includes a clip of the 1936 “Voodoo Macbeth” production by the Negro Theatre Unit of the Federal Theatre Project). Finally, this collection comes with a 76-page illustrated booklet that includes essays by Paul D. Miller, Charles Musser, Jacqueline Januma Stewart, Rhea L. Combs, and Mary N. Elliott, detailed information about the films included, and a suggested reading list. | Sarah Boslaugh