Recently on a film business/review podcast, I called Kino Lorber’s upcoming 5 disc DVD set, “Pioneers of African American Cinema,” “Historic,” and I meant it. There would be no black cinema today if it wasn’t for these films and the filmmakers who made them.
Nearly 500 independently produced black films exclusively made for black audiences, better known as “race films”, were made in the United States between 1915 and 1952 and shown in over 1000 movie theaters across the country, though most of them are now lost due to neglect and poor preservation.
Black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, Zora Neale Hurston, and James and Eloyce Gist (as well as white filmmakers) wanted to present an alternative, more realistic and honest images of African-Americans than what Hollywood was presenting of black people at the time – as criminals and simple minded “layabouts and lecherous savages.”
The Kino set, which is executive produced by Paul D Miller (aka DJ Spooky) and curated by historians Dr Jacqueline Stewart of the University of Chicago and Charles Musser of Yale University of 25 films, were restored from HD masters (transferred from archival elements preserved by several leading archives, including the Library of Congress), and is the first major collection of these race films to be remastered.
Though most of the films may fall short in terms of production values when compared to contemporary Hollywood studios films of the same period, these films are important because, according to Prof. Stewart, “I’m hoping that people will be able to see the films on their own terms… That it won’t be [seen as] a nebulous footnote that African Americans were making films during this period. I want people to let these films wash over them, and to put them in dialogue with the mainstream Hollywood films we’re more familiar with from that period.”
The films to be included in the set are: Birthright (1938), The Blood of Jesus (1941), Body and Soul (1925), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), By Right of Birth (fragment, 1921), Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina (excerpt, 1940), The Darktown Revue (1931), Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (1946), Eleven P.M. (1930), The Exile (1931), The Flying Ace (1926), God s Stepchildren (1938), Heaven-Bound Traveler (1933), Hellbound Train (1930), Hot Biskits (1931), Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (1918), Regeneration (fragment, 1923), The Scar of Shame (1929), S.S. Jones Home Movies (1924-26), The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the KKK (1920), Ten Minutes to Live (1932), Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926), Two Knights of Vaudeville (1918), Veiled Aristocrats (1932), Verdict Not Guilty (1934), We Work Again (1937), Within Our Gates (1920).
The set will also include original musical scores for the silent films by Paul D. Miller, Max Roach, Samuel D. Waymon, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Makia Matsumura, Alloy Orchestra, Rob Gal, and Andrew Simpson.
And among the the bonus features will be: optional English subtitles, an 80-page booklet with essays and detailed film notes, interviews with series curators Professors Musser and Stewart, a documentary on the restoration of the films, a documentary on the restoration efforts of the Library of Congress, an archival interview with actors Ethel and Lucia Moses ( from 1978), Tyler Texas Black Film Collection promo film (with Ossie Davis, from 1985) and more.
Click on the image directly above to buy your copy now. $99 for the blu-ray set and $79 for the standard DVD set.
An excerpt from Micheaux’s “Body and Soul” follows:
And here’s an excerpt from Spencer Williams’ “The Blood of Jesus”: