Paul Robeson in Body and Soul (1925)

Race Explored With Different Degrees of Emphasis: ‘Pioneers of African-American Cinema’

Encompassing documentaries, silent comedy, melodramas and religious films, this collection of early cinema made by American-American filmmakers is fascinating viewing.

The DVD/Blu-ray box-set Pioneers of African-American Cinema was originally the result of a crowdfunding campaign undertaken by the Kino Lorber label in the US. The compilation has now been released in the UK by BFI to coincide with its major “Black Star” initiative, a season which celebrated the diverse contributions of black artists and actors to (mostly) American film. The collection is more than just an interesting supplement to that season, however. Rather, it’s an absorbing set that succeeds in giving very welcome wider exposure to an often overlooked chapter of film history.

The collection consists of a selection of so-called “race films”. Independent productions that were made between the 1910s and the ’40s by black filmmakers, and that were exhibited in black-only spaces, these movies offered a counter to the degrading racist stereotypes prevalent in the majority of mainstream Hollywood movies of the period. While a significant number of “race films” have unfortunately been lost, the compilers of the set have nonetheless succeeded in collating a highly impressive range of work here. Indeed, what’s increasingly striking as one delves into the collection (which is supplemented by a solid range of extras) is the diversity of the approaches and the material, which encompasses silent comedy (such as the slapstick romp Two Knights of Vaudeville, 1915), melodrama, religious films and documentaries.

While the issue of race is inevitably apparent in most of the films presented, it’s explored with different degrees of emphasis: in some cases through a focus on characters’ specific struggles and direct engagement with social issues, and in others through the simple recasting of familiar Hollywood tropes in an all-black milieu. The latter is evident, for example, in the 1939 film The Bronze Buckaroo, one of several Westerns starring Herbert Jeffrey (“the sepia singing cowboy”) that were made during the period.

A few key filmmakers are also well represented by the set. Central to the collection is the work of Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951): the writer, director, and producer who directed over 40 films, spanning the silent and sound eras and frequently adapted from his own novels. Micheaux’s silent films, including Within Our Gates, The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Ku Klux Klan (both 1920) and 1925’s Body and Soul (starring Paul Robeson as twins!) boast excellent new scores and are supplemented here by the sound features Murder in Harlem (1935), Birthright (1938) and The Girl from Chicago (1932). While the films’ narrative quirks have been taken as evidence of Micheaux’s innovativeness by some, and as evidence of ineptitude by others, there’s no doubting that the films are all fascinating in their own right, and collectively establish the director as a significant American auteur.

Made with the backing of the white Texas-based distributor Al Sack, Spencer Williams’s films are equally distinctive, as the director, who later found fame as an actor on Amos ‘n’ Andy, develops a compelling lurid, expressionistic style in the fabulously titled Dirty Gertie From Harlem U.S.A (an unauthorized adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain) and the extraordinary The Blood of Jesus (1941) which casts the captivating Cathryn Caviness as a dying woman undergoing a test of faith.

Spirituality within Southern contexts is indeed another significant through-line in the collection, and one that receives spell-binding, sometimes surreal exploration in the films of the travelling evangelist husband-and-wife duo James and Eloyce Gist, such as Hell-Bound Train (1930): these are movies which would have been accompanied by sermons in churches or revival meetings. In a mostly male-dominated collection, Zora Neale Hurston’s Field Work — footage documenting her ethnographic work undertaken in the South — is a particularly valuable and noteworthy inclusion.

Overall,Pioneers of African-American Cinema makes for compelling, revelatory viewing. At a moment when debates about diversity have dominated discourse around American film, the peek into the past offered by this lovingly compiled collection could hardly be more timely or more vital.

RATING 8 / 10