Separate But Unequal: ‘Pioneers of African-American Cinema’

Funded by Kickstarter, Pioneers of African-American Cinema preserves and restores the most significant collection of “race films” on DVD and Blu-ray.

The other dominant auteur in this set is Spencer Williams, best known today for playing Andy in the TV version of Amos and Andy. This pioneer wrote, directed, and starred in the 1931 comedy short Hot Biskits, which was rediscovered in the Library of Congress archives by this set’s curator, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart. While hardly a laugh riot, it’s a good-natured jape that showcases the mix of ordinary everyday characters and broad buffoonery that would mark that famous sitcom.

Williams wrote and directed The Blood of Jesus (1941) and directed Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. for Sack Amusements, a white-owned Dallas company in the race market. He also appears in both films. The former is a religious parable in which Williams plays an irreligious husband who accidentally shoots his wife on her day of baptism. She is at least temporarily thought dead. Either she hallucinates an afterlife in which she struggles between an angel and devil in a juke joint and literal crossroads (with arrows pointing to Hell and Zion), or it’s really happening in some way.

The Blood of Jesus is virtually a musical, thanks to a parade of spirituals performed by a choir, either onscreen or on the soundtrack. Williams lifts clips of heavenly visions from the 1936 short, Broken Earth, also distributed by Sack. Apparently, that short’s story of death and resurrection through prayer is similar, if more streamlined.

The crude, low-budget aura, underlined by the ragged nature of the print, gives The Blood of Jesus the sincerity seen in works often called naive and primitive by those interested in outsider art, and this primitivism becomes a paradoxical source of power where a slick, polished, high-budget film would look campy or commercial.

Contemporary Hollywood films such as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), the 1946 duo Angel on My Shoulder and It’s a Wonderful Life, and most pertinently the all-black Cabin in the Sky (1943), delight the viewer with sophisticated realizations of angels or devils, and they also convey the idea that the filmmakers don’t take such nonsense seriously nor expect the viewer to do so for the sake of entertainment.

By contrast, the resemblance of Williams’ film to a high school or church play invests its dime-store portrayals with a sense that it’s created by people who believe implicitly in what they show, and that this film is capturing something real and without condescension in their worldview. To deprecate the cheapness would be to miss this sense of affirmation, which is why this film’s closest analogue is possibly Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), another film that dares you to take it seriously, albeit with exquisite production values.

Dirty Gertie is an uncredited remake of the films Sadie Thompson (1928) and Rain (1932), based on W. Somerset Maugham’s story of a steamy temptress and a missionary’s attraction to her. Set on a Caribbean island called Rinidad (dropping the “T” from Trinidad), it builds to a big show by imported Harlem nightclub star Gertie LaRue (Francine Everett, a real Harlem star) and her retinue, as we come to understand that any of several characters might intend her harm. It’s less a whodunit than a who-will-do-it. If Gertie is punished for her transgressions as a “Jezebel”, the film also exposes the hypocrisy and neuroses of the men who get hung up on her, and it has as little time as Micheaux for the religious cant of the self-styled man of God.

Despite centering on a performer, this is the least musical talkie in the set. Williams appears, to the viewer’s amazement, in a non-campy drag performance as a voodoo woman with a crystal ball. That ambiguously-toned scene is both funny and entirely serious.

If Micheaux might have taken a dim view of the old-time religion in The Blood of Jesus, what would he have made of films by James and Eloyce Gist, a married team of traveling evangelists? Dating from the early ’30s is the newly re-edited 50-minute Hell-Bound Train and two similar shorts, all silent, that were shown in black churches as part of a modern experiment in preaching that competed with black cinemas. It’s fair to call these non-professional items the work of amateurs, as they look more or less like the ambitious home movies they are.

The feature is simplicity itself: shots of a train and a capering devil (with horns and tail) are interspersed with explanations of the sins in various boxcars: gambling, dancing, jazz – all leading to unwed pregnancy, poverty, and finally the jaws of Hell. Actually, Micheaux might have agreed, for he constantly presents jazz numbers within a context that seems to condemn their milieu in favor of a “higher” culture like opera. These films’ homemade, backyard approach to broad devil and angel costumes echoes that of The Blood of Jesus. All the films resonate with each other so that the experience of watching them all lends each a richness that wouldn’t be found in any single one.

The set contains four silent features not made by Micheaux. The Flying Ace (1926), from white filmmaker Richard E. Norman’s Florida-based studio, is in astounding shape that reveals every detail and texture of its entertaining dime-novel adventure set in what looks like an alternate Hollywood that never heard of white folks. There’s nothing like a great print to make you see how professional an indie can be, and we also have a fragment of one other Norman item that looks equally well-shot behind its terrible deterioration. Both films star a one-legged supporting player names Steve Reynolds, and he steals the climax of Flying Ace by firing a crutch-rifle from a bicycle!

In bad shape is Richard Maurice’s Detroit drama Eleven P.M. (1928), a curiosity presented as the dream of its boxer-writer hero in which people from his life are recast in a bizarre series of events that feels like miscellaneous movies strung together. One plotline stars Maurice himself as a man who reincarnates as a dog! Then our hero wakes up, and most viewers will be glad of it.

Two items hail from Philadelphia’s Colored Players Film Corporation. Roy Calneck’s Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926) is an earlier example than Dirty Gertie of re-imagining a previously white property for a black cast, in this case, a popular 19th-century play about alcoholism and gambling. Charles S. Gilpin, a rival to Robeson, was at this time the country’s most famous African-American actor, and this film preserves one of his stage roles as transferred to natural settings.

Calneck loves the production value of the blazing fire at the climax, and he shows it as long as he can. As with a Micheaux production, this movie presents most of its story in a series of flashbacks contrasting those who hold themselves back with those who strive to better themselves — African-American themes that fold perfectly into the classic Victorian melodrama.

Frank Perugini’s The Scar of Shame 1929) is a complicated and ultimately ambiguous melodrama about “caste” and different cultural aspirations in the black community, but what I want to discuss is a brief scene of two boys dancing energetically. They look for all the world like the Nicholas Brothers, who were indeed attracting attention in Philadelphia at this time.

I’ve previously speculated that their feature debut, apparently unknown to the rest of the world except me, occurs in a 1932 film called The Sport Parade. Now I may have to revise that opinion back to this late silent item. Harold would be around eight years old and Fayard fifteen, and it sure looks about right.

The star of this film is Lucia Lynn Moses, who is interviewed with her two sisters in a half-hour video interview from 1978 included on Disc Five. Older sister Ethel starred in Birthright, so two of the sisters made films in this set. (The third sister appeared on Broadway.) As shot by Pearl Bowser, a pioneering critic on the topic of race movies, it’s both an intimate and arty snapshot of sisterly reminiscence.

One more talkie feature here is Richard C. Kahn’s The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), a western full of good humor and songs amid the flimsy plot. Like Williams’ films, it hails from the Dallas company called Sack Amusements, with Williams in a supporting role as one bad dude.

The star is recording artist Herb Jeffries, who made several of these singing cowboy pictures exactly like Hollywood’s, except for the complexion of the cast. The sidekick played by Lucius Brooks might be featured for laughs in a white western, but he wouldn’t be allowed to calmly polish off a bad guy as he does. Similarly, Mantan Moreland played in some of the other Jeffries westerns as a character not unlike those he played in Charlie Chan and other films, but the difference is the all-black context that doesn’t demean him.

A curious fact about Jeffries is that as far as research shows, he seems to have been more white than black (Irish mother and Sicilian father of mixed heritage) but he chose to identify as African-American to pursue a jazz career and even darkened his skin with makeup. This may seem an unusual example of “passing”, but American laws stipulated that even those with one-quarter or one-eighth African-American heritage (“quadroon” and “octoroon”) were officially counted as “Negroes” by law, so Jeffries was only choosing to insist on this. Apparently, he did identify as white at one point to marry the famous stripper Tempest Storm.

Included in the collection are selections of documentary footage shot by individuals. From the silent era are 16mm home movies shot by Rev. Solomon Sir Jones, focusing on black-owned businesses and social events in various Oklahoma towns of the ‘20s. Most significant is a selection of footage shot by budding anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who would become a celebrated novelist. We see a film shot in Florida, Alabama, and a worship service among a Gullah community in Beaufort, South Carolina. This footage is scored by Norman Chalfin’s field recordings on the same trip. These provide documentary glimpses of history’s little-known ordinary citizens from before the age of YouTube.

Although Kino is releasing this set in both DVD and Blu-ray editions, a few of the items are only included in the Blu-ray version, which is what is discussed here. Included as extras on the discs are brief introductory remarks on various topics by scholars Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart.