A collection of foundational works of African American cinema will become available to the public on July 26, when the Blu-Ray/DVD set Pioneers of African American Cinema will be released by Kino Lorber. Comprised of twenty hours of footage on five discs, starting with shorts from over a 100 years ago, the set will be of special value to scholars and historians, since these important films have been difficult to view, especially in good quality.
In the first decades of African American cinema independently produced “race films” were made for black audiences. Between 1915 and 1952 more than 500 of them were made in the United States and shown in more than 1000 movie theaters, most of which were segregated. Because “race films” were made outside Hollywood they presented African American characters who were not stereotypical servants or comic relief and they explored issues of class, gender, and politics within the black community.
Curated by Professors Charles Musser and Jacqueline Stewart, Pioneers of African American Cinema presents eight films by Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951), among the first and most important African American filmmakers. Included is his most famous work, Within Our Gates (1920), the earliest surviving feature directed by an African American and notable for its head-on confrontation of racism and lynching. Its preservation at the Library of Congress was supervised by Professor Scott Simmon, curator of five of the NFPF Treasures DVD sets, whose recent essay on the film can be read online.
Four of the films in Pioneers of African American Cinema were preserved through NFPF funding. The first is the Museum of Modern Art’s preservation of Oscar Micheaux’s second surviving feature, The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), about black homesteaders struggling for survival against the Ku Klux Klan on the Midwestern plains.
The second and third films are by the husband-and-wife directing team of Eloyce and James Gist, who combined cinema with evangelical Baptism. Their pro-temperance Hell-Bound Train (1930), whose titular carriages are plagued with sin, was reconstructed by the Library of Congress, which also preserved Verdict Not Guilty (1934), a social commentary on the justice system screened extensively by the NAACP.
The fourth film is the landmark feature The Blood of Jesus (1941), preserved by Southern Methodist University and named to the National Film Registry in 1991. Written and directed by Spencer Williams, the vivid morality tale is described by Jacqueline Stewart as an “allegory of black urban migration and the dangers that urban life presents and the need to hold on to a certain kind of spiritual center.”
Music for Pioneers of African American Cinema is provided by a variety of artists, from Donald Sosin to DJ Spooky, the set’s executive producer. Those wishing for a visual preview can view a video on the restoration process or watch 15 of the films on Turner Classic Movies during the last two Saturdays of July, when they will be co-presented by Prof. Stewart.