Nearly 500 ‘race films’ were produced in the US between 1915 and 1952 but lost due to a combination of neglect and poor preservation, yet a new project shines spotlight on the early 20th-century films of Oscar Micheaux and others
Contemporary film-makers such as Ava DuVernay (Selma) and Nate Parker (Sundance prizewinner The Birth of a Nation) have recently delved into key moments in African American history for subject matter. But now a Kickstarter-funded restoration and distribution project – Kino Lorber’s ‘Pioneers of African American Cinema’ – aims to shine a long-overdue spotlight on the trailblazing wave of black American independent film-making that flourished in the early part of the 20th century.
Executive produced by Paul D Miller (aka DJ Spooky) and curated by historians Dr Jacqueline Stewart and Charles Musser, the project focuses on a thematically and stylistically diverse group of low-budget movies written, directed, starring and frequently funded, distributed and exhibited by black film-makers. They have long been grouped under the umbrella term “race films”, which has also been used to describe work targeted at other minority groups of the era, including Asian Americans.
Working independently of the Hollywood studio system, film-makers began making films for de jure segregated theatres in the south, and de facto segregated theatres in the north. At the movement’s height, there were more than 1,000 theatres in America that screened black-audience films either exclusively or on a preferential basis. Nearly 500 “race films” were produced in the United States between 1915 and 1952 and many of them are now lost due to a combination of neglect and poor preservation.
Stewart, a professor of film at the University of Chicago, says her biggest aim for the project is for the films to reach the widest possible audience, inspiring educators, students and aspiring young film-makers alike. “I’m hoping that people will be able to see the films on their own terms,” she adds. “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.”
One clear point of comparison is DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), the civil war and reconstruction-era epic that continues to be lauded for its technological and narrative advancements, but is forever circumscribed by its racist, one-dimensional portraits of black people as layabouts and lecherous savages.
“I want new viewers to be able to think about how the films were speaking to their intended audiences,” continues Stewart, “and to consider the amazing resonances they have with contemporary issues.” Few films in the collection resonate more startlingly with current matters than Illinois-born Oscar Micheaux’s incident-packed drama Within Our Gates (1920), which is the earliest surviving film directed by an African American. Micheaux’s first film, The Homesteader, also 1919, is considered lost.
Like many Micheaux films (including 1939’s Birthright, which is also in the Pioneers collection), Within Our Gates broaches complex subjects including the importance of education, the bi-directional social impact of the Great Migration, religion and class. The film also addresses the realities of violent white supremacy. Its final act largely comprises an extended flashback during which we discover the terrible circumstances motivating its protagonist’s quest: the lynching of her parents by a white mob, an atrocity depicted with an unflinching brutality that’s shocking even by today’s standards.
Indeed, Within Our Gates, made almost 100 years ago, is sadly still relevant in a time of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the disturbing maintenance of de facto segregation in education, and the influential presence of writers such as Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose work highlights the through-line of white supremacy from slavery and Jim Crow laws to racist housing policy and mass incarceration of black Americans.
Stewart’s favourite Pioneers film is Spencer Williams’s The Blood of Jesus (1941), a surreal morality tale about one woman’s struggle in the afterlife. It offers a compelling, entertaining counterpoint to Micheaux’s often despairingly cynical view of religion in black communities in his films. “The Blood of Jesus really tries to evoke something like a black spiritual experience on film,” says Stewart. “Williams uses some crude film-making methods, and hokey angel and devil costumes, but it’s a religious lexicon that was immediately recognizable and meaningful to black audiences.”
Another Pioneers gem that falls under the “crude” banner is Hellbound Train (1930), directed by self-taught, wife-and-husband, evangelist Christian team Eloyce and James Gist. Set on the eponymous train of iniquity, it is a carriage-by-carriage demonstration of Jazz Age sins (drinking, gambling, anything remotely resembling fun), punctuated by appearances from a prancing devil. The film is blunt, repetitive – maddeningly at first, then hypnotically – and deeply weird. It’s not hard to imagine a small child watching Hellbound Train and being scared straight for life.
The new version of Hellbound Train was painstakingly reconstructed from 35 fragmentary rolls of 35mm film. Some of the films also feature striking new scores, composed by Miller. His score for Within Our Gates, for example, integrates earthy blues, jazzy flamenco flourishes and even skeletal hip-hop beats, most notably in an exciting scene depicting a foiled robbery.
“I consider the music as a mirror of potential,” Miller told me over the phone. “People need to be able to think of blues, jazz, gospel, all these forms of music that came out of the recovery from the slavery experience. And, today, the ‘digital diaspora’, the movement of different African-derived cultural forms through the world. My soundtrack is about the fact that there is a deep history to celebrate.” A silent era fan, in 2005 Miller released the innovative Rebirth of a Nation, an impressionistically edited DJ cut of The Birth of a Nation, set to an evocative new score – an act of creative appropriation prefiguring Nate Parker’s recent pilfering of Griffith’s title.
The present-day emergence of these films after so many years raises the question: why did the production of “race movies” ever stop? One reason was rising costs: as America became increasingly market-oriented, it became increasingly difficult to make features on such microscopic budgets. Another, intriguingly, was the impact of integration, both socially and in the world of entertainment, as more black actors, such as Sidney Poitier, were included in white productions. But, as Stewart argues, the #OscarsSoWhite debate shows that integration only went so far.
“I think the important point here – and the point that Tyler Perry’s current success [with mainstream black audiences] reminds us of – is that we still don’t live in a totally integrated society,” says Stewart. “There’s still value and utility in the creation and maintenance of media spaces and public spheres that have a kind of black interiority. That still means something to many people.”
Like the rarely seen, and recently restored LA Rebellion films of the 1970s and 80s by film-makers such as Charles Burnett and Julie Dash, the Pioneers race movies are vital statements of black independence and spiritual, emotional interiority. They present a complex, multifaceted and artistically daring portrait of black life, and are in no way tailored for, or dependent for their success upon, the white gaze. They represent a crucial slice of America’s artistic past and present. Now is their time to shine.
Selected programs from Pioneers of African American Cinema take place at Film Forum NYC from 14 February to 7 March (see website for details); the Pioneers of African American Cinema box set will be released later this year