Exploring the Unsung ‘Pioneers of African-American Cinema’

The new box set is both a necessary contextualization of a cinematic movement and a counter-narrative to American film history.

How is it possible that the most prolific African-American filmmaker of the 20th century is still virtually unknown? Or that a filmmaking movement by African-Americans in the Jim Crow era receives only token acknowledgment in most film histories? During the first half of the 20th century, when African-Americans were virtually invisible in mainstream films, as many as 500 “race movies” were distributed in black theatres, most of them directed and financed by black filmmakers. “Everybody knows black sports, black music, this and that, but not so much black film,” says Paul D. Miller, the experimental hip-hop artist better known as DJ Spooky. “I think that’s radically changed now with people like Spike Lee or Tyler Perry, but those are all mainstream. For the more avant-garde arts, you’d be surprised.”

Miller discovered the “race movies” of while researching Rebirth of a Nation, his multimedia remix of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. “It just seemed like everybody knew about the white, racist films, but nobody knew about the progressive films of people of color,” he says. “I would say, ‘Hey, people, there’s this whole zone of films,’ and most people are like, ‘What? I didn’t know about that.’ And I just realized that I’d struck a resonant frequency of amnesia.”

Miller is the executive producer of Pioneers of African-American Cinema, a new five-disc Blu-Ray collection from Kino that should go a long way towards filling that void. Collecting over 30 films, including comedies, melodramas, westerns, musicals, vaudeville documentaries, and home movies, the collection is both a necessary contextualization of a cinematic movement and a counter-narrative to American film history.

Director Oscar Micheaux.
Director Oscar Micheaux.

 

The key filmmaker of the era is Oscar Micheaux, who wrote and directed as many as 40 films (15 still survive, none complete). The son of Kentucky slaves worked as a Pullman porter, saving enough money to buy a farm in South Dakota and thus becoming the state’s only black homesteader. He turned his exploits into a string of autobiographical novels, and travelled the country selling them door-to-door. His life story became the basis for his first film, The Homesteader (1919), which he promoted with Barnum-esque flair (“Destined to mark a new epoch in achievements of the Darker Races!”). While the indignity of Birth of a Nation immediately inspired a handful of black cinematic responses, Micheaux’s film was the movement’s first blockbuster.

Micheaux is well represented in this set, and his three surviving silent films are revelatory viewing. Within Our Gates (1920) follows the struggles of a mixed-race woman who tries to raise funds for a black schoolhouse, and faces opposition not only from racist whites, but also from a corrupt black preacher who accepts bribes from whites to encourage black subjugation. In The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), a light-skinned gangster sends the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize a black homesteader. And Body and Soul (1925) stars Paul Robeson in his film debut as an escaped convict who disguises himself as a preacher, using his position to steal money from the flock.

Micheaux’s best films are the most incendiary, painful, and ambitious in the collection, and all of his films announce their author’s presence. They usually star a Micheaux surrogate — a successful, entrepreneurial black man who triumphs in the face of adversity. They return obsessively to the topic of miscegenation: typically there’s the forbidden love between a black man and a white woman, resolved when the woman learns that she is actually mixed-race. They consistently attack black church leaders as being complicit in the suppression of the race.

How to account for Micheaux’s relative obscurity? There’s the obvious fact that the history of film has been written mostly by white men. There’s also the ideological challenge of Micheaux’s devotion to the black intellectual Booker T. Washington, including his philosophy of black self-reliance. There is also the issue that his sound films are, to put it kindly, unpolished (in The Girl from Chicago, Micheaux’s voice can be heard calling directions to the actors). His masterpieces Within Our Gates and Symbol of the Unconquered were lost until the ‘90s, long after critic J. Hoberman’s seminal 1980 essay “Bad Movies” compared Micheaux to another outsider artist, Ed Wood. Hoberman wrote of Micheaux’s “horrified fascination with miscegenation and ‘passing,’ his heedless blaming of the victim, his cruel baiting of fellow blacks,” and added, “Micheaux’s films are so devastatingly bad that he can only be considered alongside Georges Méliès, D.W. Griffith, Dziga Vertov, Stan Brakhage, and Jean-Luc Godard as one of the medium’s major formal innovators.”

Miller counters, “I’m impressed by and deeply respectful of his ability to really, really bring home the issues about class and social hierarchy in black culture. Because a lot of his stuff actually deals with the preachers and behind-the-scenes, scandalous behavior, so he really dug deep and was kind of like a spotlight on some of those issues.

“I kind of like controversial figures. I’m always drawn to the people who seem passionate about pushing those buttons. And of course, there’s probably some intense narratives in myself that are intrigued by that. [Micheaux’s] films and the other films in the box set are all reflections of an attempt to create a better mirror of society.”

Paul Robeson in "Body and Soul."
Paul Robeson in “Body and Soul.”

 

Beyond Micheaux, the set offers several works by Spencer Williams, whose performance as Andy on TV’s Amos ‘n Andy has overshadowed his status as a prolific filmmaker. His sin-and-salvation melodramas, like The Blood of Jesus and Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A., were popular church-basement items. Others films are escapist entertainments, taking inspiration from Hollywood studios: in The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), jazz musician Herb Jeffries became cinema’s first African-American cowboy star (the film would spawn two sequels). “My driving force was being a hero to children who didn’t have any heroes to identify with,” Jeffries said later. No less than Ossie Davis wrote in his forward to the book Black Cinema Treasure, “Sometimes the films behaved differently than the ones we saw in the white theater. It didn’t matter. It was ours, and even the mistakes were ours, and the fools were ours, and the villains were ours, and the people who won were ours, and the losers were ours.”

From a 21st century perspective, it is surprising how few of the films directly address the social inequalities of the era — opting instead to present images of black affluence. “The weird thing is, at that time, there was actually quite a bit of black middle class,” says Miller. “Because of segregation, black people had to make their own stores, they had to have their own communities, they had to have their own housing areas, and they were very much like contemporary immigrant now where they had their own areas. … But the whites got so angry and went in and destroyed these towns. There’s a long history of that — they just didn’t want to see black people be successful.”

The collection was funded partly through a successful Kickstarter campaign, and made with the participation of the Library of Congress, MoMA, BFI, George Eastman House, and other archives. The prints vary in quality, but all of them are miles ahead of the fuzzy, tinny-sounding versions available from budget DVD labels. “There’s stuff on the disc that by just about anyone’s standards is not ‘usable,’ just because I wanted to include it anyway,” says Bret Wood, producer of the collection.

“Probably the most unwatchable thing on the disc is the surviving fragment from Regeneration. I thought about cutting out some of the nitrate decomposition and leaving in the good parts. But then I thought the warped and melted film is kind of beautiful in its own right—leave it in! We’re doing something like 20 hours of material, so for once, instead of just trying to include the best of the best, let’s include everything, and hopefully people understand that while the source material is in very poor condition, it’s of historical importance.”

The collection also includes new musical accompaniment, with Miller contributing scores to Body and Soul and Within Our Gates. “When you score a film versus when you DJ, there’s a parallel logic at work,” says Miller. “You look at hip-hop, people like Wu-Tang Clan have sampled old Chinese films; film directors like Quentin Tarantino, he samples other film directors. With DJ culture and sampling, you’re appropriating historical materials, but to give it a new breath of life. The film scores I worked on for this project, they are electronic music updates of blues and jazz and rock and pop, but they’re also something that says, ‘This is about the cinematic imagination.’”

 

Pioneers of African American Cinema is available from Kino Classics on July 26.