DVD Review: Pioneers of African-American Cinema

Oscar Micheaux

When segregation was prevalent in America, even films were impacted. In some areas, black people had their own movie theaters to attend, while other movie theaters had designated screenings and sections for black moviegoers. Films were also produced specifically for black audiences. These films were often referred to as “race films,” although the term “race film” applied to any film aimed at minority audiences, not just black audiences. These films featured casts full of black actors and had black people involved behind the camera as well. Kino Lorber has recently released a DVD/blu-ray set of these films in their new Pioneers of African-American Cinema collection.

Pioneers of African-American Cinema includes 19 feature-length films, 12 shorts, plus several brief fragments and home movies. Thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign, Kino was able to put this set together using the best known existing source material and beautifully restore everything as well as they possibly could. Many of the films included in this set have never been released on home video before.

Pioneers of African American CinemaAs you watch the films in this collection, it’s abundantly clear that these were not made within the mainstream Hollywood system. They were produced on lower budgets with non-professional actors, but there is a tremendous amount of soul and artistic vision behind them. While many of the films in this collection were intended as entertainment for entertainment’s sake, such as The Bronze Buckaroo and Dirty Gertie From Harlem U.S.A., many others deal with deeper themes like spirituality, class, racism, and social issues in ways you don’t see in more mainstream Hollywood productions of the era. The work of Oscar Micheaux, who is known for his commitment to producing films that showed African-American characters in a positive light, is very well represented here.

But even the films that were intended to be pure entertainment still open the door to interesting discussions of race. Two Knights of Vaudeville is a comedy short, very similar to what you might expect to see in a Mack Sennett or Hal Roach short. While Luther Pollard, a manager and producer at Ebony Films, stated it proved that black performers could be just as funny as white ones without relying on stereotypes like eating watermelon or stealing chickens, just a few years after its original release, some criticized it because they felt the characters were an embarrassing reflection on the race.

One of the most fascinating things about this collection is that not all of the films in it were produced with the intention of them ever being shown in a conventional movie theater.  The collection includes some home movies, plus three films by James and Eloyce Gist, a couple of evangelists who produced their own films to incorporate into sermons. These films, Hellbound TrainVerdict: Not Guilty, and Heaven-Bound Travels, naturally deal with morality, spirituality, and other religious themes.

Anyone with an interest in film history is aware of how many films have been lost due to lack of preservation, but these films by African American filmmakers have a particularly low survival rate. Not everything featured in this collection is known to exist in its complete form. Some films, such as The Symbol of the Unconquered, are mostly complete with some missing segments while others, like By Right of Birth and Regeneration, only exist in brief fragments. Some of the fragments are in pretty rough shape. The fact that so many of these extremely important films are together in one collection, regardless of their completeness or overall picture quality, is just one of the many reasons why this set so fantastic. This is the most comprehensive film collection of this sort ever produced. For far too long, these films have been under-preserved, but now we have a beautifully produced collection that makes this overlooked part of film history readily available to the public. If you have an interest in seeing various portrayals of race in film, you’re certainly going to want to get this set. But even if you just have a deep interest in American film history, there’s a lot of very interesting things to see here.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this set from Kino Lorber.


Simpson Sundays: Maude Bates

Norman Bates Hole in Wall Psycho

Season 4, Episode 21: Marge in Chains

In this episode, Marge is arrested for shoplifting after she mistakenly forgets to pay for something at the Kwik-E-Mart. Springfield is a small town, so news of her arrest quickly tarnishes her reputation. Even the town’s most religious family, the Flanders, feels like they can’t trust Marge anymore. When Marge visits their home and leaves to wash her hands, Maude follows and goes into a neighboring room and removing a picture that’s covering a hole in the wall so she can keep an eye on her, much like how Norman Bates watches Marion Crane undress in her motel room in Psycho.



Simpson Sundays: Scratchtasia

Mickey Mouse Fantasia

Season 6, Episode 4: Itchy and Scratchy Land

When a new theme park opens around based around the cartoon Itchy and Scratchy, Bart and Lisa beg Homer and Marge to go there on their family vacation. Marge is a skeptical at first, given the family’s history of vacations ending badly, but she eventually agrees. The vacation does, indeed, end badly. But it starts out pretty well and at one point, Bart and Lisa attend a video presentation about the life of Roger Meyers, Sr., the creator of Itchy and Scratchy, which says that Meyers’ proudest career achievement was the feature length, animated film Scratchtasia, a parody of Walt Disney’s masterpiece Fantasia. 

The Simpsons Scratchtasia

Simpson Sundays: Pickfair, Schtickfair

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks at Pickfair

Season 7, Episode 15: Bart the Fink

After Bart inadvertently gets Krusty the Clown in trouble with the IRS, the government seizes all of Krusty’s assets, including his fast food restaurants and the sets and props from his TV show. Just when he thinks things can’t get any worse, he returns home to discover that the government is auctioning off all his belongings and family heirlooms. As he walks up to his house, we see that his estate is named Schtickfair, a parody of Pickfair, the legendary home owned by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

Krusty the Clown Schtickfair

Simpson Sunday — Lisa Simpson: Million Dollar Mermaid

Esther Williams Million Dollar Mermaid

Season 6, Episode 1: Bart of Darkness

During a major heatwave, Bart and Lisa beg Homer and Marge to get a swimming pool at home. When they finally relent, the swimming pool has the unintended effect of making Bart and Lisa the two most popular kids at Springfield Elementary. But after Bart breaks his leg, he’s forced to watch Lisa and all the other kids have fun in the pool from his bedroom window, which includes an homage to the elaborate Busby Berkeley-directed musical numbers from various Esther Williams movies, featuring Lisa as a stand-in for Esther.

Simpsons Busby Berkeley Musical Parody

Lisa Simpson as Esther Williams

What’s on TCM: September 2016

Gene Hackman The Conversation

Happy September, everyone! Summer may be winding down, but TCM sure has lots of great programming to look forward to. If you’re a fan of slapstick comedy, you’re going to be in heaven all month long. Similar to the spotlight they did to westerns a couple months ago, TCM will be doing a spotlight on slapstick comedy every Tuesday and Wednesday night this month. And much like they did during last year’s Summer of Darkness film noir festival, TCM has partnered with Ball State University to offer a free course about slapstick comedy.

In addition to all the pie fights and pratfalls, Gene Hackmann is September’s Star of the Month and his work will be highlighted every Friday night. And if you’re one of the millions of people saddened by the recent death of the great Gene Wilder, mark your calendar for TCM’s tribute to him on September 29th.

Now, let’s get on to the schedule.


Simpson Sunday: These are Not the Aliens Homer is Looking For

Gort The Day the Earth Stood Still

Season 8, Episode 10: The Springfield Files

While walking home from Moe’s Tavern one night, after a few beers naturally, Homer has an encounter with an alien in the woods. Nobody else believes Homer’s story, but news of his story makes its way to the FBI and agents Scully and Mulder of the X-Files come to Springfield to investigate. As part of the process, they ask Homer to look at a line-up of aliens to see if he recognizes any of them:

Alien Lineup The Springfield Files

The line-up happens to include famous movie aliens Gort from 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still and Chewbacca. And, for good measure, there’s also Marvin the Martian and TV’s Alf.