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.
As 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 Train, Verdict: 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.