Have you ever heard that phrase “pale, male and stale”? I don’t really like it myself, but it has its uses. It’s how us hardbitten hacks like to oh-so cynically refer to the Establishment with a capital E – the Etonians in our cabinet, the stuffy old geezers at the top of our legal system, the posh “luvvies” winning all the big arts prizes. It’s not that we don’t like old white men, it’s just that the world is bigger than that, right?
So, we want the people who represent, protect and entertain us today to reflect our own diversity – that’s a no-brainer. Sometimes it seems as if there is a long way to go, but we shouldn’t “whitewash” history either. There are a whole range of factors at play here, but the simple fact is that it’s too easy to forget to contribution made by women, people of colour and other minorities to our cultural past. Picture a silent movie set, and you’d be forgiven for visualising a sea of white faces, and a chap in riding trousers calling the shots. But the truth is more complicated, and more exciting, than that.
A new venture from Kino Lorber is intended to push that “pale, male and stale” image right out of our minds. The American label is collating a box set of movies from the earliest African-American film-makers – from Oscar Micheaux to Maria P Williams. If you didn’t know there were any – well, that’s understandable, but now you know that there were, you should be intrigued. And if you are intrigued, or if you are punching the air and shouting “Finally!”, there’s good and bad news to come.
The bad news is that Kino Lorber can’t fund this project alone. The mastering and production of the eight feature films and numerous shorts is all covered. But a little more cash is required for the scores and the extras. The good news (oh yes), is that you can help. There’s a Kickstarter happening, people, and if you have ever been tempted to invest in a silent cinema project, this is one of the best. Over to Kino Lorber for the full pitch.
Among the most fascinating chapters of film history is that of the so-called “race films” that flourished in the 1920s – ‘40s. Unlike the “black cast” films produced within the Hollywood studio (such as Stormy Weather or Green Pastures), these films not only starred African Americans but were funded, written, produced, directed, distributed, and often exhibited by people of color. Entrepreneurial filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, and Richard D. Maurice not only built an industry apart from the Hollywood establishment, they also cultivated visual and narrative styles that were uniquely their own. Defying convention and operating outside the studio system, these filmmakers were the forefathers (and -mothers) of the French New Wave, the L.A. Rebellion, and the entirety of American indie cinema. Anything but imitative, these Pioneers of African-American Cinema were purely innovative.
Renowned for its deluxe editions of masterpieces of world cinema, Kino Lorber will now pay tribute to the Pioneers of African-American Cinema with an ambitious four-disc collection. If the campaign achieves its primary goal, the series will include eight feature films and a variety of short films and fragments, a color booklet of photos and essays, and will be offered on Bluray and DVD. All films will be newly mastered in high definition from film elements preserved by the country’s leading film archives, including The Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Silent films will be accompanied by a variety of original music scores. Some soundtracks will have a more contemporary sound, encouraging the viewer to watch these films with a fresh perspective. For the sake of historical accuracy, each silent film will also include a traditional score intended to replicate the 1920s moviegoing experience.
Curated by film historians Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, and presented by executive producer DJ Spooky, Pioneers of African-American Cinema will showcase not only the works of Micheaux and Williams, but lesser-known filmmakers such as James and Eloyce Gist, as well as rarely-seen footage shot by writer Zora Neale Hurston. It will also include selections of “race films” made by white directors, such as Richard E. Norman and Frank Peregini. Without a doubt, it will be the most comprehensive collection of early African-American cinema ever assembled. The handsomely packaged collection will be released in February, 2016, to coincide with the celebration of Black History Month.
Click here to contribute – you can give as much or as little as you’d like, of course, and there are a variety of rewards, some of which can be easily distributed to us Brits.
Please give what you can. I really think that it will be worth it.
- African-American women in the silent film industry
- NAACP history: Oscar Micheaux
- Steven Thrasher: Oldest surviving film with an all-black cast moved me to tears