The Pioneers of African-American Cinema review: an ambitious and excellent release

Christmas is a time for happy endings. And box sets too, to be honest. Last year I posted about an ambitious new project from Kino Lorber – a box set of early work by African-American film pioneers. Films that were funded, produced, written, directed by and starring people of colour. These were films we have had precious few chances to see, or less than that, and they were going to be restored, and where appropriate, rescored. Not easy.

The first happy ending is that Kino pulled it off – and if you supported the project on Kickstarter, you may well have received a parcel this summer containing a shiny set of discs and a thick booklet of essays by Paul D Miller (DJ Spooky), Charles Musser, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Rhea L Combs and Mary N Elliott.

I can't lie – this is some pretty exciting post! #silentfilm #classicfilm #africanamericancinema

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For those who didn’t have the cash to pledge at the time, or who can’t play imported discs, the BFI has stepped in to create another happy ending. This Christmas, the BFI has released its own matching version of the box set for the UK– and this isn’t so much a review as a recommendation.

This collection, The Pioneers of African-American Cinema, comprises five discs, with more than 20 hours of material, ranging from 1915-1946, with archive interviews from much later. There are feature-length musicals, war movies, evangelical films, anthropological footage shot by writer Zora Neale Hurston, amateur actualities by an Oklahoma Reverend, several works by Oscar Micheaux, and much more on these discs.

Watching these films is revelatory. In fact, just browsing the list of titles is an education. These films represent an obscured history of African-American filmmaking, an alternative film industry that existed largely separate to but alongside Hollywood, and a survey of African-American culture in the first half of the century. Many of these films directly address social issues, or comment slyly on Hollywood whitewashing. And many of them deal directly with faith and religion, from full-on cinematic sermons to the posturing preachers that so often appear in Micheaux’s films. As James Bell writes in his comprehensive review of the set in this month’s Sight & Sound: “Its significance for expanding a wider understanding of American cinema history can hardly be overstated.”

Silents-wise we must begin with Micheaux – two of his features played at BFI Southbank recently and three are currently available on BFI Player (though two are subscription-only). He’s not the biggest name here, though, that’s Paul Robeson, who stars in his Body and Soul (1925). There are seven more Micheaux films collected here, including all his surviving silent work – from the provocative minstrelsy of The Darktown Revue (1931) to his message film Birthright, a 1938 remake of one his own silents – which would be worth the price in themselves.

Some of the early films on this set, such as Regeneration (1923) are almost swallowed by nitrate decomposition, a sharp reminder of how lucky we are to be seeing this much at all. The very earliest films here are rowdy comedies made by the Ebony Film Corporation and directed by Luther Pollard. All broadly enjoyable stuff, the kind of slapstick that is never as simple as it looks.

Speaking of comedy, some of you may know the name Spencer Williams, as Andy from Amos ‘n Andy. He appears both as an actor (The Bronze Buckaroo, 1939) and director in this set: his “race film” The Blood of Jesus (1941) is an astonishing religious allegory, with a young woman’s soul in peril, and some brilliant musical sequences.

Lucia Lynn Moses in The Scar of Shame (1929)
Lucia Lynn Moses in The Scar of Shame (1929)

Among the silent features I really enjoyed the vicious social drama The Scar of Shame (1929), which I confess I picked out to watch just because it was namechecked in Losing Ground (1982). This was just the sort of thing you might expect DeMille or Walsh to be making a few years earlier, with high drama, low society and a smattering of sex and violence – but its main selling point is a stunning, luminous performance from Lucia Lynn Moses as the tragic lead.

Enjoyment of a different kind comes from the brutal sermon Hell-Bound Train (1930). In this evangelical curio a dancing devil periodically rejoices to see the vices of foolish sinners whose acts set them on a train destined for damnation. Its less well-known sequel, Heaven-Bound Travellers (1935) is included too – in fact it was only discovered during the process of compiling the set.

african-dvd

The scores for both those films,, by Samuel D Waymon, are especially strange but then again totally fitting. The silents have all been freshly scored – and it’s a real treat to hear excellent themes by a selection of names new and familiar: DJ Spooky, Donald Sosin, Makia Matsumura and the Alloy Orchestra, Max Roach, Andrew Simpson and Waymon.

There’s far more for me to explore in this set, and I will dedicate some of my festive break to doing just that. What I have seen so far convinces me that this is a rare and important release – excellently researched and presented, on both DVD and Blu-ray. If you haven’t caught up with this fine box set yet then now is the time to order it, or make a last-minute addition to your Christmas list. And almost the best thing about it is, just how much confidence it gives us in Kino Lorber’s next project.

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3 thoughts on “The Pioneers of African-American Cinema review: an ambitious and excellent release”

  1. Pamela: Thank you for your review! I just received my copy of this DVD set on Wednesday. I’ve been putting it off for awhile but I finally purchased it and it arrived a couple of days ago. I’ve already cracked it open and begun to discover a number of eye-openers. It lives up to every critics’ recommendation. I’m glad it was released in the UK where it will find a bigger audience. I have another box-set containing Kenneth McPherson’s 1930 Borderline–a British silent with Paul Robeson. It’s one of my favourites.

    P.S. I also listened to your interview on BBC about Napoleon–another release that I’m waiting to arrive from the UK as the first one was lost in transit. (I even purchased an all-region DVD player so that I can screen the film.) I was disappointed but not surprised at your radio interviewer–but not you! Silent films can be a tough sell for many people, never mind a new release that tops 5-1/2 hours. I think you were excellent at trying to get in a few magic points in the limited timeframe, along with tacit resistance encountered regarding the film’s importance. I’ve found a near state of incredulity about this film when I mention it, even to self-ascribed film buffs.

    Keep up the good work in 2017! I loved your articles in The Guardian. Well-positioned topics and arguments to attract a broader audience.

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