Tag Archives: Oscar Micheaux

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.

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.”

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Dig deep and discover the pioneers of African-American cinema

Pioneers

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.

Oscar Micheaux
Oscar Micheaux

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.

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