Preserving the history of America’s first black filmmakers

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KARLA MURTHY, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND: In the early part of 20th century, with racial segregation still in place in much of the U.S., black filmmakers made movies for black audiences, outside the white hollywood mainstream. They produced around 500 so-called “race films,” but most are lost to history.

To preserve America’s first “independent” cinema, this year, the company Kino Lorber released a five disc collection combining 20 hours of these films called The Pioneers of African-American Cinema.

The collection of 16 feature films and shorts — mainly from the 1920s and 30s — includes comedies, dramas, and documentaries. They not only starred black actors, the films were often written, directed, and produced by african-americans.

Executive Producer Paul Miller, a musician also known as DJ Spooky, raised money for the project initially through a kickstarter campaign.

PAUL MILLER, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER OF THE PIONEERS OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA: We helped them raise a little bit under maybe $100,000 just, (snaps) you know, in like a week and some change. And I love to think of it as a festival in a box.

KARLA MURTHY: So the New York Times called this project– this is what it said about it, “From the perspective of cinema history, and American history for that matter, there has never been a more significant video release than Pioneers of African American Cinema. So why is this collection so significant?

PAUL MILLER: Well, the interesting thing about American history is we have what I call selective amnesia. And Americans love to forget. Like, people, what Korean War? Did we ever occupy the Philippines? So putting the box set together was kind of a situation of reclaiming these hidden histories of very positive, and pro what I call multicultural visions of this history of American cinema, which is usually again very white white-washed.

KARLA MURTHY: How revolutionary was it at that time that these films were actually able to get made and seen?

PAUL MILLER: You’ve got to remember it was incredible that African-Americans saw themselves on the screen. Usually most portrayals of African-Americans in the larger white culture were meant to be very derogatory. So by reclaiming that space in the culture you could show positive images of black people outside of the white context.

KARLA MURTHY: Miller says mainstream movies portrayed African-Americans – often by whites in blackface – as unintelligent and bumbling, or evil, dangerous villains.

By contrast, in the African-American-made race films, black characters often were heroic, intelligent, and romantic…teachers, detectives, pilots, cowboys… roles Hollywood reserved for whites.

Take the earliest film in the box set, the 1915 slapstick comedy called Two Knights of Vaudeville. In the 11-minute short, the two main characters find theater tickets and end up in the best seats in the house, which would have been for whites.

PAUL MILLER: At that time, it must have been shocking and wild. And it must have also been very tickling to the audience. And people must have thought it was hilarious. So, it was a real treasure to find that one.

KARLA MURTHY: The Blood of Jesus, from 1941, is a deeply religious film about a woman on her deathbed who’s having a crisis of faith. Shot on location in Texas, it was written and directed by Spencer Williams, who also starred in the film. The Blood of Jesus was one of the most successful race movies ever made and was added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 1991.

KARLA MURTHY: So was that kind of film just nonexistent at the time?

PAUL MILLER: Those kinds of portrayals of African Americans within the context of spirituality and within the context of a positive image of community and religiosity, they weren’t around.

KARLA MURTHY: The set also contains nine films by director Oscar Micheaux, a one-time pullman train porter turned self-taught, prolific, filmmaker.

PAUL MILLER: Oscar Micheaux was mostly considered to be the foundation DNA of African American cinema, because again he was independent. He dealt with topics and themes that were directly related to black experiences and with a powerful statement.

KARLA MURTHY: Micheaux tackled issues like racism, lynchings, interracial relationships, and poverty from a black perspective. His films were often a direct response to the earlier, monumental film by D.W. Griffith, The Birth of Nation, which negatively portrayed blacks and glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

By contrast, Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, from 1920, the earliest surviving feature film directed by an African-American, the heroine is a mixed race woman named Sylvia, who goes to the north to raise money for a school for poor black children in the south.

PAUL MILLER: In Within Our Gates, the mixed race character really is viewed as a warm, and supportive person. In Birth of a Nation, a mixed race person is viewed as betraying both races. The mulatto, the mixed race person. They’re fooling the Whites, and they’re using the Blacks. And the idea of being biracial or multiracial was viewed as kind of a disruption of the established order.

KARLA MURTHY: What kind of role do you see the films in this collection playing, in America today within this context?

PAUL MILLER: I think post-2016 election, we really need to all take some perspective about racial politics and the anxiety of different segments of the population about being left behind, or lower income Whites who one could argue the election was about their economic anxieties. On the other hand, with African-American culture, after seeing an eight years of an African-American president, we also need to understand that there’s been a long history of positive images of African-Americans.

So the box set is more important than ever precisely because it looks at the archive. And many of these films were lost. Many of these films were difficult to find. And by restoring them, and putting them in a boxset, one place, one stop shop, I think it gives people a powerful tool to look at the history of cinema, again not just African American, but overall.

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