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Crossing Over the Color Line: Bret Wood on “Pioneers of African-American Cinema”

Eighteen months after its Kickstarter campaign reached its goal, Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” set is ready to dazzle film buffs with its extraordinary archive of rarely seen cinematic treasures. The indispensable work of trailblazing filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Maurice and James and Eloyce Gist are included in this pristine five-disc collection. Produced by Bret Wood and curated by Charles Musser and Jacqueline Stewart, the boxed set offers nineteen features along with a wealth of bonus material. Ebertfest attendees will be pleased to see Micheaux’s great 1925 film, “Body and Soul,” a selection at this year’s festival, included here, as well as a short scored by longtime festival guests, The Alloy Orchestra. 

Wood spoke with about the fascinating history of “race films,” the subversive genius of Micheaux and the decision on whether to include the work of white filmmakers in this set.

What impact do you believe these films have had on independent filmmakers throughout the past century?

The biggest lesson to be learned here is that you don’t have to be a part of the Hollywood machine in order to make films. I'm an independent filmmaker myself, and when I feel discouraged, I stop and think about the extraordinary challenges these filmmakers overcame. In terms of manufacturing a physical product, they had to produce the same thing as the major studios: about 6,000 feet of 35mm film. And any indie filmmaker can tell you, shooting 35mm isn’t cheap. But they did it anyway, with budgets a fraction of the size of even a studio B picture. And they did it without the infrastructure resources of a studio: costumes, art departments, lighting, sound departments, film labs. Somehow they managed. And they did all of this while struggling against racial oppression in its many forms. And here’s the kicker. Once the films were completed, they could only play a limited number of screens—those theaters that played “race films”—making it almost impossible for them to ever turn a profit. And yet they kept making movies. Whether you’re an audience member or a filmmaker, that level of passion for cinema is something that we should all aspire to.

This set goes against the norm of what would be deemed “releasable” by including irreparably damaged or incomplete prints.

When you release a film commercially, you almost always have to release it in its most complete and best possible form. It’s almost unheard of for an incomplete film to be released. To me, it’s a shame that so many films that don’t exist in their entirety are languishing in archives just because there is no commercially viable way for them to be released. So it was important to me to include these films, and this decision was permissible because we made it clear that this set is an archive project. That enables us to include films that have severe nitrate decomposition. Just that slight little academic spin, to me, justifies us doing something somewhat radical.

How did you and executive producer Paul J. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky) go about selecting composers to score each silent film?

The interesting thing about the films, which I hadn’t realized until I saw many of them, was the incredible diversity of styles and themes and forms. Paul was one of the first people to vocalize that we should reflect the diversity of filmmaking styles with a diversity of scores, while not making the films feel so firmly rooted in the 1920s or late 1910s. We wanted to make them relevant to contemporary viewers, and what better way than to find scores that have a more contemporary sound or instrumentation, though some have traditional scores as well. We have a nice balance of the straightforward silent movie score—whether it is the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra that did “The Flying Ace” or soloists like Makia Matsumura who did “The Scar of Shame”—and the more conceptual score, such as Rob Gal’s guitar accompaniment for “Eleven P.M.” It was fun to bend the conventions of silent film scoring. 

Would you say that the Lincoln Motion Picture Company and Ebony Film Corporation of Chicago played a key role in kick-starting the emergence of “race films”?

Yes, especially the Lincoln Company, but what is unfortunate is that virtually none of their output survived. We have a four-minute, fragmentary excerpt from one of their films, “By Right of Birth,” in the set. It’s very unfortunate that we won’t get to see what the films made by such a historically important company were like, but at least we can see a glimpse of it. Otherwise, we would just have to read about them in a book. You can see from even that little fragment that, compared to a lot of the other films in the collection, this company was making visually sophisticated movies that had what I would consider a technically polished Hollywood look. As for Ebony, Chicago was a hub for the African-American community. In her book, [Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity,] Jacqueline Stewart writes about how people left the South and migrated to urban centers. Chicago was like a big magnet and it became a cultural hub, so it makes perfect sense that it would spawn its own mini-film industry.

It’s stunning to see Oscar Micheaux make his own response to D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” with his 1920 film, “The Symbol of the Unconquered,” released 96 years prior to this year’s “The Birth of a Nation.”

It’s fascinating that an African-American would make a film in response to what was looked on, at the time, as the greatest film ever made. It was the most profitable film ever made and was considered a towering achievement of cinema. For an independent filmmaker to take a shot at it and call it out on its—I wouldn’t call it a racist undertone, but an overtone—and turn around the formula by portraying the hooded Klansman as a gang of crooks and thieves rather than an embodiment of justice is remarkably brave. It’s hard to imagine someone trying to topple something that was so highly regarded, but Oscar Micheaux was that kind of guy. He was willing to criticize things that other people held holy, and one of the best examples of that can be found in his very complicated view of religion. The films of Spencer Williams have a traditional depiction of the clergy and faith, whereas Oscar was consistently depicting ministers as a corrupting force. One of the great things about the films in this set is how they never cease to surprise you. Though you might think you know what the content and attitudes of a particular film are going to be, your expectations are often going to be contradicted. These films also address race in ways that are subtle as well. Micheaux was adept at exploring the subtle racism within the African-American community, especially when you get into the whole topic of passing for white.

He also subversively utilizes blackface in 1931’s “The Darktown Revue.”

I’m still trying to figure out what he was doing in “The Darktown Revue.” We debated whether or not this film should be included, and eventually decided that we had to show it because Micheaux is doing more than just staging a minstrel show. The film is an uncomfortable reaction to race entertainment on multiple levels. There is a sophisticated choir with formal attire that we think Micheaux intended as a reference to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, which was a group that stood as a shining beacon of high-brow culture within the African-American community. Micheaux puts his version of them onstage and the first thing he has them sing is “Watermelon Time.” He isn’t just staging a minstrel show for our amusement, but using the minstrel show format as an opportunity to slay some of the black community’s sacred cows, similar to what Spike Lee did with “Bamboozled." The last segment of “The Darktown Revue” shows a preacher portrayed by blackface performer Amon Davis, who delivers a sermon that is essentially a recitation of the alphabet. To me, he’s making fun of speaking in tongues. I was raised southern Pentecostal, so I immediately knew what he was doing. It’s a truly jaw-dropping moment, and I think the only way he got away with it was by doing it in the context of the cartoonish minstrel show. “The Darktown Revue” is a film where Micheaux is pushing every possible button, as far as breaking your expectations of what a black filmmaker would or should be doing in the early 1930s. 

Micheaux’s “Within Our Gates” (1920), the earliest surviving feature film by an African-American filmmaker, has a lynching sequence that contains very sophisticated editing. It skillfully juxtaposes images of severed rope and an encroaching mob with a struggle occurring between two characters. 

Yes, and it was a really bold choice on his part to put women and children in the mob, which we now know is historically accurate, even though most people would shy away from portraying it. He also shows the mob shooting an innocent child—who manages to get free and pretends to be dead after they shoot at him—which is just blistering. It really opens your eyes to how these filmmakers were doing things a century ago that are still mind-boggling even by contemporary standards.

My personal favorite film of the bunch is Richard Maurice’s “Eleven P.M.” (1928), which contains so many great surrealistic touches, such as the use of superimposition to convey flashbacks, dreams and hallucinations.

When you find a film like that, you immediately want to know more about the person who made it. Who was this guy who was making films in Detroit, and through what means was he able to make them? This is the only film Richard Maurice made, as far as we know, and it is so bizarre. Why would he choose to make something so dreamy and perplexing? The film shows how, in many cases, African-American filmmakers weren’t trying to emulate Hollywood films. There were a lot of renegade filmmakers who were going in their own direction. This is the kind of film that Kino Lobber could never have released on its own because no one’s heard of it or the filmmaker. In most people’s minds, it has no commercial value, but by putting it in the context of this set, its value is not only commercial but historical as well. It is a crucial part of a larger jigsaw puzzle. 

The set also includes the work of a white filmmaker, Richard E. Norman (“The Flying Ace”).

There were white filmmakers making “race films” through the 1930s and ‘40s—Edgar G. Ulmer made one—so it was not an anomaly. Early in his career, Norman made films with white actors. He was a regional filmmaker, based on Florida, who would travel through a city, shoot footage of local people, edit it together and then show it in that community. That was his novelty, so from the very beginning, he was sort of a niche filmmaker. I suppose it was natural that he would realize that African-Americans were a niche audience that wasn’t being marketed to. He saw that there were theaters playing films for black audiences and that there weren't enough films to fill those theaters, so he became a director of African-American films.

In an essay about “the color line” that is included with the collection, Charles Musser says that it’s unimportant to get bogged down in the details of whether a film is made by a black filmmaker or a white filmmaker. When I first came to this project, I was conflicted about whether we should include any films made by white filmmakers. Charles pointed out that there is this idea in people’s minds that the black artists are on one side and the white artists are on the other, and our ambition as a culture is to erase the color line. Rather than feel like a film made by a white director should be excluded or that we should put an asterisk next to it saying, “This is not a true African-American film,” we should celebrate those films too. They were made by people who wanted there to be a universal cinema, a cinema that is not just “whites only” and “blacks only.” These films are crossing over that line. Thinking about it that way really gave me a new appreciation for the films made by white filmmakers. 

How did Spencer Williams’ 1946 film, “Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.”, serve as a turning point toward the mainstream for “race films”?

When you see “Dirty Gertie,” it reminds you a lot of films that were being made within the studio system, things like “Stormy Weather” or “The Green Pastures.” It crosses over to a general viewership quite well. At a certain point, it was becoming a little more common to see African-Americans in Hollywood pictures, as well as Hollywood pictures with central African-American characters. The segregated cinema became less necessary. That’s when the baseball leagues became integrated and Jackie Robinson started playing in the majors. Jazz orchestras became integrated. You get a sense of these boundaries falling. They fell in some parts of the country more quickly than in others, but in general, it became less necessary for there to be this whole separate industry.

What would you consider your favorite discovery in the set? I loved the footage of Orson Welles’ 1936 stage production, “Voodoo Macbeth,” in “We Work Again.”

My favorite discovery in the set are the films of James and Eloyce Gist. Those movies are bizarre in their own right. I mean yes, they are religious films made to be shown in churches and accompanied by a sermon, yet they indulge in carefree and enjoyable depictions of vices—which are kind of random. You’ll see kids not listening to their parents or being cruel to animals, and then you’ll see bootlegging and murder. It covers the spectrum. [laughs] The films are fun to watch on that level, and I especially love the fact that they’re made by self-taught filmmakers and were intended to be shown outside of any theatrical context. I really love that level of independence when it comes filmmaking. Beyond the films themselves, it gave me an opportunity to work with Sam Waymon, who provided the music for them. One of my favorite films is Bill Gunn’s “Ganja & Hess” from 1973, and Waymon scored and acted in the film. It’s been a dream of mine to collaborate with someone from “Ganja & Hess,” and when I contacted Sam, he was excited to do it. It was a thrill for me to see an icon of independent black cinema scoring the independent black cinema of the 30s. There’s a beautiful circularity to that.

“Pioneers of African-American Cinema” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, July 26th. For more info or to purchase a copy, visit the official Kino Lorber site.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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