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Forgotten African American Women of Early Hollywood

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Here’s a really important new exhibition at the California African American Museum; above, Iris Hall as Eve Mason in The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), directed by Oscar Micheaux.

As the notes for exhibition outline, “curated by Tyree Boyd-Pates, History Curator and Program Manager, CAAM, and the Tyree Boyd-Pates, Center Stage [is] an exhibition that considers pioneering African American filmmakers and production companies in the early 20th century that provided African American women the opportunity to participate in front of, and behind, the camera. They challenged disparaging portrayals of black women in Hollywood, and instead conveyed their wit, intelligence, and talent for largely black audiences to admire and emulate. The exhibition runs from June 28 to October 15, 2017.

Produced for American audiences between 1910 and 1950, these motion pictures were commonly called race films. CAAM will screen several rarely seen examples, including Oscar Micheaux‘s Within Our Gates (1920) and The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), extant clips from Lincoln Picture Company’s The Symbol of the Unconquered (1921, dir. Harry Grant), The Scar of Shame (1929), The Scar of Shame (1941, dir. Spencer Williams), and others. Each film features women protagonists and captures the spirit of entrepreneurship and African American upliftment characteristic of race films from this era.”

As Nadra Nittle adds in an article on the series on the KCET website, “Hollywood has long had a problem with representation and diversity, especially concerning anyone female and nonwhite. In the first half of the 20th century, black women were largely relegated to playing mammy and Jezebel roles. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation even depicted African Americans as rapists and imbeciles, leading to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The black woman’s unfortunate standing in Hollywood history is why the California African American Museum’s “Center Stage: African American Women in Silent Race Films,” which runs until October 15, is so significant. It reveals how as early as 100 years ago, independent black filmmakers presented complex portrayals of women of color that major studios never fathomed. These silent gems depict black women exploring their religious faith, fighting for the rights of African Americans and in loving relationships. They underscore how even today Hollywood has much ground to cover in its depiction of black women.”

I have been running these films in my classes for years, way back in the 1970s in the 16mm era, when they were first made available in prints from the original 35mm negatives. But with the passing of time, it seems that people forget, and new generations need to be reminded, of the immense value of these works – films, directors, and actors who made an enormous and indelible contribution to the history of the cinema. Not only are these films an essential part of cinema history; they offer an effective antidote to the evils of D.W. Griffith’s ultra-racist Birth of A Nation, which is still being widely screened while these far superior films are neglected. It’s time to change that – forever.

This is an amazing chance to see these key works; don’t miss it if you’re in Los Angeles.

An Essential 5 DVD Set: Pioneers of African-American Cinema

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

A restoration of these films has been a long time coming – get this set when it comes out in July.

This incredible collection – coming out shortly on DVD and Blu-ray, is a must for any serious library of American cinema, featuring some of the most historically vital works of America’s legendary first African-American filmmakers, and is the only comprehensive collection of its kind. There have been DVD releases of many of the individual films included here, but in cheap editions, without digital restoration, and now, finally, we can see them as they were meant to be seen.

Funded in part by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, the packaged set includes no fewer than a dozen feature-length films and nearly twice as many shorts and rare fragments. Subject matter includes race issues that went unaddressed by Hollywood for decades. The directors include Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, and many others whose films deserve a much wider audience.

Films in the collection include: Birthright (1938), The Blood of Jesus (1941), Body and Soul (1925), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), By Right of Birth (fragment, 1921), Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina (excerpt, 1940), The Darktown Revue (1931), Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (1946), Eleven P.M. (1930), The Exile (1931), The Flying Ace (1926), God’s Stepchildren (1938), Heaven-Bound Traveler (1933), Hellbound Train (1930), Hot Biskits (1931), Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (1918), Regeneration (fragment, 1923), The Scar of Shame (1929), S.S. Jones Home Movies (1924-26), The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the KKK (1920), Ten Minutes to Live (1932), Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926), Two Knights of Vaudeville (1918), Veiled Aristocrats (1932), Verdict Not Guilty (1934), We Work Again (1937) and Within Our Gates (1920).

The set features musical scores (for the silent films) by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Max Roach, Samuel D. Waymon, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Makia Matsumura, Alloy Orchestra, Rob Gal, Andrew Simpson.

Bonus Features: Optional English Subtitles, 80-page booklet with essays and detailed film notes; Interviews with series curators Charles Musser and Jacqueline Stewart; Documentary on the restoration of the films; Documentary on the restoration efforts of the Library of Congress; Archival interview with actors Ethel and Lucia Moses (1978); Tyler Texas Black Film Collection promo film (with Ossie Davis, 1985) and more!

Although these films have been available for many decades – I’ve run them in my classes for a long time – the film prints were often battered and scratched, 16mm dupes that lacked the depth and quality of the original negatives. Here, these films have been lovingly restored in a collection that is an essential part of the history of the American cinema. This is the part of film history you’ve probably missed – and shouldn’t.

This is an amazing act of historical reclamation – a must have for everyone.

Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema”

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

The films of Spencer Williams, Oscar Micheaux, and other pioneering African-American filmmakers get a much deserved Blu-ray upgrade.

As Tambay A. Obenson reports in Shadow and Act: On Cinema of the African Diaspora in Indiewire, Kino Lorber is starting a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of one of the most ambitious projects involving the history of African-American cinema ever attempted, involving an enormous amount of research, restoration, and a wide range of films.

As Obenson writes, “considering conversations we’ve long had on this blog about efforts to collect the lot of ‘black films’ from yesteryear (especially those considered ‘lost’ to history, unseen or rarely screened publicly) and making them widely-accessible in one complete set, digitally restored (HD) and remastered, this is one message, one campaign that S&A certainly approves of.

Coincidentally, starting this Friday, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, kicks off its own groundbreaking series, ‘Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968 – 1986,’ programmed by Michelle Materre and Jake Perlin, and co-presented by Creatively Speaking. The below collection from Kino Lorber will cover the years 1914 to 1944.

I recall attending an Oscar Micheaux celebration some years ago, and in speaking to the curators, learned the challenges they faced in hunting down prints of as many of his films as they could get their hands on. It was interesting to learn of how scattered ownership of each was. Not rights specifically, but rather where each physically resided. For example, a print for one of his films (I can’t recall which title it was right now) was tracked down all the way in France, and, as I remember, it was the only one in existence. So this is all quite ambitious!”

As Kino Lorber’s comments on the project note, “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 . . .”

“Pioneers of African-American Cinema”  will be released February, 2016.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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