Pioneers of African American Cinema

Pioneers of African American Cinema

3 Seasons

Among the most fascinating chapters of cinematic history is that of the so-called “race films” that flourished in the U.S. between the 1920s and ’40s. Unlike the “black cast” films produced within the Hollywood studio system, these films not only starred African Americans but were funded, written, produced, edited, distributed, and often exhibited by people of color. Entrepreneurial filmmakers built an industry apart from the Hollywood establishment, cultivating visual and narrative styles that were uniquely their own. Among the trailblazing artists whose work is featured here are Oscar Micheaux, the first major African American feature filmmaker, whose body of work includes BODY AND SOUL, starring Paul Robeson in his film debut, and WITHIN OUR GATES; Spencer Williams, whose masterpiece THE BLOOD OF JESUS is among the most celebrated race films of the era; Zora Neale Hurston, the renowned writer who was also a pioneering ethnographic filmmaker; and James and Eloyce Gist, DIY evangelist filmmakers whose fascinating morality tales were exhibited in black churches. This landmark collection, curated by scholars Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart for Kino Lorber, collects an astonishing range of features, shorts, and fragments. Taken together, these vital, long-neglected works represent a rich alternative history of American cinema forged by innovative artists who defied systemic oppression to tell their own stories on-screen.

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Pioneers of African American Cinema
  • Pioneers of African American Cinema Teaser

    Episode 1

  • Within Our Gates

    Episode 2

    Directed by Oscar Micheaux • 1920 • United States
    Starring Evelyn Preer, William Starks, Mattie Edwards

    WITHIN OUR GATES is the earliest surviving feature film by an African American director. It was Oscar Micheaux’s second film (after 1919’s THE HOMESTEADER, now lost), centering on an idealisti...

  • The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Ku Klux Klan

    Episode 3

    Directed by Oscar Micheaux • 1920 • United States
    Starring Iris Hall, Walker Thompson, Lawrence Chenault

    THE SYMBOL OF THE UNCONQUERED is a response, of sorts, to D. W. Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION. In Oscar Micheaux’s rendition, the Klan (here renamed the Knights of the Black Cross) is depi...

  • Body and Soul

    Episode 4

    Directed by Oscar Micheaux • 1925 • United States
    Starring Paul Robeson, Mercedes Gilbert, Lawrence Chenault

    Although the 1920s brought him acclaim as a stage actor and singer, Paul Robeson still had to prove himself as a viable screen performer. Mainstream avenues were limited, however, and his...

  • The Flying Ace

    Episode 5

    Directed by Richard E. Norman • 1926 • United States
    Starring Laurence Criner, Kathryn Boyd, Steve Reynolds

    Unlike his 1923 film REGENERATION, Richard Norman’s THE FLYING ACE exists in its entirety, and the image quality is stunning. A rural crime drama revolving around a pair of rival aviators,...

  • Ten Nights in a Bar Room

    Episode 6

    Directed by Roy Calnek • 1926 • United States
    Starring Charles S. Gilpin, Lawrence Chenault, Harry Henderson

    Based on the hugely popular 1854 temperance novel by Timothy Shay Arthur (and William W. Pratt’s 1858 stage adaptation), Roy Calnek’s TEN NIGHTS IN A BAR ROOM boasts a masterful performan...

  • The Scar of Shame

    Episode 7

    Directed by Frank Perugini • 1929 • United States
    Starring Harry Henderson, Lucia Lynn Moses, Lawrence Chenault

    When a young woman (Lucia Moses) escapes from her abusive father (William E. Pettus), she is rescued by an aspiring composer (Harry Henderson), but encounters opposition from his class...

  • Eleven P.M.

    Episode 8

    Directed by Richard Maurice • 1928 • United States
    Starring Richard Maurice, Sammie Fields, Wanda Maurice

    Produced in Detroit, Michigan by little-known African American filmmaker Richard Maurice, ELEVEN P.M. is a surreal melodrama in which a poor violinist named Sundaisy (Maurice) tries to prote...

  • Hell-Bound Train

    Episode 9

    Directed by James Gist and Eloyce Gist • 1930 • United States

    HELL-BOUND TRAIN is arguably the most significant rediscovery in Pioneers of African American Cinema. The film is the work of self-taught filmmakers James and Eloyce Gist, African American evangelists who employed cinema as a tool for...

  • The Exile

    Episode 10

    Directed by Oscar Micheaux • 1931 • United States
    Starring Eunice Brooks, Stanley Morrell, Nora Newsome

    THE EXILE is the earliest surviving sound feature by an African American filmmaker. Director Oscar Micheaux responds to the arrival of sound with a change in his visual style, indulging in len...

  • The Girl from Chicago

    Episode 11

    Directed by Oscar Micheaux • 1932 • United States
    Starring Carl Mahon, Star Calloway, Alice B. Russell

    A remake of director Oscar Micheaux’s now-lost 1926 silent film THE SPIDER’S WEB, THE GIRL FROM CHICAGO is another film that explores the cultural rift between the urban and the rural, set in b...

  • Ten Minutes to Live

    Episode 12

    Directed by Oscar Micheaux • 1932 • United States
    Starring Lawrence Chenault, Willor Lee Guilford, Lorenzo Tucker

    Resisting the stagebound atmosphere of THE EXILE, Oscar Micheaux found ways to shoot a talking picture on location, without cumbersome and expensive audio recording equipment. He did...

  • Veiled Aristocrats

    Episode 13

    Directed by Oscar Micheaux • 1932 • United States
    Starring Lucille Lewis, Lawrence Chenault, Walter Fleming

    A remake of director Oscar Micheaux’s (now lost) 1925 film THE HOUSE BEHIND THE CEDARS, VEILED ARISTOCRATS exists in incomplete form, but the missing footage does not impair one’s enjoymen...

  • Birthright

    Episode 14

    Directed by Oscar Micheaux • 1938 • United States
    Starring Carman Newsome, Ethel Moses, Alec Lovejoy

    An idealistic young man attempts to establish a school in a rural location, but encounters opposition from both the black and white communities. Director Oscar Micheaux himself was a former homes...

  • The Bronze Buckaroo

    Episode 15

    Directed by Richard C. Kahn • 1939 • United States
    Starring Herb Jeffries, Lucius Brooks, Artie Young

    A Hollywood-style western with a black cast, THE BRONZE BUCKAROO stars Herb Jeffries as singing cowboy Bob Blake, a smooth, brave, and honorable hero who is assisted by his comic sidekick Dusty,...

  • The Blood of Jesus

    Episode 16

    Directed by Spencer Williams • 1941 • United States
    Starring Cathryn Caviness, Spencer Williams, Juanita Riley

    The first feature by director/actor Spencer Williams (commonly remembered today as Andy on TV’s “Amos ’n’ Andy”), THE BLOOD OF JESUS is a rural religious parable in which a woman (Cathr...

  • Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.

    Episode 17

    Directed by Spencer Williams • 1946 • United States
    Starring Francine Everette, Don Wilson, Katherine Moore

    In an unauthorized retelling of W. Somerset Maugham’s short story “Miss Thompson,” Francine Everette stars as Gertie La Rue, a nightclub entertainer who arrives at a Caribbean resort to en...