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

  • Two Knights of Vaudeville

    Episode 2

    Directed by Unknown • 1915 • United States
    Starring Jimmy Marshall, Frank Montgomery, Florence McClain

    The Ebony Film Corporation may have been a white-owned company, but African American producer Luther Pollard used it as a means of getting black faces on the silver screen, as in this slapstick...

  • Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled

    Episode 3

    Directed by R. G. Phillips • 1918 • United States

    One of Ebony Film Corporation’s most ambitious comedies is, like most of their surviving work, tragically marred by the decomposition of the nitrate film stock. Fortunately, enough of the storyline shines through that it may still be appreciated ...

  • A Reckless Rover

    Episode 4

    Directed by C. N. David • 1918 • United States
    Starring Sam Robinson

    Chased from his apartment by a policeman, ne'er-do-well Rastus Jones (Sam Robinson) finds refuge in a Chinese laundry, where he wreaks havoc and has a memorable encounter with an improperly filled opium pipe. A RECKLESS ROVER p...

  • By Right of Birth

    Episode 5

    Directed by Harry A. Gant • 1921 • United States
    Starring Clarence Brooks, Anita Thompson, Webb King

    This precious four-minute clip represents the only surviving work of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company (founded in 1916 by brothers Noble and George Johnson). BY RIGHT OF BIRTH was the final pr...

  • Regeneration

    Episode 6

    Directed by Richard E. Norman • 1923 • United States

    Only a single reel of Richard Norman’s seafaring thriller REGENERATION survives, and that reel is almost completely consumed with nitrate decomposition. But watching the decayed images pulse and swirl, the viewer cannot help but contemplate th...

  • Rev. S. S. Jones Home Movies

    Episode 7

    Directed by Reverend Solomon Sir Jones • 1924–1928 • United States

    Amateur photographer Reverend Solomon Sir Jones used his 16 mm camera to capture candid glimpses of life in the African American communities of rural Oklahoma.

  • Verdict: Not Guilty

    Episode 8

    Directed by James Gist and Eloyce Gist • 1933 • United States

    In this surreal filmed pageant—presided over by a horrific skull-faced jailer in a nun’s habit—a woman faces the throne of judgment and must account her iniquities to earn God’s mercy.

  • Heaven-Bound Travelers

    Episode 9

    Directed by James Gist and Eloyce Gist • 1935 • United States

    Presented here are the only identified fragments of James and Eloyce Gist’s little-known follow-up to HELL-BOUND TRAIN: HEAVEN-BOUND TRAVELERS. A man wrongfully accuses his wife (Eloyce Gist) of adultery and banishes her (and their da...

  • The Darktown Revue

    Episode 10

    Directed by Oscar Micheaux • 1931 • United States
    Starring Tim Moore, Andrew Trible, Amon Davis

    As a filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux was something of a firebrand, but his attitudes and methods were anything but predictable—often leveling criticism at certain strata of the African American community. H...

  • Hot Biskits

    Episode 11

    Directed by Spencer Williams • 1931 • United States
    Starring Thurston Briggs, Spencer Williams

    Virtually unseen for more than eighty years, Spencer Williams’s first film is a one-reel comedy short in which a rivalry between two men is played out in a high-stakes game of mini golf.

  • We Work Again

    Episode 12

    Director Unknown • 1937 • United States

    The role of African Americans in the recovery years of the Great Depression is the subject of this informational short, which offers an idealized depiction of life in a segregated society. The highlight, by far, is rare footage of Orson Welles’s “Voodoo Ma...

  • Zora Neale Hurston Fieldwork Footage

    Episode 13

    Directed by Zora Neale Hurston • 1928 • United States

    While a student of anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia University, Zora Neale Hurston embarked on a journey through Alabama and Florida, using a 16 mm camera to capture life among the rural African American communities she found there. Hurs...

  • Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940

    Episode 14

    Directed by Zora Neale Hurston • 1940 • United States

    This footage, shot by author Zora Neale Hurston in the Sea Island community of Beaufort, South Carolina, observes the religious practices of the Gullah people. The footage is accompanied here by field audio recordings by Norman Chalfin, who ...