In early American cinema, black people were mostly absent, except when they played servants and characters conforming to the worst racial stereotypes. For African Americans unwilling to be fitted for Hollywood straitjackets, and who wanted to be directors, writers, and cameramen, there was an alternative.
The latest Library video resource—Kino Lorber’s DVD set Pioneers of African-American Cinema, which the Library has made available for streaming over Virgo—raises the curtain on the “race film” industry that flourished in African-American communities from the beginning of feature film production to the 1940s.
Working with shoe-string budgets and casts that often included non-professionals, race film producers turned out films that were predominately written, directed, and acted in by African Americans, about black people, for black audiences. They included the usual Hollywood staples: slapstick comedies (Two Knights of Vaudeville), melodramas (The Flying Ace) and Westerns (The Bronze Buckaroo), but also films with a black perspective that Hollywood didn’t even acknowledge.
African American director Oscar Micheaux, for example, explored the complications of racial identity; black actors played white characters, or played black characters mistaken for white, or characters who intentionally passed as white. He turned the tables on white racists, answering D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) with his own film, Within Our Gates (1919), showing blacks not as perpetrators but as victims of racist aggression—at one point inter-cutting a scene of interracial rape with one of a lynching.
The set includes Paul Robeson’s film debut in Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925), playing both an unrepentant con-man preacher and his honest twin brother, vying with each other for the love of a woman; and there’s Harlem Renaissance novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston’s documentary footage of religious services in the Sea Islands community of Beaufort, S.C., and footage of a Florida lumber camp, backed by Hurston’s narration and singing.
These were indie films in the truest sense, and although skimpy budgets made retakes a luxury and production values rudimentary, directors overcame creative challenges with the means available to them. Spencer Williams’ double exposures of a woman’s spirit rising from her body in The Blood of Jesus (1941) were deftly rendered entirely within the camera by rewinding and shooting over the exposed film. In 1992 Williams’ film was added to the Library of Congress Film Registry of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.”
The Library’s public performance rights agreement with Kino Lorber allows the films to be streamed for classes. So check out the DVDs for superior image quality, or view the films online for a journey into a fascinating and underappreciated chapter of American cinema history.