Columns, Glenn's Nitrate Lounge


By • Oct 25th, 2016 •

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Kino Lorber’s PIONEERS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN CINEMA is a home video version of an actual time machine.
The films in this collection, made mostly by budget-minded African-American filmmakers, give an honest idea of what life was like before World War II. Most Hollywood films made before 1950 were filmed in studios, where reality was simulated and altered. The majority of films in this collection were photographed in the actual homes, luncheonettes, taverns and churches of rural African American communities. PIONEERS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN CINEMA gives a realistic peek into a bygone era rarely seen anywhere else.

The silent and early sound era saw many small budget studios that made films for all black audiences, with all-black casts.   Often the cast list during the title sequences here would proclaim “Featuring this great colored cast…..”  One such studio was the Norman Film Manufacturing Company in Jacksonville, Florida, run by Richard Norman. Norman was white, and worked with African American talent. He saw that the south had segregated movie theaters – “whites only,” and “blacks only” – and he knew the market potential for “colored only” films. One of his biggest hits was THE FLYING ACE (1926), about the heroic Captain Stokes, who returns from the Great War to his old job as a railway detective. Accompanied by his one-legged buddy, (who happens to be a speed demon on a bicycle!), Stokes saves the day. THE FLYING ACE, beautifully restored by The Library of Congress, who preserved many of the films in this five disc collection, crackles with non-stop suspense and entertainment.

Devil imagery plays a big part in the religious films in this collection. The most significant Mr. Scratch here is in the silent HELL-BOUND TRAIN, where The Devil operates a locomotive bound for Hell. Each railway car is reserved for a particular type of sinner – gambler, drinker, and dancer. Husband and wife team James and Eloyce Gist produced films like HELL-BOUND TRAIN on very low budgets. They didn’t even use a tripod.   The Gists would take their films to various churches, where a preacher would give a sermon during the film.  In the Gists eight minute VERDICT: NOT GUILTY, a hellish judge/jailer with a skull face, wearing a nun’s habit, passes judgment on a woman. 

These small-budget productions could not afford to strike many prints. They also didn’t have the proper budget to warehouse their worn prints, so preservation of these films became more of a challenge.

The most famous African American filmmaker of the pre World War II era was author/homesteader Oscar Micheaux.  Only three of his twenty-two silent films survive. Micheaux often made his films as an African American answer to popular white films. In Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION, a mulatto (a person with mixed race parents) is the immoral villain. In Micheaux’s WITHIN OUR GATES (1920), which survives and is in this collection, a mulatto woman is the strong-minded heroine. His 1925 film BODY AND SOUL is a variation of Chaplin’s THE PILGRIM. Micheaux’s films always are in need of a more sizable budget, but his untrained actors and borrowed locations glow with honesty. His sound films have a better survival rate. His 1932 film, THE GIRL FROM CHICAGO seems to be his answer to Warner Brothers gangster films of the time. In this film, an ambitious girl from a rural community is told of the glamour and splendor of Harlem nightclubs. When the setting for THE GIRL FROM CHICAGO shifts to New York City, and the tone becomes like a Cagney/Robinson gangster melodrama, Micheaux’s actors become more energetic. Micheaux filmed a few scenes in Harlem’s Radium Club, which was next door to The Cotton Club. His later film, BIRTHRIGHT, is a thrilling mix of everything – gangster-styled pot-boilers, musical numbers (including a striptease styled dance), and comedy relief. For smaller communities, movie night was the one night of the week to go out and see entertainment, so film makers knew to pack as much variety as they could into the one package. This collection runs the gamut- from the religious frenzy of THE BLOOD OF JESUS to the drug humor in 1914’s slapstick gem A RECKLESS ROVER. History doesn’t get more honest than THE PIONEERS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN CINEMA. 

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