Pioneers of African-American Cinema 5 Sets Available

This collection of the works of America's legendary first African-American filmmakers is the only one of its kind. 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.


Pioneers of African American Cinema: Collection Two 3 Films

Pioneers of African-American Cinema: The Flying Ace

A rural crime drama revolving around a pair of rival aviators,THE FLYING ACE illuminates the fact that many films made for African-American audiences were less concerned with race than with making popular entertainment in the traditional Hollywood style. Filmed in the Arlington area of Jacksonville, Florida, THE FLYING ACE is a unique aviation melodrama in that no airplanes actually leave the ground (the spectacular flight scenes being performed on terra firma, in front of neutral backdrops). Norman divided the film into four chapters, so that exhibitors could show the film as a feature or as a four-episode serial. The film is buoyed by the presence of Norman Studios regular Steve “Peg” Reynolds as the hero’s one-legged sidekick (no pun intended), who in one memorable scene rides a bicycle while firing a rifle built into the shaft of his crutch.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Ten Nights in a Bar Room

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 performance by Charles Sidney Gilpin as a father whose life and family are devastated by his alcoholism. A renowned stage actor, Gilpin was famous for having initiated the role of Brutus Jones (of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones) on Broadway in 1920. When the actor insisted that the playwright remove the word “nigger” from the script, he was replaced in the London production by Paul Robeson, which allegedly contributed to Gilpin’s own struggles with alcohol. In 1926, the same year in which TEN NIGHTS was released, Gilpin reclaimed the role of Jones, and also directed the play at New York's Mayfair Theatre.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: The Scar of Shame

When a young woman escapes from her abusive father, she is rescued by an aspiring composer, but encounters opposition from his class-conscious mother. This edition of THE SCAR OF SHAME includes four minutes of newly-restored material.


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Pioneers of African American Cinema: Collection Three 7 Films

Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Eleven P.M.

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 protect an orphaned girl (Wanda Maurice) from a small-time hoodlum. The story, which may or may not be a dream concocted by a struggling newspaperman, has one of the most bizarre endings in film history, when the spirit of the deceased Sundaisy possesses the body of a dog in order to take vengeance upon the crook.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Hell-bound Train

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 their traveling ministry. Their surreal visual allegories were screened in churches and meeting halls, accompanied by a sermon and the passing of a collection plate. Rather than having a linear story, the film is instead a catalog of iniquity, a car-by-car dramatization of the sins of the Jazz Age (including gambling, dancing, alcohol, and the mistreatment of animals), presided over by a horned devil, culminating in a colossal derailment (a model train tossed into a bonfire). Admittedly, the production values are minimal—being shot with hand-held 16mm equipment with natural light, and without audio—but the surreality of it all makes for a compelling viewing experience, and shows that renegade, visionary filmmakers can be found in the most unexpected places.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Verdict Not Guilty

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.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Heaven-Bound Travelers

It was only during the HD restoration of HELL-BOUND TRAIN for this collection that film historian S. Torriano Berry realized that among the 35 mixed rolls of film in the Gist collection were the fragments of their little-known follow-up: HEAVEN-BOUND TRAVELERS. A man wrongfully accuses his wife (Eloyce Gist) of adultery and banishes her (and their daughter) from his house. But as the weeks pass, he struggles with his own faith and ultimately finds an opportunity for redemption.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: The Darktown Revue

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. His most outrageous film is a traditional minstrel show—an olio of broad comedy and choral interludes. It is an acknowledgement of minstrelsy as a defining tradition of African-American stage performance. If nothing else, THE DARKTOWN REVUE is an invaluable historical document for recording on film the “Hard Shell Sermon” routine popularized by turn-of-the-century minstrel performer Amon Davis. But there is something else. True to form, Micheaux’s depiction of a minister is not flattering. Davis’s comic sermon of gibberish is a scathing satire of charismatic religion, made even more troubling by the fact that it is performed by a black man in blackface.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: The Exile

The immediate historical significance of THE EXILE is that it is the earliest surviving sound feature by an African-American filmmaker. Watching it, one immediately detects a change in Oscar Micheaux’s visual style, indulging in lengthy dialogue exchanges with few cuts and minimal camera movement. Much of Hollywood went through this same stylistic regression during the Dawn of Sound, until they wrestled themselves free of the restrictive technology of filming with synchronized audio. In addition to The Conquest the film borrows elements from Micheaux’s 1917 novel The Homesteader.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Hot Biskits

Virtually unseen for more than 80 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. For years, the film lay hidden in the archives of The Library of Congress, until Pioneers curator Jacqueline Stewart revealed the divergent spelling of the title (which had caused the film to resist being located within the archive’s database).


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Pioneers of African American Cinema: Collection One 6 Films

Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Two Knights of Vaudeville

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. Luther often worked in collaboration with his brother Fritz, a star athlete who later became the first African-American head coach in the NFL.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Mercy the Mummy Mumbled

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 so that it may still be appreciated as a clever knockabout comedy, and not solely as a crumbling historical relic. The innocuous caricatures of the Egyptians in this film and the Chinese laundryman in A Reckless Rover suggest Pollard & Co. abided by the belief that turnabout is fair play.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: A Reckless Rover

Chased from his apartment by a policeman, ne’er-do-well Rastus Jones finds refuge in a Chinese laundry, where he wreaks slapstick havoc and has a memorable encounter with an improperly-filled opium pipe. Drug humor was not taboo, as Douglas Fairbanks had shown in 1916’s The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. A RECKLESS ROVER pays homage to the slapstick tradition by introducing its own rendition of the Keystone Cops in its grand finale. While the comedy series would suffer attacks by the Chicago Defender for perpetuating negative racial stereotypes (one factor in their decision to eventually cease production), the buffoonery in the Ebony Comedies was little different from the clowning one finds in the work of their fair-complected contemporaries.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Within Our Gates

The earliest surviving feature film by African-American director Oscar Micheaux, and involves an idealistic young woman named Sylvia Landry who attempts to raise money for an elementary school to serve the black community. In the course of navigating the racial politics of both the black and white communities, Sylvia’s past is revealed in a series of flashbacks that contain the film’s most notorious sequence: the lynching of her parents by a white mob. Micheaux’s staging of the scene is startling in its bluntness and speaks volumes about the director’s fearlessness and willingness to address taboo subject matter. The film touches upon other themes that would recur throughout the controversial filmmaker’s career, such as the promise of rural life vs. the corruptive influence of the city, and the use of religion as a means of misleading the black community.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: The Symbol of the Unconquered

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 not an organization devoted to racial purity, but a gang of common thieves using violence and intimidation to steal a prospector’s valuable property.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Body and Soul

Paul Robeson appeared in this film by the enterprising Oscar Micheaux. No other film in the director’s career so vividly represented his cynical view of clergymen as greedy manipulators of the vulnerable. Robeson stars as twin brothers, one a Bible-thumping, alcohol-sipping, sexually-predatory minister and the other an ordinary working man, both vying for the affection of a young woman who is trying to abide by the misguided wishes of her devout mother.


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Pioneers of African American Cinema: Collection Five 5 Films

Pioneers of African-American Cinema: The Bronze Buckaroo

The NMAAHC holds multiple film copies of THE BRONZE BUCKAROO. The copy employed for the Pioneers project comes from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Randall Nieman. This 16mm black-and-white print was scanned to frame-discrete Ultra High Definition DPX files using a ScanStation 5K at Video and Film Solutions. A high-definition video derivative was created and ”dust busted,” prior to encoding of the Blu-Ray and DVD masters. The Nieman Collection 16mm print was created circa 1954, and is believed to be a reduction print from a 35mm element. Its soundtrack is variable density mono.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940

This footage, shot by 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 wrote of the endeavor, “There was no electric power...Illumination was from kerosene lamps.” Because there was no electricity, they could not effectively synchronize sound and image. In 2006, the footage was selected to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.


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Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers- Zora Neale Hurston – Ethnographic Films

Zora Neale Hurston's ethnographic films, part of her effort to collect folklore of black communities in the rural south, provide a rare glimpse of African-American life in central and southern Florida in the late 1920s when few were documenting these communities.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: The Blood of Jesus

The first feature by director/actor Spencer Williams, THE BLOOD OF JESUS, is a rural religious parable in which a woman, accidentally shot by her husband (Williams), travels to the crossroads of the hereafter, and faces the temptations of the devil himself (replete with pitchfork, horns, and cape). Williams appropriated footage from Roman Freulich’s 1936 inspirational short Broken Earth (starring Clarence Muse) to add stylish production value to this low-budget drama—but he proves to be quite the stylist himself with the images of the leering Satan and the stunning finale in which the protagonist falls to the foot of a cross and is bathed in the literal blood of Jesus, a moment that is both visually surreal and unexpectedly poignant.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.

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 entertain the tourists and the G.I.s stationed nearby. But an intolerant reformer condemns Gertie’s sultry brand of entertainment and vows to chase her back to Harlem.


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Pioneers of African American Cinema: Collection Four 4 Films

Pioneers of African-American Cinema: The Girl from Chicago

A remake of 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 both Harlem and Batesburg, Mississippi. As had become his forte, Micheaux punctuates the dramatic scenes with musical numbers, set both in domestic parlors and the lively “The Radium Club".


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Ten Minutes to Live

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 this by making one of his characters deaf (rendering dialogue unnecessary) and having much dialogue spoken off-camera (so it could be dubbed later). At times, these devices are clumsily executed but they prove Micheaux had a more canny understanding of the medium than he is often given credit for having. Other highlights are a blackface comedy routine by Galle De Gaston and George Williams, and an unexpectedly provocative performance of Duke Ellington’s “Diga Diga Doo” by a bevy of feathered Cotton Club chorines.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Veiled Aristocrats

VEILED ARISTOCRATS exists in incomplete form, but the missing footage does not impair one’s enjoyment of this drama—punctuated with song-and-dance numbers—of a woman wrestling with the decision of marrying a successful light-skinned man, or an idealistic entrepreneur of darker complexion.


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Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Birthright

An idealistic young man attempts to establish a school in a rural location, but encounters opposition from both the black and white communities. Oscar Micheaux himself was a former homesteader, and strongly believed that African Americans should establish rural communities rather than follow the urban migration. But it’s hard to resist the allure of the city when Micheaux allows energetic singers and dancers to take the nightclub stage for extended musical numbers.


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