Adventure, Comedy, Documentary, Drama, History, Interview, Western

Pioneers of African-American Cinema (1915-1946)

Comments Off on Pioneers of African-American Cinema (1915-1946) 08 August 2016

25th September 1928:  American comic actor Buster Keaton (1895 - 1966) wearing a baseball strip and boots.  (Photo by John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Distributed By: Kino Lorber

Blu-ray Release: July 26, 2016

Director: Richard Norman, Richard Maurice, Spencer Williams and Oscar Micheaux

Rating: Not Rated

Reviewed By James M. Dubs

I’ll watch anything…including Pioneers of African-American Cinema.

*Kino Lorber did not provide a physical blu-ray for this review. They did, however, provide links to view most of the collection’s content in a pre-finalized form. Many of the films included timecode that will not be present in the final blu-ray version. Therefore this review will not include my usual screenshots, or ratings and opinions on picture, sound, and supplemental materials.

The Collection Rating: ★★★★★

I’m not a scholar of black cinema or “race films”. I’m just a guy that watches a lot of movies. And I don’t particularly have any interest in the political ramifications of race relations in this country. Like most, I just want everyone to get along.

To that end, I approached this release with the same curiosity I approach any new film collection, hoping to be entertained or to learn something new by the end. The biggest thing I learned is that black Americans have been making movies since the early days of cinema. Well before Spike Lee in the 1980s, and well before the “Blaxploitation” era of the 1970s, filmmakers like Richard Norman, Richard Maurice, Spencer Williams and Oscar Micheaux were writing, producing, and directing “race films” made exclusively by African-Americans between 1915-1946.

This blew my mind. Personally, I had no idea these films existed. To know that a collection of films rarely seen was getting a massive exhibition both shocked and excited me, and consuming these films has proven to be a very rewarding experience. This 5-disc set includes films that range from excellent to poor, and an array of film fragments, trailers, interview footage, and many other extras.

Some of my favorites in the collection are the silent comedies, many of which were produced in my home city of Chicago. But this collection has so much more. Aside from films with obvious political commentaries, the set includes adventures, dramas, and even a western. The various people and organizations behind this release have also included a handful of films that have been severely damaged. Most major releases would choose to omit these films as they would be deemed “unwatchable” but as a film fanatic I would rather see art in an imperfect form than to not see it at all. Fortunately the people behind this release share this sentiment and as a result we all benefit.

Typically, it’s at this point where I start to talk about picture, sound, and collection extras. Unfortunately, at the time of this review, I have not seen the final product or all of the bonus material. What I can say is that with a release this good, it only makes me further crave what I haven’t seen. Unfortunately, the problem with a release this good is that it makes me beg for even more. The release specifications do not list an exhaustive documentary covering the history of African-American cinema, or supplemental audio commentaries by film historians on each of the films. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the information is incomplete, however I know I’m in nit-picky territory.

Whether you’re a film historian, a student, or simply a curious consumer, I can’t recommend this collection enough. Anyone interested in film from the first half of the 1900s needs to pick up this collection.

About the release:

Kino Lorber


Kino Lorber Releases Pioneers of African-American Cinema,
a 5-Disc Collection of Newly-Restored, Groundbreaking Films
by Early Independent African-American Filmmakers

Featuring Music Scores by Artists Including DJ Spooky, Samuel Waymon and Max Roach
Packed with Bonus Material Including Rare Archival Footage, Interviews, and an 80-Page Book


New York, NY – June 6, 2016 – Kino Lorber is proud to announce the release of Pioneers of African-American Cinema, a monumental five-disc set representing the significant but long-overlooked achievements of early, independent African-American filmmakers.

Among the most fascinating chapters of film history is that of the so-called “race films” that flourished in the 1920s – ’40s. Unlike the “black cast” films produced within the Hollywood studio (such as Stormy Weather or Green Pastures), these films not only starred African Americans but were funded, written, produced, directed, distributed, and often exhibited by people of color. Entrepreneurial filmmakers not only built an industry apart from the Hollywood establishment, they cultivated visual and narrative styles that were uniquely their own.

Defying convention and operating outside the studio system, these filmmakers were the forefathers (and -mothers) of the French New Wave, the L.A. Rebellion, and the entirety of American indie cinema. Previously circulated in poor-quality 16mm prints, these newly restored versions allow us to witness the legacies of Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, and James and Eloyce Gist with fresh eyes – proving that, anything but imitative, these Pioneers of African-American Cinema were purely innovative.

This set contains an extensive collection of films (almost 20 hours of material) that represent a broad diversity of filmmaking styles and subject matter. Presented in cooperation with the major U.S. and international film archives, each film has been digitally restored and is accompanied by a series of videotaped interviews with influential historians and archivists, as well as an 80-page booklet featuring essays and notes.

Funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign launched by Kino Lorber last year, the project quickly exceeded its original goal by a significant amount, allowing for the expansion of additional content to be included in the final box set. Executive Producer Paul D. Miller and Producer Bret Wood, working with series curators Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart and the cooperation of leading film archives all around the world, assembled almost twenty hours of material, including 16 feature-length films, plus short films, fragments and trailers, for the final collection. The result is the most comprehensive collection of so-called “race movies” yet released, carefully restored from the best surviving archival elements, and many of which are available on home video here for the first time, finally allowing audiences to experience this rich but long-neglected chapter of film history.

Included in the collection are such landmark films as Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates(1920), the earliest surviving feature film directed by an African American; Body and Soul (1925), starring Paul Robeson in his film debut; and The Blood of Jesus (1941, added to the National Film Registry in 1991), written, directed by and starring Spencer Williams. Also included are lesser-known but equally significant films such as Hell-Bound Train (1930), by evangelist husband-and-wife team James and Eloyce Gist; The Flying Ace (1926), directed by Richard E. Norman, one of several white filmmakers who helped to break racial boundaries by producing films starring African Americans in leading roles; and The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), a black-cast Western that shows a side of the race movie dedicated to pure entertainment.

Other film rarities in the collection include the recently-rediscovered Hot Biskits (1931), the earliest known film directed by Spencer Williams; Oscar Micheaux’s outrageous satirical short The Darktown Revue (1931); the only known surviving footage from By Right of Birth (1921), produced by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the first studio founded and operated entirely by black filmmakers; and excerpts from the ethnographic films made by Zora Neale Hurston.

Bonus material includes introductions to selected films and filmmakers featured in the set, a 1985 promotional film with Ossie Davis, S. Torriano Berry discussing the restorations of films by James and Eloyce Gist, and rare trailers for Micheaux’sVeiled Aristocrats (1932) and Birthright (1938).

The silent films have been provided with scores in a wide range of musical styles, meant to reflect the diversity of the films themselves, including traditional orchestral accompaniment (The Flying Ace, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra), traditional jazz combo (Ten Nights in a Bar Room, composed by Donald Sosin), improvisational jazz combo (Body and Soul and Within Our Gates, music by Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky), improvisational jazz solo (The Symbol of the Unconquered, music by drummer Max Roach), traditional keyboard (The Scar of Shame, music by Makia Matsumura), and scores that blend the traditional with the conceptual (Hell-Bound Train, music by Samuel D. Waymon,Eleven P.M., guitar score by Rob Gal; Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled, music by Alloy Orchestra).

The collection is curated by Charles Musser (Yale University) and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart (University of Chicago). Executive Producer: Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky. Producer: Bret Wood.

Pioneers of African-American Cinema is presented in cooperation with the following film archives: Library of Congress, British Film Institute, Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, George Eastman Museum, Museum of Modern Art, National Archives, National Museum of African American History & Culture, the G. William Jones Film & Video Collection of Southern Methodist University, and UCLA Film & Television Archive.


Total Running Time: 952 minutes

Below is a list of the complete contents of this collection.

Disc One (Total Running Time 282 minutes):

Two Knights of Vaudeville

Ebony Film Co., 1915. 11 minutes. Music by Donald Sosin

Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (BLU-RAY ONLY)

Ebony Film Co., 1918. 12 minutes. Music by the Alloy Orchestra.

A Reckless Rover

Ebony Film Co., 1918. 14 minutes. Music by Donald Sosin.

Within Our Gates

Oscar Micheaux, 1920. 73 minutes. Music by DJ Spooky.

The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the KKK

Oscar Micheaux, 1920. 59 minutes. Music by Max Roach.

By Right of Birth

Lincoln Motion Picture Co., 1921. 4 minutes. Music by Donald Sosin.

Body and Soul

Oscar Micheaux, 1925. 93 minutes. Music by DJ Spooky.

Screen Snapshots (Micheaux footage, 1920, 1 minute)

Bonus: An Introduction (7 minutes)

Bonus: The Films of Oscar Micheaux (8 minutes)

Disc Two (Total Running Time – 259 minutes):


Richard E. Norman, 1923. 11 minutes. Music by Donald Sosin.

The Flying Ace

Richard E. Norman, 1928. 65 minutes. Music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Ten Nights in a Bar Room

CPFC, 1926. 64 minutes. Music by Donald Sosin.

Rev. S.S. Jones Home Movies

Rev. Solomon Sir Jones, 1924-1926. 16 minutes. Music by Andrew Simpson.

The Scar of Shame

Frank Peregini, 1929. 86 minutes. Music by Makia Matsumura

Bonus: The Color Line (5 minutes)

Bonus:  Ten Nights in a Bar Room – An Introduction (4 minutes)

Bonus: About the Restoration (8 minutes)

Disc Three (Total Running Time – 253 minutes):

Eleven P.M.

Richard Maurice, 1928. 60 minutes. Music by Rob Gal.

Hell-Bound Train

James and Eloyce Gist, 1930. 50 minutes.
Restored by S. Torriano Berry. Music by Samuel Waymon.

Verdict Not Guilty

James and Eloyce Gist, 1934. 8 minutes.

Restored by S. Torriano Berry. Music by Samuel Waymon.

Heaven-Bound Travels (BLU-RAY ONLY)

James and Eloyce Gist, 1935. 15 minutes.
Restored by S. Torriano Berry. Music by Samuel Waymon.

The Darktown Revue

Oscar Micheaux, 1931. 18 minutes.

The Exile

Oscar Micheaux, 1931. 78 minutes.

Hot Biskits

Spencer Williams, 1931. 10 minutes.

Disc Four (Total Running Time – 272 minutes):

The Girl from Chicago

Oscar Micheaux, 1932. 70 minutes.

Ten Minutes to Live

Oscar Micheaux, 1932. 58 minutes.

Veiled Aristocrats

Oscar Micheaux, 1932. 48 minutes.

Oscar Micheaux, 1938. 73 minutes.

Bonus: Veiled Aristocrats Trailer (4 minutes)
Bonus: Birthright Trailer (4 minutes)
Bonus: We Work Again (BLU-RAY ONLY) – WPA Documentary (1937, 15 minutes)

Disc Five (Total Running Time – 243 minutes):
The Bronze Buckaroo
Richard Kahn, 1939. 58 minutes.

Zora Neale Hurston Fieldwork Footage (excerpt)
Zora Neale Hurtston, 1928. 3 minutes.

Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940 (excerpt)
Zora Neale Hurston, 1940. 15 minutes.

The Blood of Jesus
Spencer Williams, 1941. 56 minutes.

Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.
Spencer Williams, 1946. 60 minutes.

Moses Sisters Interview
Pearl Bowser, 1978. 32 minutes.

Bonus: Texas Tyler Promo Film with Ossie Davis (1985, 6 minutes)
Bonus: The Films of Zora Neale Hurston (2 minutes)
Bonus: The Films of Spencer Williams (7 minutes)
Bonus: The End of an Era (4 minutes)



- who has written 70 posts on UnRated Film Review Magazine | Movie Reviews, Interviews.

James Dubs is a father and husband who loves his family first and movies a close second. He believes every movie is worth watching once and, as a film fan and critic, believes that even the worst movies offer something in return. His mission is to watch anything and report without pretension. Follow James Dubs on Twitter and send him suggestions on movies you would like reviewed - popular, obscure, independent, etc. He'll watch anything for you.

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