BY Nick Pinkerton in Profiles | 22 OCT 16
Featured in
Issue 183

Rediscovering the Pioneers of African-American Cinema

The history of ‘other’ cinema stretches from the explosion of film as a popular art in America to the late 1940s, when integration began, haltingly, in Hollywood and in popular culture


BY Nick Pinkerton in Profiles | 22 OCT 16

Released in 1939, the year of John Ford’s Stagecoach and the renaissance of the western, The Bronze Buckaroo is, in almost every respect, a typical low-budget singing cowboy picture of the type that proliferated in the years of the Great Depression. It pits a straight-shooting range rider against a scheming rancher, and its hour-long running time is generously padded with musical numbers and comic relief, involving ventriloquism and a talking donkey. One important element, however, distinguishes The Bronze Buckaroo from run-of-the-mill Republic Pictures quickies: the entire cast is African-American – from debonair, light-skinned lead Herb Jeffries to stout, surly Spencer Williams, here playing the rancher’s hired muscle – and its ‘Arizona’ was a black-owned dude ranch in Riverside County, California.

This racial shift doesn’t transform The Bronze Buckaroo into a masterpiece, but it sure as hell makes it a singular object. You can find it alongside other such curios, rare documentary snapshots and works of dogged, determined artistry compiled in Pioneers of African-American Cinema, a new box set released this summer by distributors Kino Lorber, produced in collaboration with the Library of Congress.

Spencer Williams, The Blood of Jesus, 1941. Courtesy: Kino Lorber, New York. 

The set, funded by a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, is comprised of five Blu-ray discs and a hefty booklet offering contextualizing essays by Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart – co-curators of the collection along with celebrity executive producer DJ Spooky, who contributes some mute button-worthy original scores to silent films. Musser and Stewart’s texts outline a brief history of the ‘race movie’ – a designation referring to films intended principally for the consumption of segregated African-American audiences, produced by black or mixed casts and crews. (The Bronze Buckaroo director Richard C. Kahn, for example, was white, while Jeffries, whom he directed in three westerns, would face questions about his heritage throughout his life.) This is an ‘other’ cinema, the history of which stretches from the explosion of film as a popular art in America to the late 1940s, when integration began, haltingly, in Hollywood and elsewhere in popular culture.

Integration was still some way off in 1915, when D.W. Griffith released Birth of a Nation – the movie that is still widely regarded as the catalyst for film becoming a pre-eminent art in the US, but also a racist embarrassment. Its enormous success seems to have acted as a spur for African-American entrepreneurs working in cinema, aiming to counter Griffith’s images of black irresponsibility and rapacity with representations of their own. These early works, however, were far from politically correct: Kino’s set includes three shorts by the Ebony Film Corporation of Chicago, white-owned but fronted by African-American Luther J. Pollard, including Two Knights of Vaudeville (1915), a comedy of gleeful black misbehaviour in white society, and A Restless Rover (1918), a Chinese laundry burlesque that features an African-American actor wearing a pigtail and yellowface, and ends with shiftless black protagonist Rastus (Sam Robinson) pausing from a frantic retreat to mockingly salute a poster for Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918).

Spencer Williams, The Blood of Jesus, 1941. Courtesy: Kino Lorber, New York.

No contemporary black filmmaker was so ‘inspired’ by Griffith as Oscar Micheaux – a former Pullman porter and frontiersman turned novelist and filmmaker whose second film, Within Our Gates (1920), is the oldest-known surviving film by an African-American director. In both Within Our Gates and the same year’s The Symbol of the Unconquered – sometimes subtitled A Story of the Ku Klux Klan – Micheaux depicted the lynchings of blacks, a plague of extra-legal violence that Hollywood would only deign to address decades later in pictures such as The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) though, when Micheaux was working, the fear of the Klan’s night riders was current and real among black communities. Micheaux is by far the best-represented director in Kino’s box set, which includes nine titles of his, a tribute to both his longevity (his last film was released in 1948) and the ambition of his work. Crafting narratives that criss-crossed and urgently cross-cut the whole of the US, both urban and rural, and drawing together characters that were white, black and every shade in between, Micheaux seemed to envisage himself as The Great American Filmmaker in much the manner that Griffith did, working with a fraction of the latter’s budgets to tell stories that encompassed the vastness and contradictions of a mighty land.

Micheaux has been posthumously lauded by a US film industry eager to compensate for its historical racism, but Pioneers of African-American Cinema also highlights some less established figures. The outsiders among outsiders here are James and Eloyce Gist, whose folk-art production Hell-Bound Train (1930) is described in the booklet as ‘arguably the most significant rediscovery’ in the box. The Gists were a husband-and-wife team working in Washington D.C., who took to amateur filmmaking as a means to warn their movie-going congregation against the danger of perdition. Their surviving output is all here, including two shorts alongside Hell-Bound Train, which catalogues the sinful activities aboard a fast-moving express, each vignette interspersed with the image of a capering Satan, shot with limber and lurid handheld 16mm camerawork that leans towards the avant-garde.  

Oscar Micheaux depicted the lynchings of blacks, a plague of extra-legal violence that Hollywood would only deign to address decades later.

The wages of sin are central to the work of this collection’s other Bible-beating revivalist film artist, Spencer Williams – the above-mentioned ‘heavy’ of The Bronze Buckaroo and, for decades, best known as one half of television’s Amos ‘n’ Andy (1955–60). After an adventurous early life in the military, which included a trip to Mexico with General Pershing’s punitive expedition against Pancho Villa, Williams came to California in the early 1920s and took on whatever odd jobs and bit parts he could find, learning his way around every corner of a set as he did so. When Williams finally caught the eye of The Bronze Buckaroo’s Texas-based race film producer, Alfred N. Sack, he was ready to assume the director’s chair and made his extraordinary debut feature, The Blood of Jesus (1941). This morality play concerns a woman (Cathryn Caviness) hovering at the brink of death after being accidentally shot by her feckless husband (Williams), and is a film whose visionary fervour suggests the work of a Southern Baptist William Blake. The Kino set also includes Williams’s juvenilia short Hot Biscuits (1931), and his later Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946), which exhibits higher polish than The Blood of Jesus but less inspired weirdness, save for in the moment where Williams appears cross-dressed, moustache intact, as a voodoo priestess.

While Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. largely takes place on soundstages representing the Caribbean island of ‘Rinidad’, The Blood of Jesus features views of real-deal juke joints, exciting in much the manner that the shots of coal yards and streetcars of Hell-Bound Train are. In one of the sets’ many video featurettes, Stewart, a University of Chicago professor and director of the nonprofit Black Cinema House, notes the documentary aspect of these race films. These are also emphasized in Thom Anderson’s recent short video essay Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams (2015), which seeks to isolate the unrehearsed behaviour behind the creeping Hollywood decorum of Williams’s cinema. But incidental elements shouldn’t overshadow these African-American filmmakers’ deliberate, central concerns – foremost among these the vital role of the church within the community, for good or ill. Micheaux, for example, returned repeatedly to the figure of the treacherous, mountebank preacher, with Paul Robeson playing the part in his Body and Soul (1925). This was the same church culture that would soon act as the incubator for the Civil Rights movement, by which time the ‘race film’ had already been consigned to history – although that history is still very much being written.

Main image: Richard C. Kahn, The Bronze Buckaroo, 1939. Courtesy Kino Lorber, New York.

Nick Pinkerton lives in New York, USA. His writes regularly for Artforum, Film Comment, Sight & Sound and Little White Lies.