The first half-century of American cinema is almost perfectly contiguous with the life of Jim Crow, and parallels the brutal wave of imperialist expansion that kicked off with the Spanish-American war. Nearly every landmark advance in prewar cinema parallels an evolution in the paradigms of white supremacy and empire. Almost as frequently as these facts are acknowledged, their full force is vitiated. The movies did not merely adapt some preexisting cultural blueprint. Rather—as Cedric Robinson’s Forgeries of Memory and Meaning most definitively demonstrates—Hollywood was the chief architect in the construction and renovation of 20th-century American racial ideology.
From the beginning, black viewers and cultural workers challenged this complex of cultural and political hegemony as vigorously as circumstance allowed. Still, producing more faithful cinematic visions of black life proved difficult. The 1910s saw small handfuls of broad comedies and Washingtonian uplift narratives produced with varying degrees of black involvement. But the extraordinary economic demands of reliably producing and distributing films, and the rigorous policing that met their content meant that movies would only unevenly and tentatively benefit from the flourishing of black cultural expression in other media, high and low, that occurred in the hothouse of segregation and collective struggle.
Birth of a Nation infamously galvanized black response, but it would take five years for the sharpest, most imaginative rejoinder to Griffith and Dixon to appear in theaters: Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, which righted Griffith’s inversion of the racialized violence that structured American society in a manner as narratively and formally expansive as its target was apparent. Micheaux—a towering presence in prewar black cinema both in his time and memory of it—was an unusual figure, marked by varied experience, idiosyncratic social outlook, and a determined but flexible ambition.
His movies formed part of a larger body of “race films,” the mostly low-budget efforts by independent black producers and specialized white production companies that along with the trickle of Hollywood’s “all colored” features and deluge of second run white fare, toured the circuit of segregated black theaters across the country: a network constantly on the verge of collapse given the near impossibility of maintaining the necessary economies of scale.
Only a small fraction of Micheaux’s filmic output has survived, but it makes up the bulk of the meager archives of extant race films. The features of his that have been preserved are all missing one degree of material or another, which is not to say they ever existed in any fixed form. In spite of the somewhat unreliable shape in which they are available today, it is apparent that Micheaux’s films are extraordinarily rich, consistently inventive in form, and always multivocal in their mode of address.
Few of the other surviving silent race films match Micheaux’s in flair or substance, but even the most fanciful adventure story, like Richard Norman’s 1926 The Flying Ace, and the most respectability-motivated melodrama, like the Colored Players Film Corporation’s Ten Nights in a Bar Room (made the same year), offer a bracing challenge to familiar conceptions of American cultural and social history. They are supplemented by standalone great works, like Richard Maurice’s hilarious and disturbing fantasia of urban black life, Eleven P.M (1928), about which so little is known that the specific context and priorities informing it must be creatively deduced.
The industrial consolidation represented by the emergence of the talkies was devastating to black-controlled production companies. Micheaux had to sacrifice his independence to continue making films. His sound movies never quite recaptured the visionary self-possession that marks his silents, but many of them make up for their dramatic stiffness and undisguised constraint with a more explicit anger and sense of alienation that thematically mobilizes the apparent difficulties of their realization (most powerfully in 1938’s Birthright).
But the financial solidity of the white producer-distributors who seized full control of the race film industry, like Dallas-based Sack Amusements, expanded opportunities for black filmmakers at the same time as they checked their autonomy. Micheaux was met, perhaps even surpassed, by Spencer Williams, who had achieved an unusual degree of Hollywood success as a black writer and actor before directing feature films of his own. His first, the expressionist religious parable The Blood of Jesus (1941), quickly became more popular than anything by the always controversial Micheaux. Like the more worldly stories of black demimondes which were to follow, Williams’s inaugural effort evidences the development of a more self-contained film style that was easier to assimilate to wider black aesthetic traditions than that of his most distinguished predecessor.
To the extent that these race films and their history survive to this day it is because of a heroic, multi-generational collaborative effort by scholars and preservationists that commenced in the 1970s. That enterprise has yielded scores of book-length studies and film restorations, but it is only now with Pioneers of African-American Cinema, a new five-DVD set curated by film historians Jacqueline Najuma Stewart and Charles Musser, have so many of its fruits been made available to non-specialists in good form or with such illuminating context. It’s a production as miraculous as it is overdue.
In addition to commercial narrative features and shorts, the set includes films produced for the church circuit, like James and Eloyce Gist’s utterly original, energetic sermon films; documentaries, like Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic research footage from the Sea Islands; home movies, including images from black towns across the country made by prominent Oklahoma Baptist Reverend S.S. Jones; and ephemera (like a U-matic video interview with actors the Moses Sisters shot by Pearl Bowser, perhaps the single most significant figure in the reconstruction of early black cinema). Like the black literature and theater of the same period, these films are mostly the products of a bourgeois fragment, but the material and ideological demands made by film production—both commercial and amateur—mean that their relationship to the everyday experience of most black people is additionally attenuated in less explicable ways. Nevertheless, such a substantial archive of black self-representations will no doubt prove life-giving to many viewers.
Things grow only more complicated in light of the disciplinary and cultural imperatives of film studies and cinephilia, which inevitably pressed upon the production of the collection and which will govern much of its reception. Most of these films are unusually rich and consistently surprising, but it is almost impossible to account for their import using the evaluative criteria and historical assumptions that structure film discourses without flattening the complexity of their achievement or distorting the violence of the society that produced them.
Existing theoretical and historiographical conceptions of film art were designed to celebrate a film like Birth of a Nation without completely denying its social function. But to adequately explain all that is going on in what remains of films like those by Micheaux and Williams, they will have to be razed and refounded in such a way that can grant the centrality of such works to the truth of American film without mystifying their marginality to its development. One additional gift bestowed by Pioneers of African American Cinema on top of the already towering bounty, is the stride it makes toward facilitating this urgent collective task. Until it is accomplished, there will be no film history written without lightening.