Wednesday 30 November 2016

Redefining the colour line… Pioneers of African-American Cinema, BFI Blu-ray and DVD

“Historically, African-American cinema has always had a profound relationship to the social issues that our community faced – and for every Ice Cube and Tyler Perry, for every Will Smith and Spike Lee, there were pioneers who paved the way and set the tone for a new vision of African-American cinema that made space for them to exist.” Paul D Moody aka DJ Spooky

Initially issued by Kino Lorber in the US, the BFI have now released this mind-boggling collection in the UK and nothing will ever be quite the same again: digital restorations of over a dozen feature films along with a welter of shorts, fragments, trailers, documentary footage, archival interviews and audio recordings...

Contemporary narratives about the “birth of cinema” tend to focus on the same old names from Griffith, De Mille and, yes, Lois Weber, but to these we must add, at least, Oscar Micheaux not out of tokenist regard but because, as film historian Charles Musser posits he was one of the key directors full stop.

There are a whole host of socio-economic reasons why Oscar’s films were different… but there are similarities between his films and other directors on show in this magnificent set: all addressed the situation of race in society. Even white directors such as Frank Peregini and Richard E. Norman directing all back or mixed casts with stories directed at people who simply wanted to see their concerns portrayed accurately on screen.

Harry Henderson
As with so much from a century ago the themes remain startlingly consistent with today: we shouldn’t kid ourselves that distance necessarily equals progress. Styles change and these films are a mixed bag in terms of quality but they are all fascinating and they are all relevant, opening up new views on cinema and society.

In the introduction, film historian Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, talks about how black film makers showed an “intimacy” underneath the Hollywood-influenced main narrative… connecting with their audience in a way only they would fully understand: smuggling meaning based on shared experience.

There is an important documentary element with the films covering some of the thousands of local artistes in theatres across America who otherwise would have been forgotten. But, more than this, these films show a way of life: real characters with shades of grey and none of DW’s shoking boot polish.

Lawrence Chenault
Not many of these "race films" survived and of those that did many were found in Europe…even Oscar Micheaux's Within Out Gates had to be re-imported from Spain and The Symbol of the Unconquered came from Belgium. His films were controversial with even Paul Robeson denying involvement in Body and Soul – a reaction against Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings in which Robeson had appeared - Robeson felt he’d been duped.

Micheaux is hard to judge by the standards of other film-makers – he trod his own path and his films are rich, densely-woven and quite distinctive with a rough-hewn quality defined by his one-take approach and budget constraints.

He dominates this set with the inclusion of his most famous duo through to his talkies in the 1930s with five features and two shorts. But it is his silent work that is most intriguing and it’s interesting to compare the Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Ku Klux Klan (1920) not only with Within Our Gates (reviewed earlier this month here) but with Griffith’s “heroes”.

Fascist criminals just love dressing up and waving torches
In Symbol we can see Micheaux as the anti-Griffith with a KKK loosely disguised as The Knights of the Black Cross who are motivated by criminal greed rather than just bigotry and racial hatred… They are enlisted by the film’s bad guys in an attempt to rob our hero of his rightful oil-rich land. The greys are in evidence with running themes concerning the mixed race of two key characters: Evon (Iris Hall) is so pale-skinned that her would be suitor, brave frontiersman Hugh Van Allen (Walker Thompson) won’t make a move as he thinks she’s white. Meanwhile hotelier, turned horse thief, turned swindler Jefferson Driscoll (Lawrence Chenault) hates the fact that he is half-black and turns against his own lineage.

Lean on me: Walker Thompson and Iris Hall
It’s incomplete but still features a shed-load of ideas and a dizzying climax in which everything comes together in spite of the Knights – the community stands tall against their horses, torches and silly sheets.

Oscar aside, the real triumph of this box set is in revealing the depth and range of black American cinema through these years: from comedy shorts from the 1910s to the documentary work of Zora Neale Hurston.

Captain Billy Stokes and his very able one-legged pal, "Peg"!
I particularly liked The Flying Ace (1928) directed by Richard E. Norman a white writer and director who worked with well-known black stage stars. In this undemanding feature… split into four chapters to allow screening as a serial, three dastardly crooks – including a local policeman – rob the rail payroll and frame the station master. Luckily air ace Captain Billy Stokes (Laurence Criner) is on hand to help the old man’s daughter (Kathryn Boyd) confound the criminals with the aid of his remarkable one-legged pal "Peg" (Steve Reynolds, who steals the show!).

Kathryn Boyd
Most race films were a collaboration between white producers/directors and black actors and Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926) is the earliest surviving film from David Starkman’s Colored Players of Philidelphia. It features an outstanding performance from Charles Gilpin who was considered – according to Musser – the leading black actor of the 20s. Gilpin plays Joe Morgan a man cheated by his former business partner, Simon Slade (Lawrence Chenault) in a story told through a flashback framing sequence.

Based on the novel from 1854 the film boasts many passing characters and a moral arc you’d expect but it’s well played and hits pretty hard.

Charles Gilpin
The Scar of Shame (1929) directed by Italian Frank Peregini features a largely black cast led by the radiant Lucia Lynn Moses. It’s gritty stuff and very much in vogue with gangsters and speakeasies but with deeper themes of injustice and the impact of environment on opportunity.

Lucia’s character, Louise is the daughter of an alcoholic and abusive father Spike (William E Petus), she is rescued by aspiring songwriter Alvin Hillyard (Harry Henderson) who ends up marrying her to protect her. But Alvin is too ashamed to show his wife to his mother who expects him to wed someone from their “set” and as the strains show Spike and his brainier mate, Eddie (a super turn from Norman Johnstone) try to lure Lucia away. Guns are drawn and Lucia gets shot in the throat – scarred – whilst Alvin takes the rap and goes to prison.

Lucia Lynn Moses
Years later Lucia is working Eddie’s nightclub and re-encounters Alvin, who has now escaped and built a new life for himself: can they overcome their environment?

The New York Amsterdam News reviewer felt that the film “…set a new standard of excellence for picture features with coloured talent.” This was certainly the aim of the producers, and this film is one of the most technically accomplished on the set, but the greater technical demands of talkies, coupled with the Depression, would make it much harder for race films to compete.

Norman Johnstone
The variable output of the talkies on this set proves this point: with Dirty Girtie from Harlem USA (1946) a case in point. Francine Everette is the film’s stand-out as the eponymous Girtie – flirty more than dirty - and out-acts a mixed-ability group of performers in this low-budget effort from director Spencer Williams. Williams’ earlier film, The Blood of Jesus (1941), is a much more coherent effort.

Highly polished or dirty there’s much to entertain on this set and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. But you need time and... I've barely scratched the surface here: so much to see.

Francine Everette: if only the rets of the film was quite as good as this still...
The films are accompanied by striking new scores by DJ Spooky, Max Roach, Alloy Orchestra, Samuel Waymon, Makia Matsumura, Donald Sosin and many more.

Pioneers of African-American Cinema is available now direct from the BFI or other retailers. Every home should have one: a vital re-balance has been made of cinema history and it is good that these old voices can be heard again.

Body and Soul is  being screened at the BFI on Monday 5th December - a World premier of a new score from jazz composer Peter Edwards and performed live with the Nu Civilisation Orchestra Ensemble: I will be there!

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