Cinematheque to Screen Rare African-American Films

[image-1]The film and video distribution company Kino Lorber has worked for years on a DVD boxset of early African-American films that were all made regionally. The boxset has finally seen the light of day.

Starting this month, the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque will screen DCP versions of some of the best titles.

“I thought the boxset would be mostly for home or school consumption but the Film Forum in New York showed some of the films,” explains Cinematheque director John Ewing. “Kino made DCPs for the screenings in New York, so I went with the original DCPs that they chose. I think we have the cream of the crop and if people want to see more they can get the boxset. I had it in mind to do these screenings for some time now and wanted to do in November and December rather than Black History Month where it might look like a token effort. We show important historical films year round.”

Dubbed “Pioneers of African-American Cinema,” the series is a major film history project that seeks to “collect, restore, and re-release short and feature length films made by independent black filmmakers during the early part of the 20th century—primarily from the 1920s through the 1940s.”

The so-called “race” films were financed, produced, written, directed, distributed and exhibited by people of color. The films tackle taboo subjects such as interracial romance, racism, religion, spiritual salvation and damnation, lynching. They also feature unique visual and narrative styles. The Cinematheque will show eight of the films in four different programs.

Here’s the schedule along with descriptions provided by the Cinematheque.

Within Our Gates
Saturday, November 12, at 5 p.m.

The earliest surviving feature by the most famous maker of “race” films, Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951), is also the earliest surviving feature directed by an African American. (It’s a silent movie shown here with a new recorded score by Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky.) Made as an angry retort to the overt racism in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, Within Our Gates follows an educated mixed-race woman as she tries to raise funds in the North for an all-black school in the South. Micheaux condemns attitudes and behaviors on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, and some theaters refused to show the movie’s more inflammatory passages. The movie was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1992. “A special film from a special director…Deserves to be seen by a wide and a diverse audience.” –Dennis Schwartz. Preceded at 5 p.m. by Ebony Film Corp.’s 11-min. comedy Two Knights of Vaudeville (1915). Cleveland revival premiere. DCP. Total 84 min.

The Blood of Jesus
Saturday, November 19, at 5 p.m.

Actor Spencer Williams (1893-1969), best known for playing Andy in the Amos ‘n’ Andy TV show, also starred in and directed one of the most successful “race” films of all time, The Blood of Jesus. Set in a rural village, the film focuses on a dying woman whose soul is being fought over by both an angel of God and an agent of Satan. The latter lures her to a decadent jazz club. Preceded at 5 p.m. by Hell-Bound Train, a 1930 silent (with music track) by James and Eloyce Gist, husband and wife evangelicals who used the movie to supplement their sermons. The Devil also appears in their film—at the throttle of a train carrying sinners to perdition. The Village Voice notes that Hell-Bound Train “suggests a Fundamentalist Snowpiercer, the cars of the locomotive populated by bootleggers, drunks, pickpockets, and the (premarital) sex-crazed.” Cleveland revival premiere. DCP. Total 106 min.

Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.
Sunday, December 11, at 6:30 p.m.

This unauthorized adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham story that became the classic movies Sadie Thompson and Rain tells of an amoral Harlem nightclub “entertainer” who flees to a Caribbean island. There an insistent Christian missionary tries to reform her. Director Williams plays a voodoo fortuneteller—in drag! Preceded at 6:30 p.m. by Williams’ Hot Biskits (1931), a 10-min. comedy about mini-golf. Cleveland revival premiere. DCP. Total 70 min.

Sunday, December 18, at 6:30 pm

In this sound drama by seminal African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, a Harvard-educated black man returns to the segregated 1930s South to establish a school. There he encounters racist attitudes and family strife. Preceded at 6:30 by Michaeux’s 18-min. Darktown Revue (1931), a panoply of Harlem Renaissance nightclub and vaudeville acts, including comedians, a choir, and a bizarre African American monologist in blackface. Cleveland revival premiere. DCP. Total 91 min.