One evening in December, a jazz trio played a brand new score for a very old film at the British Film Institute in London. The music, written by Peter Edwards, a composer and pianist, mixed gospel, swing and boogie, matching the sometimes jaunty and sometimes sinister mood of Oscar Micheaux’s “Body and Soul” (1925). The film, which tells the story of an ex-con (Paul Robeson, above) trying to pass himself off as a preacher in the Deep South, is one of the so-called “race films” starring black actors and played to black audiences during the era of segregation. Its re-release by the BFI during its “Black Star” season (you can watch it online here) is part of a wider movement to celebrate these masterpieces of early black cinema.
Micheaux was the son of a Kentucky slave. Between 1919 and 1948 he made more than 40 films, including “Within Our Gates” (1920), the earliest surviving work by a black director. With Hollywood studios and funding closed to black artists, and many cinemas closed to black audiences, directors like Micheaux were strapped for cash and kit. He cobbled together scenes out of imperfect takes and, when sound came along, papered over mismatched shots with dubbed dialogue. The prints often became worn out from overuse and lengthy travel. It is estimated that 80% of race films have been lost.
Restoring them is important for more reasons than posterity. Jacqueline Stewart, a professor of film at the University of Chicago and a member of the US National Film Preservation Board, points out that black characters in early American films tended to be racist portrayals by white actors in black makeup – “taken directly from the minstrel stage”. The most famous example came in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), at that time the longest movie ever made in America. In one scene, Gus, a black soldier returning from the civil war, follows Flora, a young white woman, into a forest and tells her he wants to marry her. Terrified by his advances, she jumps off a cliff.
Race films, by contrast, offer a window onto African-American experiences, preoccupations and daily dramas. Micheaux’s “Within Our Gates” responds to Griffiths with the story of a wronged black woman during the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans travelled from the rural south to the industrial cities of the north and midwest. Other important recoveries include “A Day at Tuskegee”, a documentary from 1913 about the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which offered education to former slaves.
The first problem in restoring these films is knowing what to look for. Often, the only evidence of a film’s existence is a poster, advertisement or cinema programme. A group of students at UCLA has created an online database that now contains information on more than 700 African-American participants in the silent-film industry, over 300 films and 175 production companies. They are recovering, digitising and archiving the films that have been found, often dealing with crumbling nitrate prints without negatives.
The first efforts to archive these films began in 1983, when a cache of 100 movies, including 22 race films, was found in a state of severe decomposition in a warehouse in Tyler, Texas and brought to Southern Methodist University in Dallas. But only recently has anyone made use of SMU’s archive. Kino Lorber, an independent distributor, chose eight films dating from the 1920s to the 1940s for a series called “Pioneers of African-American Cinema”. In 2015 they ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, and added another four features and several early documentaries to their list.
The five-disc set was released in July 2016, and included the first race film to be added to the US National Film Registry, “The Blood of Jesus” (1941) by Spencer Williams. The fragile source material made restoration difficult. But it was nothing compared with the challenges faced by the film-makers themselves. “They had to produce the same thing as the major studios: about 6,000 feet of 35mm film,” says Brett Woods, the project’s producer. “They did it anyway, with budgets a fraction of the size…all this while struggling against racial oppression in its many forms.”
Paul Robeson: Black Star BFI Southbank, London, until January 22nd