The Criterion Channel has added classic movies and shorts by some of the most notable early filmmakers you’ve never heard of, with their new Pioneers of Black Film Cinema collection. Here, you can find feature films by Oscar Micheaux, who is widely regard as the first major African American filmmaker. Micheaux started the short-lived Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the first fully black owned production company in the country. There are silents by Micheaux, like Within Our Gates, from 1920, starring Evelyn Preer, a pioneering stage and screen actress,with a story of a woman trying a rural school for blacks in the south; The Symbol of the Unconquered, Micheaux’s 1920 response to D.W. Griffith‘s unconscionably romanticized and racist view of the KKK, and Body and Soul, the 1925 classic starring the great Paul Robeson, in his breakout performance as an escaped prisoner, posing as a reverend in Georgia. There are also talkies by Micheaux here, like The Exile, 1931, starring Eunice Brooks and Stanley Morell, which is the earliest sound feature by an African American filmmaker; The Girl From Chicago, 1932, starring Grace Smith, and Birthright, from 1938, starring Carman Newsome as a young Harvard grad fighting to establish a school in a rural community. Criterion also has The Blood of Jesus, directed by Spencer Williams(known for his Amos and Andy role later), a classic of black cinema, starring Cathryn Caviness, Spencer Williams and Juanita Riley. There are shorts in this collection, too, mostly comedy, like Two Knights of Vaudeville, from 1915, starring Jimmy Marshall, Florence McClain and Frank Montgomery, with an unknown director, and Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled, from 1918, directed by R. G. Phillips,(no cast listed). And though some of these films, the last one especially, are heavily damaged by the unfortunate decomposition of the nitrate film, there’s still much to appreciate and enjoy in them. And finally, Criterion has added ethnographic films by Zora Neale Hurston, noted anthropologist and author. Zora Neale Hurston Fieldwork Footage documents Hurston’s trip through Alabama and Florida to capture rural life among African Americans, as Frank Boas‘ student at Columbia University in 1938. And in Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina, May 1940, Hurston studies the religious practices of the Gullah community in Beaufort, South Carolina.
There’s tons of fascinating stuff here, with wonderful performances by black actors and actresses rarely glimpsed, gifted direction and amazing insights to be gleaned and enjoyed. And glimpses of African American communities and people rarely shown by the standard Hollywood film industry that are stunning to see. And you can get a free 14-day trial of The Criterion Channel right here.