Pioneers of African-American Cinema

Pioneers of African-American Cinema

This singular collection of works by pioneering African-American filmmakers includes new digital restorations of a dozen feature-length films and nearly twice as many shorts and rare fragments.

Pioneers of African American Cinema was funded in part by a successful Kickstarter campaign, and produced in association with the Library of Congress, with the cooperation of the British Film Institute, the George Eastman Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Archives, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Southern Methodist University, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Curated by Charles Musser of Yale University, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart of the University of Chicago.

These films bring to the fore issues of race that have gone unaddressed by Hollywood for decades.

Pioneers of African-American Cinema
  • A Reckless Rover

    C.N. David • United States • 1918

    A slapstick comedy in the tradition of Keystone Cops.

    Chased from his apartment by a policeman, ne’er-do-well Rastus Jones finds refuge in a Chinese laundry, where he wreaks slapstick havoc and has a memorable encounter with an improperly-filled opium pipe. Dru...

  • Birthright

    Oscar Micheaux • United States • 1938

    A homesteading drama, musical-style.

    An idealistic young man attempts to establish a school in a rural location, but encounters opposition from both the black and white communities. Oscar Micheaux himself was a former homesteader, and strongly believed that...

  • Body and Soul

    Oscar Micheaux • United States • 1925

    A stirring drama with Paul Robeson in dual roles.

    Paul Robeson appeared in this film by the enterprising Oscar Micheaux. No other film in the director’s career so vividly represented his cynical view of clergymen as greedy manipulators of the vulnerable. Ro...

  • Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940

    Zora Neale Hurston • United States • 1940

    Hurston observes religious practices of the Gullah people.

    This footage, shot by Zora Neale Hurston in the Sea Island community of Beaufort, South Carolina, observes the religious practices of the Gullah people. The footage is accompanied here by field ...

  • Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.

    Spencer Williams • United States • 1946

    Sultry entertainment lands a woman in hot water.

    In an unauthorized retelling of W. Somerset Maugham’s short story “Miss Thompson”, Francine Everette stars as Gertie La Rue, a nightclub entertainer who arrives at a Caribbean resort to entertain the touris...

  • Eleven P.M.

    Richard Maurice • United States • 1928

    A surreal melodrama with one of cinema's strangest endings.

    Produced in Detroit, Michigan by little-known African-American filmmaker Richard Maurice, ELEVEN P.M. is a surreal melodrama in which a poor violinist named Sundaisy (Maurice) tries to protect an ...

  • Heaven-Bound Travelers

    Eloyce Gist, James Gist • United States • 1935

    A long-lost follow-up to HELL-BOUND TRAIN.

    It was only during the HD restoration of HELL-BOUND TRAIN for this collection that film historian S. Torriano Berry realized that among the 35 mixed rolls of film in the Gist collection were the fragments...

  • Hell-Bound Train

    Eloyce Gist, James Gist • United States • 1930

    Arguably the most significant discovery in our Pioneers set.

    Arguably the most significant rediscovery in Pioneers of African-American Cinema. The film is the work of self-taught filmmakers James and Eloyce Gist, African-American evangelists who em...

  • Hot Biskits

    Spencer Williams • United States • 1931

    A one-reel comedy short about high-stakes mini-golf.

    Virtually unseen for more than 80 years, Spencer Williams’s first film is a one-reel comedy short in which a rivalry between two men is played out in a high-stakes game of mini-golf. For years, the film...

  • Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled

    R.W. Phillips • United States • 1918

    A clever knockabout comedy.

    One of Ebony Film Corporation’s most ambitious comedies is, like most of their surviving work, tragically marred by the decomposition of the nitrate film stock. Fortunately, enough of the storyline shines through so that it may st...

  • Ten Minutes to Live

    Oscar Micheaux • United States • 1932

    An early experiment in sound cinema.

    Resisting the stagebound atmosphere of The Exile, Oscar Micheaux found ways to shoot a talking picture on location, without cumbersome and expensive audio recording equipment. He did this by making one of his characters ...

  • Ten Nights in a Bar Room

    Roy Calnek • United States • 1926

    A masterful vision of alcohol addition.

    Based on the hugely popular 1854 temperance novel by Timothy Shay Arthur (and William W. Pratt’s 1858 stage adaptation), Roy Calnek’s TEN NIGHTS IN A BAR ROOM boasts a masterful performance by Charles Sidney Gilpin as a f...

  • The Blood of Jesus

    Spencer Williams • United States • 1941

    A surreal, poignant parable.

    The first feature by director/actor Spencer Williams, THE BLOOD OF JESUS, is a rural religious parable in which a woman, accidentally shot by her husband (Williams), travels to the crossroads of the hereafter, and faces the te...

  • The Bronze Buckaroo

    Richard C. Kahn • United States • 1939

    The NMAAHC holds multiple film copies of THE BRONZE BUCKAROO

    The NMAAHC holds multiple film copies of THE BRONZE BUCKAROO. The copy employed for the Pioneers project comes from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History a...

  • The Darktown Revue

    Oscar Micheaux • United States • 1931

    Micheaux's most outrageous film: a traditional minstrel show.

    Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux was something of a firebrand, but his attitudes and methods were anything but predictable—often leveling criticism at certain strata of the African-American community. Hi...

  • The Exile

    Oscar Micheaux • United States • 1931

    The earliest surviving sound film by an African-American.

    The immediate historical significance of THE EXILE is that it is the earliest surviving sound feature by an African-American filmmaker. Watching it, one immediately detects a change in Oscar Micheaux...

  • The Flying Ace

    Richard E. Norman • United States • 1926

    A rural crime drama about rival aviators.

    A rural crime drama revolving around a pair of rival aviators, THE FLYING ACE illuminates the fact that many films made for African-American audiences were less concerned with race than with making popular entert...

  • The Girl from Chicago

    Oscar Micheaux • United States • 1932

    Exploring the cultural rift between the urban and the rural.

    A remake of Oscar Micheaux’s now-lost 1926 silent film The Spider’s Web THE GIRL FROM CHICAGO is another film that explores the cultural rift between the urban and the rural, set in both Harlem an...

  • The Scar of Shame

    Frank Peregini • United States • 1929

    A woman is rescued from her abusive father by a composer.

    When a young woman escapes from her abusive father, she is rescued by an aspiring composer, but encounters opposition from his class-conscious mother. This edition of THE SCAR OF SHAME includes four...

  • The Symbol of the Unconquered

    Oscar Micheaux • United States • 1920

    Oscar Micheaux's response to BIRTH OF A NATION.

    A response, of sorts, to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. In Oscar Micheaux’s rendition, the Klan (here renamed the Knights of the Black Cross) is not an organization devoted to racial purity, but a gang...

  • Two Knights of Vaudeville

    United States • 1915

    The Ebony Film Corporation may have been a white-owned company, but African-American producer Luther Pollard used it as a means of getting black faces on the silver screen. Luther often worked in collaboration with his brother Fritz, a star athlete who later became the first...

  • Veiled Aristocrats

    Oscar Micheaux • United States • 1932

    VEILED ARISTOCRATS exists in incomplete form, but the missing footage does not impair one’s enjoyment of this drama—punctuated with song-and-dance numbers—of a woman wrestling with the decision of marrying a successful light-skinned man, or an idealistic ent...

  • Within Our Gates

    Oscar Micheaux • United States • 1920

    An unflinching portrayal of racial violence.

    During her attempts to secure funding for an impoverished school serving the black community, an idealistic young teacher confronts her traumatic past, including the lynching of her parents by a white mob. Still ...

  • Verdict Not Guilty

    Eloyce Gist, James Gist • United States • 1933

    A surreal filmed pageant.

    In this surreal filmed pageant—presided over by a horrific skull-faced “Jailer” in a nun’s habit—a woman faces the throne of judgment and must account her iniquities to earn God’s mercy.