Unboxing the Silents: Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set

I have been looking forward to this one, believe you me! I have developed an interest in and taste for independent cinema of the silent era and this box set also highlights the intriguing history of African-American filmmakers from the silent era to post-WWII.

African American

You can learn more about the technical stuff and pre-order a copy here.

As always, thanks to Kino Lorber for the review copy. Now, let’s dig into this tempting box of historical treats.

The Films

A quick note before continuing: While I was able to skim the contents for image and sound quality, I have not yet completed a deep viewing of every film in the set. Between the five discs, the set tops out at 21 hours for the Bluray release and I usually watch films two or three times before reaching a verdict. However, I have been extremely impressed with what I have seen so far and would like to share my personal highlights:

Two Knights of Vaudeville (1915): The earliest film in the set, this short used a stock comedy plot that was also employed by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Lupino Lane, among others: rowdy rascals making trouble at a vaudeville show. It’s a charming and enthusiastic take on a familiar plot and an easy way to make an apples to apples comparison to Hollywood comedy. I also dug Donald Sosin’s jazzy, toe-tapping accompaniment.

Within Our Gates (1920): I consider myself fortunate to have seen this picture within my first year of silent movie viewing. Any lingering admiration, any attempts to softpedal the racism of D.W. Griffith was instantly smothered under the controlled celluloid rage of Oscar Micheaux. Often billed as a response to The Birth of a Nation, Within Our Gates is both rewarding in its scope and exhausting in its intensity. It’s also the perfect reply to people who claim that we must look at the “context” of Griffith. Here’s your context, choke on it. Every fan or student of cinematic history owes themselves at least one viewing. The version presented in this set shows its age but is rather nice and the excellent score by Paul Miller adds to its impact.

Image via Kino Lorber
Image via Kino Lorber

The Flying Ace (1926): Well, that was fun! It’s an aviation adventure and I had a blast watching it. The image quality is sparkling and I dug the Hollywood-esque score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. It’s light, to be sure, but a nice reminder that there were a wide variety of genres available of African-American moviegoers.

Whew! So much to watch and so little time. I am going to be enjoying my journey through this box. Look for more details as these pictures make their way into my review queue. Here is the complete list of the set’s main contents:

(Some items are only on the Bluray release. They are marked on this list. I omitted some bonus content to keep the length under control.)

Two Knights of Vaudeville Ebony Film Co., 1915
Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (BLU-RAY ONLY) Ebony Film Co., 1918
A Reckless Rover Ebony Film Co., 1918. 14 minutes
Within Our Gates Oscar Micheaux, 1920
The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the KKK Oscar Micheaux, 1920
By Right of Birth Lincoln Motion Picture Co., 1921
Body and Soul Oscar Micheaux, 1925. 93 minutes
Screen Snapshots (Micheaux footage, 1920, 1 minute)
Regeneration Richard E. Norman, 1923
The Flying Ace Richard E. Norman, 1928
Ten Nights in a Bar Room CPFC, 1926
Rev. S.S. Jones Home Movies Rev. Solomon Sir Jones, 1924-1926
The Scar of Shame Frank Peregini, 1929
Eleven P.M.Richard Maurice, 1928
Hell-Bound Train James and Eloyce Gist, 1930
Verdict Not Guilty James and Eloyce Gist, 1934
Heaven-Bound Travelers (BLU-RAY ONLY) James and Eloyce Gist, 1935
The Darktown Revue Oscar Micheaux, 1931
The Exile Oscar Micheaux, 1931
Hot Biskits Spencer Williams, 1931
The Girl from Chicago Oscar Micheaux, 1932
Ten Minutes to Live Oscar Micheaux, 1932
Veiled Aristocrats Oscar Micheaux, 1932
Birthright Oscar Micheaux, 1938
We Work Again(BLU-RAY ONLY) WPA Documentary, 1937
The Bronze Buckaroo Richard Kahn, 1939
Zora Neale Hurston Fieldwork Footage (excerpt) Zora Neale Hurtston, 1928
Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940 (excerpt) Zora Neale Hurston, 1940
The Blood of Jesus Spencer Williams, 1941
Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. Spencer Williams, 1946
Moses Sisters Interview Pearl Bowser, 1978

The Extras

Image via Kino Lorber
Image via Kino Lorber

The set features numerous featurettes that discuss the historical context of the films, filmmakers and the audiences of the era. We also get trailers for the films and intriguing fragments of lost films.

We also get a nice, thick booklet that details the history of the films and shares factoids about the era. An ideal intro for people who may be new to independent and/or African-American films.

The Verdict

Image via Kino Lorber
Image via Kino Lorber

I am extremely impressed with the variety and quality of the material contained in Pioneers of African-American Cinema. It shines a light on a forgotten aspect of film history and neatly provides context for the more famous mainstream Hollywood productions of the era. The rough edges show but that’s part of the charm of independent film and it’s more than worth it to hear these marginalized voices speak for the first time in a century. This box is a must-buy for anyone interested in the history of American cinema. I cannot recommend it enough.


Pioneers of African-American Cinema will be released on DVD and Bluray July 26, 2016.


  1. jazzfeathers

    Wow, it sound sso intersting. I might have to put it in my ‘to get’ list 😉

    “Within Our Gates” was one of the first silents I watched when I started reaserching the 1920s and I really liked it, especially the last part. Very strong, in my opinion. Still today. I can only imagine the reaction it may have caused back then.
    I also read a very intersting analysis of the film in “Prove it on Me. New Negroes, Sex and Popular Culture in the 1920s” (which is a book worth reading on the whole).

    Thanks for sharing. I’m happy I’ve learn abotu it and i can’t wait to read your reviews.

  2. richardsd3

    You may have talked me into it. As silent films often do better in general, these films no doubt provide an unglamorized glimpse of people’s living environment and conditions. I have seen “Within Our Gates” (fascinating!) a few times plus some other Micheaux, and recorded some things off TCM – I should watch those first.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      There’s quite a bit of Micheaux (and rightly so) but I also was very interested in the Norman Films, the Spencer Williams films and the Zora Neale Hurston films. Tons to see!

  3. Joe Thompson

    I’m looking forward to this, Fritzi. I thought some of the movies listed were lost. I’m glad to learn that they have turned up. And I have always loved the title of “Dirty Gertie from Harlem, U.S.A.”

  4. Simoa

    Fritzi, every time you throw shade at D.W. Griffith, I LIVE. Thank you for that.

    TCM is actually airing these in conjunction with the release. Either my DVR is getting filled up or I’m buying the box set myself. Probably the latter.

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