A few weeks back, my Twitter feed went nuts with black film geeks famous and not famous all saying Netflix dropped a series called ‘Pioneers of African-American Cinema’ that is mandatory viewing if you’re a student of the history or the artform or the culture.
And they were all right.
Streaming on Netflix, twenty episodes total. A few shorts in there, but mostly features, none over 100 minutes I believe. Most everyone who knows their history has heard the name Oscar Micheaux; off the top of my head there are four of his films here. Paul Robeson makes an appearance in one of the features. If you’re any type of black film geek, it’s the best kind of homework.
Now, a few notes from me as an observer:
It’s to be expected I guess when you know how historically expensive filmmaking is as an art form, but as far as the stories here: it’s almost exclusively from a ‘Talented Tenth’ point of view. If you’re hoping to see some pre-cursor to ‘Menace II Society’ or ‘Boyz N Da Hood’… nope, this ain’t the place. I believe it was in one of the Micheaux films that a fast light skinned woman was repeatedly referred to as ‘that yellow hussy’. That tickled me good, but be ready for a lot of that.
In terms of things off the beaten track, there’s a black Western(!) in the later episodes. That’s the good. The bad? Shockingly, there was a blackface preacher who showed up in one of the more musically inclined films (in front of a black choir, which made it extra jarring.) There was also a yellowface character who briefly showed up as a minor character in one film. I’m not even going to psycho analyze that, I’m just telling you it was there.
But this is still mandatory viewing as a historical document if nothing else. (I want to say the National Film Archive and the Library of Congress were the two DC groups most responsible for preserving these films, but don’t quote me on that.)
Streaming on Netflix.