Honoring a Forgotten Chapter in Film History w/ “Pioneers of African-American Cinema”

DDDevilI spent Valentine’s Day with the devil on a train to Hell.

That’s not a euphemism for a relationship gone sour, it’s the plot of HELL-BOUND TRAIN (1930), a newly restored silent rarity that screened on Sunday at Film Forum in New York City. The double feature (along 1941’s THE BLOOD OF JESUS) was the first installment in the downtown Manhattan movie mecca’s four-part Pioneers of African-American Cinema series, programmed with rarely seen “race films” from the upcoming Kickstarter-funded Kino Lorber DVD and Blu-ray collection of the same name.

While the Hollywood studio system of the 1920s through ’40s relegated black actors to roles as servants or comic relief, a thriving independent film industry cranked out hundreds of films for the more than 1,000 theaters in the U.S. that catered to African-American audiences. Most were produced, financed and distributed by people of color and almost all are hard to find today, if they survive at all.

HELL-BOUND TRAIN stars the one and only Satan – complete with horns and Batman-style cape – tempting the faithful with a variety of vices as he (SPOILER ALERT!) drives a train into the Everlasting Fire. Like the training films many of us watched in school a generation (or two) ago, HELL-BOUND is broad propaganda, but it’s still memorably powerful stuff. And it’s more than a bit haunting, thanks to a new score composed and performed by Samuel Waymon, best known for his work on Bill Gunn’s 1973 cult classic GANJA & HESS.

“There’s a whole generation of people out there who don’t even know this kind of film exists,” Waymon told the Film Forum audience, who braved hellishly cold New York City temperatures to explore a little-known chapter in movie history. “But even though this is African-American cinema, it’s also for people of all colors.”

HELL-BOUND TRAIN was the work of husband and wife moviemaking duo James and Eloyce Gist, African-American evangelists who produced Christian-themed movies and screened them at churches and meeting halls, funding their efforts with proceeds from the collection plate. Also in attendance on Sunday was S. Torriano Berry, a filmmaker and historian who began restoration work on HELL-BOUND TRAIN two decades ago.

“The films had been donated to the Library of Congress by the Gists’ granddaughter-in-law and had just fallen to pieces,” Berry said. “It was very difficult for me to figure out the original structure.”

In addition to disjointed fragments, Berry also discovered multiple versions of the complete film, often with alternate takes of the same sequences, and different establishing scenes. Relying on his perspective as a filmmaker and research into the Gists’ intentions (but no original script, apparently), he restructured HELL-BOUND TRAIN into a complete narrative. The result is a multi-chapter morality play wherein Satan busts a move each time someone falls victim to drink, gambling, jazz or other immoral pastimes. (Guess which side I was rooting for.)

BLOODThe other half of the program was THE BLOOD OF JESUS (1941), the second film from director Spencer Williams (who would go on to play Andy in the 1950s Amos and Andy TV series). Williams also stars as Razz Jackson, a backsliding hunter who skips the baptism of his wife Martha Ann (Cathryn Caviness) so he can poach a neighbor’s boar for dinner. In a plot twist that elicited a gasp from the Film Forum audience, Razz inadvertently shoots Martha Ann when she returns from her anointing in the river and, as she hovers between life and death, an angel and the devil (this time in a better-fitting costume) battle for her eternal soul.

THE BLOOD OF JESUS is a surprisingly well made film, with an emotional conclusion that finds Martha Ann literally born again in Christ’s titular blood. It also bears some striking similarities to Cabin the Sky, the Broadway musical with an all African-American cast that had opened just months earlier and would be made into a film in 1943 by MGM.

The Pioneers series continues at Film Forum on February 15 with Oscar Micheaux’s WITHIN OUR GATES (1919), the earliest surviving feature film of any African-American director. (D.J. Spooky, executive producer of the Kino Lorber series, provides the recorded score.) Next month’s installments include the premiere of the restoration of Micheaux’s BIRTHRIGHT (1939) on March 6 and Spencer Williams’ DIRTY GERTIE FROM HARLEM USA (1946), an unauthorized adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Rain, on March 7. That screening will be introduced by film critic Armond White, and I recommend you buy your tickets well in advance.

Kino Lorber’s DVD and Blu-ray set (which exceeded its Kickstarter funding goal last year by more than $18,000) is expected to be available in June. The collection will include a dozen newly restored features, more than 10 shorts and fragments, interviews with curators and film scholars, and a mini-documentary.

For more information visit the Film Forum website or Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” Facebook page

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About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, video producer, print journalist, radio/podcast host, and social media influencer. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. My byline has appeared in Slate.com and more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a social media copywriter for Sony's getTV and a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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One Response to Honoring a Forgotten Chapter in Film History w/ “Pioneers of African-American Cinema”

  1. Mark Straka says:

    It’s about time the so-called “race films” get some well-deserved attention. It would be nice to see them, as a body, recovered and restored so that they and the wonderful actors in them can take their rightful place in cinematic history.

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