The Detroit Film Theatre will present the Pioneers of African-American Cinema series starting February free of charge, featuring “Within Our Gates,” “The Blood of Jesus” and lesser-known classics.
The series, curated by DFT founder Elliot Wilhelm, is a Black History Month program showcasing popular and obscure early African-American cinema. These films are a diverse sample of African-American films ranging from large productions to home movies.
The screenings for all of the films are free of charge. Wilhelm says his reasoning for this is central to the concept of the series.
“Since no single film can capture the breadth, scope and creativity involved in independent African-American film production, we wanted audiences to not have to decide on just one or two screenings to attend,” Wilhelm said.
“By making every screening fully accessible, we’re trying to make it more inviting for the community to attend often, discovering not only the famous titles in this series, but also the rarely seen, less-heralded gems on display that are all a part of this shamefully neglected portion of America’s cinema heritage.”
Wilhelm said many of the films in the series, made primarily during the 1920s through the 1940s, were called “race movies,” just as early R&B records were classified by the music industry as “race music.”
Detroit played a part in these early African-American films, he said.
“Detroit was not only a major source of audiences for independent African-American film-this city was also a production center,” he said.
Detroit was the production center for the film “Eleven P.M.” showing as part of the series at DFT on Feb. 4. The film is about a poor musician trying to protect a girl from a menacing person.
“One of the great joys of looking at older movies shot on location, is to actually see a place as it used to look—in this case, the streets of Detroit nearly 90 years ago,” Wilhelm said.
Juanita Anderson, lecturer and director of film and digital media initiatives at Wayne State, said “The Detroit Film Theatre's series Pioneers of African-American Cinema offers the public a rare opportunity to view some of the early classics of African-American filmmakers on the big screen, and to engage first hand with the work of pioneering African-American directors including Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams and more.”
“These films, together with their producers, directors, actors and indeed their audiences, are essential to our understanding of film history as a whole, and American film history in particular,” she added.