Starting this Friday February 3, the DIA will screen “Pioneers of African-American Cinema,” running primarily this weekend (and two additional dates) at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The series takes nine features from a recently released Kino Lorber set of rare black films and projects them on the DFT screen in high-definition digital.
This collection of movies made by and for African Americans, sometimes called “race films,” were shown in theaters, but more often screened in popular community gathering places like churches or cafes like the one in which Wheeler saw many of these films for the first time.
Motown connections are strong in two of the titles. Detroit-born Herb Jeffries stars in “The Bronze Buckaroo” (1939), one of several films in which he starred as the first black singing cowboy.
The Detroit-made “Eleven P.M.” (1928), which screens on Saturday afternoon, is fascinating on several levels, first for its exterior shots of black neighborhoods around the time it was made in the late 1920s and for its subject matter, which puts a surrealistic spin on a seemingly simple morality tale about a slick hoodlum who preys on the poor violinist who once tried to help him.
Many of these films were once considered lost. A now-legendary discovery of black films in a warehouse in Tyler, Texas, in the mid-’80s resurrected many of the titles, including “The Blood of Jesus.” In 1991, that movie became the first so-called race film to be added to the U.S. National Film Registry.
The “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” series
Feb. 3-5, Feb. 18 and April 22
Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts
5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit
For more on this series at the DIA