Atlanta Filmmaker, Scholar Talk ‘Pioneers of African-American Cinema’

Atlanta filmmaker Bret Wood curated the DVD collection ''Pioneers of African-American Cinema.''
Atlanta filmmaker Bret Wood curated the DVD collection ''Pioneers of African-American Cinema.''
Credit Adam K. Thompson

The first alternative-American films and pre-cursors to today’s independent movies were created by African-American filmmakers. These filmmakers worked outside of the Hollywood studio system that was just beginning to solidify between the two world wars. The so-called “race films” depicted black culture and issues and were screened in segregated theaters across the country.

Many early films are already lost to neglect, but early African-American films are an even greater rarity. If you want to catch a “race film” classic like “Eleven P.M.,” you’ll need to make a trip to the Library of Congress.

That is, until now. “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” is the first of its kind, a DVD collection of feature films, shorts and fragments from the original African-American filmmakers. This collection is the result of a year-and-a-half long project, originated by Atlanta filmmaker Bret Wood. Wood was also responsible for managing the project’s Kickstarter campaign, working with curators and the executive producer, negotiating with archives ranging from the British Film Institute to Southern Methodist University, overseeing digital production, and even designing the DVD boxset cover.

In an interview with Lois Reitzes on “City Lights,” Wood discussed the challenges early African-American filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux faced to get their movies made and on screens. Reitzes and Wood were joined by Emory University film studies chair Dr. Matthew Bernstein, who was instrumental in the restoration of “Birthright,” a film included in the “Pioneers” collection. Bernstein stressed that “the importance of this set can’t be overstated. To have these films, all in one place … it’s a huge boon for teaching the history of African-American cinema and for studying, and for just having access.”

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