WHAT: "Black Silent Cinema: A Revival"
WHEN: Begins Wednesday and continues through Feb. 27
WHERE: Dryden Theatre in the George Eastman House, 900 East Ave., Rochester
ADMISSION: $4 to $5
In the movies' early days, as Hollywood consolidated its power over the making and distribution of film, another kind of filmmaking, now almost forgotten, was thriving in Chicago in the 1920s. While Louis Armstrong, Nick La Rocca and Earl Hines and a host of other musicians were driving jazz to new artistic heights, African American filmmakers were busy turning out silent films that reveal life in America from a black perspective.
Shown in black-owned movie houses to black audiences, these films were often accompanied in the pits by the very players responsible for the city's jazz explosion. It must have been a sight/sound spectacle far different from the standardized fare offered up for the white silent movies. Predictably, under the onslaught of white popular culture, precious few of these black films survived.
From the remnants of this little-known cultural landmark in film, George Eastman House - one of the prime centers of film preservation in America - has fashioned a film series, "Black Silent Cinema: A Revival." The series opens at 8 p.m. Wednesday with Oscar Micheaux's "Within Our Gates," a 1920 film about a black sharecropper living during the Reconstruction who is framed for the murder of a wealth white planter and finds himself on the run from a lynch mob. Other films include "The Scar of Shame" (1927), Frank Perugini's story of an upper-class and up-and-coming composer who falls for the wrong woman (Feb. 17, 2 p.m.); and the fragmentary "Eleven P.M.," Richard D. Maurice's masterpiece from 1928, plus "Siren of the Tropics," a French film featuring the notorious dancer Josephine Baker telling her story of a girl from a St. Louis ghetto who becomes the toast of Paris (Feb. 21, 8 p.m.).
Screenings will continue throughout the month (including two contemporary black films), culminating with Micheaux's "Body and Soul" (1925) with Paul Robeson in a screen debut role as an escaped convict who assumes the identity of a small-town preacher. The Herb Smith All-Stars will provide the jazz accompaniment for all the silent films.