“My heart sank when I opened the first can I could get to, because a yellow-brown cloud of nitrate dust billowed out at me, signifying that at least some of these films were on pre-1950 nitrate stock, and were already in a state of decomposition,” said Dr. Jones in his book “Black Cinema Treasures: Lost and Found.”
The “Tyler, Texas, Black Film Collection” is a 3-DVD boxed set, containing seven full-length films and seven shorts. Some of the films included are “Murder in Harlem” (1935), “Broken Earth” (1939) and “Midnight Shadow” (1939) among others. The genres range from comedy to drama and all showcase an intimate look at African American life during the 30s-50s.
“The Tyler, Texas, Black Film Collection is significant as testimony to the longer-than-supposed history of the black independent filmmaker in this country,” said Dr. Jones. “As well as providing one of the best sources of knowledge of the black self-consciousness in America from the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s.”
Made outside of the Hollywood system, which meant the studios produced, distributed and exhibited their films, these race films were made by African Americans for African Americans.
“Most of the films shown to African American audiences were made by white filmmakers and were full of white characters with a few minority stereotypes,” said Amy Turner, current head of the G. William Jones Film and Video Collection. “Films like those in the Tyler Collection gave audience members a chance to see more African Americans as actors and filmmakers.”
The films included in the collection were to be played in establishments labeled black theaters. According to various city directories located in the Tyler Public Library, these theaters included the Rapeeds, White Star, Lincoln and Palace. Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended public segregation, these were the only places in Tyler for African American’s to enjoy black entertainment.
“You had a large population of black people who were hungry for any kind of film that would give them a realistic experience of their own culture,” said Herman Abrams, a retired film producer.
For Tyler City Librarian Mary Vernau, these films are not only a window to a progressive moment in film history, but provide glimpses of the struggles of African Americans.
“History is important, especially for our youth today to know really what the black experience was like in those years before the civil rights movement,” said Vernau.
To order the collection on DVD, check out smu.edu/blackfilms or digitalcollections.smu.edu to view them online.
Dr. G. William Jones’ book “Black Cinema Treasures: Lost and Found” is available at Tyler Public Library as well as most major booksellers.