Film & TV

Don’t Miss Pioneers of African-American Cinema on Netflix (and Other Viewing Suggestions)

Don’t Miss Pioneers of African-American Cinema on Netflix (and Other Viewing Suggestions)
Courtesy of Kino Lorber

With movie-history viewing choices spawning like mold in a damp room, we can easily see the things we didn't even know we'd never seen. For me that includes Takashi Miike's Black Society Trilogy (Arrow Video), a trio of quick, down-and-dirty crime-gang pulp rockets (1995-99) that established Miike as Japan's fin-de-siècle bad boy. Shinjuku Triad Society (1995) unleashes an urban-chaos montage of severed heads, raving clubbers, pig carcasses, cavity searches and stairwell blowies even before the credits roll; after that, the three films, continuing with Rainy Dog (1997) and Ley Lines (1999), limn entirely different sagas about crisscrossing crime syndicates in Japan, Taiwan and China, and the lost boys and girls that populate them, along with the cops on their tails (who're given to anal rape as an interrogation-torture option).

Of course Miike goes where others wouldn't — the grimier details of prostitution, junkiedom, orphanhood, public executions, etc. are never glossed over when they can be savored — but the films aren’t sheer exploitation in the manner of many Japanese gangster epics, instead emerging as a complex vision of inevitable unhappiness in underworld life.

You might not know that you never saw Roger Vadim's Vice and Virtue (1963), available free on Amazon Prime, or that it might well be Vadim's best movie — a visually baroque, widescreen period epic that retells Sade's Justine-and-Juliette tales in the context of the Nazi occupation of Paris. Catherine Deneuve is the chaste Justine, abused and apprehended by the Germans, while Annie Girardot is the licentious Juliette, already a decadent general's concubine, hyperbolizing Sade's point (as Pasolini would later do in Salò) of individual morality ceasing to matter in a world of institutional monstrosity.

In fact the prophecy of Salò’s metaphoric thrust is unmistakable, albeit much tamer, down to Vadim's last-act country villa of ritualistic sex slavery. Visually built out of fractured reflections (including ceiling mirrors — go Roger!) and infinite reaches of Wellesian corridors, it's a movie virtually no one has even mentioned in passing since ‘63, and yet it may be, at the very least, the most thoughtful Sade adaptation ever.

Likewise, you may not have heard that Stuart Rosenberg's The Laughing Policeman (1973), the neglected Nixon-era serial-killer grit-fest with Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern headlining as jaded Frisco cops counting corpses, is out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, nor that Barry Shear's entrancing satiric time capsule Wild in the Streets (1968), which centers around a rock-star loudmouth (Christopher Jones) who becomes president and starts mandating LSD dosage for the middle-aged parents he herds into concentration camps, got Blu-rayed by Olive Films, both for a dub. You probably have heard about FilmStruck, Criterion and TCM's new art-film stream, but amid the Truffauts and Fassbinders available there you're not likely to have heard of Peter Delpeut's Diva Dolorosa (1999), a hypnotic Dutch film constructed entirely out of footage from a particular genre of Italian silent: the Black Romantic melodramas of the 1910s, in which tragically willful, independent fin-de-siècle aristocratic women self-destructed, dramatically and hyper-tragically, in the name of love.

The genre, which pervaded other mediums as well, might be the first and last word on the communion between sex and death, and the clips Delpeut uses are chockablock with swoony melancholy and suicidal ardor. It's a salute to the cosmic force of melodrama, and to Black Romance diva Lyda Borelli, but also a found-object poem on its own, with a rhapsodic orchestral score and a sure sense of proto-campy mega-sadness as a requiem for cinema itself.

Meanwhile, in this age of #OscarsKindaBlack, you can roam Netflix all day and never bump into the least Netflixy cache on the menu: Kino Lorber's Pioneers of African-American Cinema collection, nearly 20 hours of restored "race" films made by and for black people, beginning historically with several 1918 comedy shorts from trailblazing Ebony Productions and rounding off in 1946 with Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. Rough, passionate and unconcerned with Hollywood syntax and expertise, these films constitute now a bedrock of pre–Civil Rights Era culture, something like an African-American codex of early-century norms and identity.

Via outriders like Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, R.W. Phillips and James and Eloyce Gist, the black subculture we see here, shot on the fringe super-cheap, is wracked by poverty and vice: families plagued by booze and gambling, goldbricking men trying to sully honest women, nest-eggs stolen, duplicitous preachers, debt-ridden husbands dying in card-game shoot-outs. Often, whites are entirely absent; the early-20th-century struggle for identity as an American class was one blacks were seen from their ground zero to have waged on their own.

It is all staged primitively full-frontal, so you can't look away, with acting that reaches the back row. But coarseness is not an issue; who made the films is as important as the experience of watching them. Peaks in the pack include the lurid showstoppers of Oscar Micheaux (particularly 1920's The Symbol of the Unconquered, in which a self-tortured mixed-race man ends up inadvertently heading a KKK raid), Williams' lovely 1943 morality play The Blood of Jesus (the first race film to be included in the National Film Registry), the Gists' hallucinatory anti-vice church film Hell-Bound Train (1930) and documentary footage of Florida and South Carolina black life shot by novelist Zora Neale Hurston. Some of the films are already passed the point of nitrate-decay return, and watching them is like witnessing a hidden history refound yet dissolving in front of your eyes.
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Michael Atkinson is a regular film contributor at the Village Voice. His work also appears in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press and Dallas Observer.