In 2015, Kino Lorber released a treasure trove from American history in a DVD box set, Pioneers of African-American Cinema. Hours upon hours of feature-length and short films spanning the 1910s to the 1940s were featured, from Oscar Micheaux’s famously searing indictment of white America’s love affair with preserving whiteness and lynching, Within Our Gates, to writer Zora Neale Hurston’s short documentary Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940. As a document showcasing the work of early black filmmakers who paved the way for the Spike Lees, Julie Dashes, and Ava DuVernays of today, it’s invaluable.
Many of the films in the collection can be difficult to view in any format, much less streaming—but Netflix has made it easy to watch some of them, right now, as film writer Monica Castillo helpfully pointed out on Twitter earlier today. (Note: A couple of the films are paired together via Netflix, making the total number actually 22, not 20.)
There are quite a few gems here, particularly Spencer Williams’ Body and Soul, starring Paul Robeson as an escaped prisoner who poses as an honorable reverend to a small black town, as well as The Bronze Buckaroo, starring the oft-forgotten black singing cowboy Herb Jeffries. Even if it weren’t Black History Month, this collection would certainly be worth checking out.