Collection from Tyler Continues to Thrill Film Scholars
Deemed the most significant film of the collection, The Blood of Jesus is a 1941 movie that deals with themes of the after-life. The Library of Congress National Film Registry added the film to its collection in 1991.
Photo courtesy of G. William Jones Film & Video Collection, SMU’s Hamon Arts Library
A small film collection branded with “Tyler, Texas” has gained fans among film historians and race relations researchers. Although short on entertainment value by today’s standards, the films provide an invaluable look at African American cultural history in the early 20th century.
The films were found in a warehouse in Tyler, possibly used for celluloid reel film distribution shipments to regional movie theaters. Eventually, Bill Jones — a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas — acquired the films in 1983 and entered them into SMU’s G. William Jones Film & Video Collection at the Hamon Arts Library. There, they reside, preserved and digitized.
The “Tyler, Texas Black Film Collection” comprises six short flicks, nine features, and a set of newsreels, all black-and-white and all produced between 1935 and 1958. These so-called “race movies” include comedies, dramas, news broadcasts and musical performances. They were made for African American audiences by pioneering African American directors, producers, and actors.
The films cover a time when “Jim Crow” laws of segregation kept African Americans distanced from Hollywood filmmaking and the entertainment industry as a whole. Despite their low-budget production, technical flaws, and variable acting performances, they are considered to be a treasure trove of cultural artifacts.
“These are among a very small collection of ‘race movies’ from around the world,” says Rick Worland, a professor with SMU’s division of film & media arts. “They weren’t valued at all and had little after-market value, but then scholars got hold of them.”
Today, the films are favorite additions for film festivals everywhere.
Ossie Davis, the late film, television, and Broadway actor, director, playwright, and civil rights activist, said these and other early and rare films of their type exhibit a “self-consciousness” budding in African Americans in the early 20th century. They are considered as important in this respect as the Harlem Renaissance in terms of liberating African Americans in art, literature and music. Some 200 films of this variety are known to exist from estimates of some 3,000 produced during those years.
The collection’s stand-out is The Blood of Jesus, a 1941 film that scholars believe was the most widely seen movie of its type at the time. It is about the accidental shooting of a woman and of the faith that brings her back. As she lies dying, her soul goes on a symbolic journey and ultimately chooses heaven over hell. When the woman awakens recovered, a church choir offers a singing celebration of the miracle.
Placed in the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1991, this highly-regarded film was directed by Spencer Williams, who gained fame later in his role as Andy in the hit TV show, Amos & Andy (1951-53).
Only one film uses Texas as a setting for the story. In Girl in Room 20 (1946), a character named Daisy Mae leaves her home in Prairieville (Kaufman County) to seek fame as a singer. The corrupting big city, however, causes her boyfriend to convince her to return to Texas.
The newsreels observe public life of African Americans from about 1953 to ‘56 with interviews of a few government officials of color who served in various departments in Washington, D.C., during the Eisenhower administration as well as some leading African Americans who attended the Republican National Convention in San Francisco.
Some films range from 10 to 35 minutes and tell stories of good-hearted struggles amid life’s trials and temptations through music and dance. One is solely a musical performance — Boogie Woogie Blues (1948) features a songstress performing “Don’t Take Your Love From Me.”
In recent years, the SMU library has loaned the Tyler film collection to the University of Chicago, Harvard University, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and museums in Paris, France, and Vienna, Austria.
To view the films or learn more about them, visit smu.edu/CUL/Hamon/Jones. A three-DVD set of a selection of the films is also available for purchase.