Sadly, the winter months are pretty hit or miss when it comes to visiting your local cinema. Of course, there are awards-considered re-releases capitalizing on their critical success. But considering that many of these films are also available for home viewing, it is less likely that I would venture out to see them. And thanks to streaming, there is always something to watch.
Enter the Criterion Channel. For those who don’t know – in addition to making much of their vast physical library available for streaming, Criterion curates numerous collections. Last year, a couple of my favorites included wonderful retrospectives on pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck and Agnes Varda.
Streaming Classics of Black Cinema
More recently, and in honor of Black History Month, the Criterion Channel has featured selections from the 2015 Kino-Lorber box set, Pioneers of African-American Cinema. While I do own a physical copy, I cannot claim to have taken full advantage of having it in my possession. There is always more to explore.
And that I have. From the documentary clips of Zora Neale Hurston to rarities showcasing the contributions of Black American artists to our country’s rich cinematic history, the screening opportunities are numerous. It is no wonder I spent a recent afternoon scrolling through the list. In the end, I landed on Spencer Williams’ Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946).
This film features Francine Everett in the title role of a nightclub talent who flees the bright lights of Harlem for the Caribbean island of “(T)Rinidad” to escape the reach of her ex-boyfriend. The subject matter and Gertie’s character portrayal are a bit risqué by the standards of 1946. On that basis alone, Dirty Gertie is quite entertaining. With a 60 minute runtime, there is little room for complaint.
A Lasting Impact
That said, I think you would hard pressed to find someone calling this an example of cinematic mastery. However, it is noteworthy for a variety of reasons.
While Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. is found in the public domain, there is something special about seeing a restored, pretty pristine print.
Dirty Gertie also offers us a glimpse into a generally forgotten/neglected area of film studies and appreciation. It is a perfect example of a ‘race film,’ showing a thriving industry which traces its roots all the way back to the earliest days of American cinema.
It also dispels the notion that early black filmmakers were wholly reliant on the mainstream Hollywood machine to generate output. In contrast, Hollywood often used these films as a pipeline to populate their own features with black talent.
Although limited resource-wise, pioneers such as Williams and others were able to create entertainment for a welcoming and receptive audience. (Note: I am cutting myself off here because I can spend quite some time waxing poetic on this topic).
It has taken a while, but I am glad that a light is finally being shone upon these treasures.