Collection from Tyler Continues to Thrill Film Scholars

Feature story on the “Tyler, Texas Black Film Collection” in SMU’s G. William Jones Film & Video Collection at the Hamon Arts Library.

By Steve Freeman

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.

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