Oscar Micheaux: The Superhero of Black Filmmakers

This is a documentary screening on April 1st on Sky Arts at 2.40 a.m. This appears to be the only Sky channel available on Freeview, Channel 11. It offers a range of programmes on the arts including frequent studies of cinema, film and film-makers. The majority of these are rather lightweight; they tend to ‘talking heads’, which means the comments are spread across a series of interviewees and rarely have the space to develop complex comments. And the extracts from films tend to be short and not necessarily illustrative of the important points. Some, like the programmes on Buster Keaton or Josephine Baker, involve the European Media Company Arte and are more analytical. This documentary falls rather in the middle.

Oscar Micheaux was a pioneer film-maker in what was known in early C20th USA as ‘race cinema’. These were films produced specifically for black audiences and usually screened in segregated cinemas in the South and either in segregated auditorium or programming in the North. The earliest ‘race’ film dates from 1905 but the cinema took off around 1910 , mainly in Chicago. There were independent ‘race films’ production companies like The Lincoln Motion Picture Company [1916 to 1921] owned by black entrepreneurs. Most companies in this field were owned by white entrepreneurs. There were also black production crew and ‘stars’ like comedian Mantan Moreland, who actually appeared in a few mainstream Hollywood titles. The ‘race cinema’ died out at the end of the 1940s when Hollywood finally decided to attract the ‘black dollar’; and then the 1950s saw the appearance of black stars in Hollywood like Sidney Poitier.

Oscar Micheaux was possibly the most important producer and director in this field. His Micheaux Film Corporation was set up in Chicago in 1918 and he later also worked in New York. Between then and 1940 he made forty four movies; most, like much of the ‘race cinema’, are lost. But the surviving silent and sound films are key examples of that cinema and also are seminal film texts in the history of US film and black film-making. Continue reading

A Positive Start To 2022

Chair of the Friends, Bill Walton has started to get out more and take advantage of some of the many films on offer, here is a round up of some of the films he has seen so far this year.

The Picture House On The Road programme has screened some gems:

Licorice Pizza (2021) directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. A delightful romance between Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman (talented son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) ably supported by actors including Sean Penn, Tom Waits and Bradley Cooper. A little over long at 133 minutes, but great entertainment.

Parallel Mothers (2021). Once again Pedro Almodóvar shows his talent for getting superlative performances out of a cast including Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit and some babies who certainly qualify as emerging talent. It includes important themes such as giving a decent burial to people killed in the Spanish Civil War (a conflict which seems more significant with today’s struggle for democracy in Ukraine); and the part women play in child rearing (Penelope Cruz puts on her ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ t-shirt to underline the point).

At the HEART Centre in Headingley I watched:

In the Heat of the Night (1967). A celebration of the contribution of Sidney Poitier to film, and to his confrontation of racism more generally. A great performance by Rod Steiger too. A film that retains its power over 50 years later.

Border (2018) an imaginative Swedish film about a customs officer who is not all she seems. Entertaining and thought provoking.

Honeyland (2019). A beautifully photographed story showing the vulnerability of living at subsistence level (in Macedonia), and the fragility of ecosystems plus a cast of many thousands (of bees).

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), a ‘food and film’ event with this classic film, another reminder of war in Europe, accompanied by delicious paella.

So the word is that great film offerings are available and audiences are starting to return. Venues are going out of their way to keep everyone safe. What are your highlights of the year so far?

The reopening of our rejuvenated Picture House is now only about six months away. With our Annual General Meeting behind us, the Friends’ Committee is actively putting plans into place to give you new opportunities to become involved. 2022 is set to be an exciting year!


Bill Walton

Knives Out, USA 2019

If you are still unable to enjoy theatrical screenings you can at least enjoy a very smart movie on terrestrial television. It offers comedy with drama; a clever pastiche [celebration rather than the spoof] of a popular genres. This highly praised title plays with the ‘murder mystery-cum-detective’ story; in particular the variant that made Agatha Christie so successful. A mysterious death occurs in a family mansion of the patriarch who made his money in writing the sort of stories presented in this movie. A famous private detective is paid anonymously to investigate the death and solve the mystery. The family members fight over the money and the mystery; one aspect of the title.

The writer and director Rian Johnson had already made a teen neo-noir: an action movie: and an episode of the Star Wars franchise. He clearly has watched innumerable examples of the genre and one can spend time spotting the influences. The plot is labyrinthine and perhaps at times too clever. There re a number of red herrings, even an occasional Hitchcock ‘macguffin’. I suspect that very few viewers will unravel the plot in advance of the conclusion; a major surprise.

The production values are good and the tempo of the film is slick. But I felt that it was the cast in particular who made the movie so effective. Christopher Plummer plays patriarch Harlan Thrombey with ease and skill that have graced so many performances. Daniel Graig as detective Benoit Blanc reveals characterisation skills that have not been much seen in his  earlier roles. And I really liked Ana de Arnas as Harlan’s nurse Maria. But all the actors are really fine in their roles. There are several canine characters; and two of them race in an important sequence.

The title was shot on a combination of 35mm and digital formats. It is screening on Channel 4 at 9 p.m. this Saturday. – 130 minutes in colour and standard wide-screen. On the HD channel it should look and sound fine. It did when screened at the Picture House.

Andy’s Look Back At 2021

Our newest committee member, Andy Smith, takes a look back at another unusual year in cinema.

Before we get to the nitty-gritty let me put some context around where my film preferences lie: Here are some of my favourite films, by which I mean films that I would happily watch over and over again, but not on a loop! (in no particular order): Casablanca (1942), Ex Machina (2014), Leon (1994), Dirty Harry (1971), Farmegeddon (2019), Wall-E (2008). I don’t mind a suspense film but I am not a fan of horror or ‘action’ movies. Although Tenet (2020) was simply brilliant… My wife and I always mark a film out of 10 as we leave the cinema – it has to be our instant impression, given without conferring which we then average and record. More that 8 is very good, less than 2 means we probably walked out if we could without disturbing people. 10s are like hen’s teeth.

The first half of 2021 was spent watching films on-line via a 12 inch laptop or DVDs via a projector on to the sitting room wall trying to replicate “The Experience” of the big screen – we even got ice creams in. It was a poor substitute.

From May we were back in cinemas and managed to rack up 20 films between then and the end of the year. Most of them were excellent – only one was poor. So a good strike rate.

The first film was Nomadland – pretty much a 10/10. What an interesting ‘storyline’ fantastic direction (Chloe Zhao), great characters (Frances McDormand, David Strathairn and members of the nomad community), cinematography (Joshua James Reynolds) and social comment.

Frances Mcdormand in Nomadland
Continue reading

Review: The Man Who Invented Christmas

Tara (Charles Dickens’ servant, played by Anna Murphy): Is Tiny Tim dead?
Scrooge: Well, of course he is, imbecile.
Charles Dickens: He was very ill.
Scrooge: You can’t save every child in London.
Charles Dickens: And the family has no money for a doctor.
Tara: Then Scrooge must save him!
Scrooge: ME?
Charles Dickens: He wouldn’t…
Tara: WHY?
Charles Dickens: Well, he’s too selfish.
Tara: He can change, there’s good in him, somewhere. I know it.
Scrooge: People don’t change.
Charles Dickens: He’s been this way, for a long time. I’m not sure he can change.
Tara: Of course he can, he’s not a monster.
Scrooge: I thought this was a ghost story, not a fairy tale.

Forty people joined us for the Friends’ screening of the 2017 film The Man Who Invented Christmas. It tells the story of how Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) wrote and published “A Christmas Carol” during a frantic six weeks in the run up to Christmas 1843. Many thanks to Wendy the Picture House manager and her team for making the arrangements.

It is easy to underestimate the challenge of writing and publishing a book (or making a film for that matter) to a very tight deadline with a very limited budget. Dickens had written Oliver Twist in 1838 but that had been followed by three unsuccessful books. He often had writer’s block, was heavily in debt, and had a large family to support. He could easily have ended up in a debtors’ prison as his father did. Despite this A Christmas Carol became one of the best selling books of all time and went on to influence the way Christmas is celebrated across the world.

This film is not a documentary but does draw upon Dickens’ life experiences, including the ridicule he faced as a child while forced to work in a blacking (metal polish) factory. It’s worth watching for the locations, costumes and the photography, and especially for its portrayal of Dickens’ interactions with the characters which highlights the creative struggle at the moral core of the book, And I enjoyed spotting Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Miriam Margolyes, Miles Jupp and Simon Callow among the cast.

However. the film treats lightly the deep flaws in Dickens’ personality, including his recklessness and instability and his ill treatment of his wife. In my view the film is a very interesting “one-watch” but too sentimental to become a regular feature of Christmas screenings,

Agree/disagree? We welcome your comments or reviews below.


Bill Walton

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017): A Friends Festive Screening

Sunday 12th December 3.30 pm at Leeds University.
Members can claim up to 2 free tickets for this special festival screening

Film poster featuring Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce in The Man Who Invented Christmas. How Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol and created a tradition

The man in question is, of course, Charles Dickens; and his invention is his novella ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843). This must be the most famous contribution to the festive season in modern times. There are likely two dozen adaptations of the book on film plus others on television, radio and in the theatre. And its influence can be seen in many other tales rolled out every year; it has always seemed to me that It’s a Wonderful Life works by inverting the earlier story. The smart variation offered in this movie is the portrait of Dickens writing his masterwork in the last weeks of 1843.

It is a dramatisation and whilst much of it is accurate it also includes invention and embroidering; check out ‘History vs Hollywood’ which examines some of these issues. The six week time period of the film is accurate; in that year Dickens was seeking an elusive popular novel and also worrying over financial problems. Meanwhile the Victorian Christmas was emerging; the 25th became a Bank Holiday in 1834; whilst Boxing Day and Bob Cratchit had to wait until 1871. The source for the movie was US writer Les Standiford who produces historical non-fiction and had the bright idea of presenting both how Dickens produced his famous work but also its influence on the increasing importance of this festival.

The film depicts Dickens drawing on his own life experiences to dramatise a tale of ‘light’ and shadow’; incorporating already existing practices such as the large fowl for dinner and the succulent pudding. He also added family get togethers and carol singing. The film tends to emphasise the sentimentality that was part of Dickens’ writing. There is less emphasis on the darker aspects of Victorian Britain; aspects written about vividly in the same period by Frederick Engels (‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, 1845).

In the course of the film we see Dickens (Dan Stevens) tussling with the  characters he develops, including Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer); receiving inspiration from those about him including an invented Irish maid Tara (Anna Murphy): and revisiting his past and family, including his father John (Jonathan Pryce). He also has to tussle with publishers, printers and illustrators as the novel takes shape and prepares for publication.

Continue reading

Jozi Gold Director’s Discussion

Jozi Gold (2019) was screened at Leeds University Union as part of the Hyde Park Picture House On The Road programme in conjunction with the UK Green Film Festival on Sunday 7 November 2021.

Following the film was a discussion with host Sai Murray and film director Sylvia Vollenhoven (who joined via Zoom from South Africa). Capturing the urgency of the current conversation around climate change and the deep links between UK politics, policies and institutions and the impact this has on other countries. The discussion was recorded and here we have a transcription for you to enjoy.

You can watch the film here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/jozigold

SM: Sylvia is not only a filmmaker, an award winning journalist, playwright, writer and knight fellow. Her book about identity, the Keeper of the Kumm won the award for literature, and her dance drama adaptation of the book was showcased on the main programme at the South African National Arts Festival, nominated for various awards – best director, best documentary, playwright, award for human rights in the arts etc.. Individual artist, activist and it’s our real pleasure to welcome you to this screening. Brilliant so we have a select audience gathered here today who I’m sure have questions and responses but I’d also like to begin by thanking you for such an inspiring film, a very provocative film and a really important film. Some really really interesting facts and also the way the film was put together and characters. I guess my first question comes from a conversation I had around the film with one of the people who invited me here today who is from South African heritage and who’s here. Our reaction I guess to knowing this film was about Johannesburg, about mining and your choice to follow this character – because we begin with the stilettos, with the very ornate dressed individual of the white woman but you being a black film director, that was not what was expected but she is such an interesting and intriguing character who has done a lot of good and her activism is having a lot of results. So could you speak about the choice to follow this individual and how you perhaps first became aware of her activism?

SV: Greetings! Thank you for screening the film and thank you for this opportunity. How I first got to hear about this is there’s a tiny magazine in South Africa that is small in numbers and audience but very very powerful. It’s an investigative journalism magazine called Noseweek and the editor of that magazine and I have worked together at different media houses and I’ve always been following his work and I’d seen so much of Mariette Liefferink’s activism in Noseweek. In fact, we feature in the film that Superwoman power image – that came out of Noseweek! The editor also has a son who is a journalist and Adam Wells had been following Mariette’s story and filming and he’s more of a print journalist rather than a filmmaker and he was following her around for 4 years. He has a friend who’s the director of a film in Norway and spoke to Stephan about finishing this film that he had been filming for four years but didn’t know how to structure and didn’t know how to put it all together. Stephan said well I have a friend in Sweden, Frederick Garrington[?] At WG Film would be very interested in the story, and Frederick said I’ll get on board if Silvia is the South African producer and my co-director because Frederick and I have been working together for many years and we also are very close friends for decades, having covered apartheid together and I used to be a correspondent for a Swedish outlet. So that’s how it came about. But I must say when Adam Wells, the South African journalist, came to see me and said Frederick said he’s on board if you become the South African director I was not agreeable! I just had not met Mariette and I thought I’m not going to sit here so many years after South African democracy and allow a white Africans woman to tell us what is wrong with South Africa. It just didn’t sit well with me. But then I went to Johannesburg and in Cape Town at the time and changed my mind completely. There were two things that changed my mind mainly, there were lots of little things, but the two main reasons were her integrity and her passion and the second reason was that being an activist myself I knew how important it was to have an image that was out of the ordinary, that would stop people in their tracks, and not only did she have this exotic image that was attention getting and we could use to our advantage for the activism that the film is hoping to elicit but also in the mining industry, dominated by men, and a certain kind of patriarchal class, they don’t see her coming, and by the time they sit up and take notice she’s already in the Supreme Court with a huge court case. So I thought well given my activism background I could really work with this woman.

Continue reading

Bill’s Festival Highlights

Another good year! Special thanks to the Leeds International Film Festival 2021 team for screening an impressive selection of films despite Covid and the non availability of the Hyde Park Picture House and Leeds Town Hall this year.

I watched a total of 8 films

Dear Future Children (2021). Very powerful interviews with young women activists facing huge personal risks in Hong Kong, Santiago and an Ugandan village, plus Q&A with the director.

The Ants and the Grasshopper (2021) following two Malawian women who share experiences of climate change with people from a wide variety of backgrounds in the USA. Great to have this screened while the COP26 Climate Conference was being held in Glasgow. (Available on LeedsFilmPlayer until Thursday)

No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics (2021), with interviews with some key American women and men artists. The documentary shows how they adapted from underground comics in the late 60s, to supporting people through the AIDS epidemic, leading on to graphic novels and a Broadway show. (Available on LeedsFilmPlayer until Thursday)

Seven Samurai (1954). Great to see on the big screen. Actors were really tough in those days!

Paris, 13th District (2021). Some interesting insights into life in the eight tower blocks of Les Olympiades.

Medusa (2021). A Brazilian feminist horror film. Despite an interesting soundtrack and colour design I struggled to follow the plot in this one.

Compartment No. 6 (2021). A great film showing the common humanity shared between a female Finnish archaeology student and a male Russian mineworker on a long train journey to Murmansk.

The Hand of God (2021). The first half is the hugely entertaining story of a gathering of an extended Italian family, followed by the story of how this and other life experiences have influenced the director’s (Paolo Sorrentino’s) work.

This is but a small taste of the huge range of films on offer. Once again it shows the importance of International Film Festivals in building the  global understanding that we so urgently need.


Bill Walton

Leeds International Film Festival 2021

It’s that time of year again and #LIFF2021 is heading back into venues and also making lots of films available to watch online. Earlier this week committee members Bill Walton and Andy Smith attended the launch of the festival and share their first impressions.

For me one of the delights of the Leeds International Film Festival has been settling into the comfy seats of the Hyde Park Picture House, and watching several films in a row. A pleasure deferred until November next year…

This year we had the usual LIFF launch, with a breathless back to back screening of many short trailers for 55 minutes. This approach does give an impression of the variety of films on offer but is not ideal for decision-making. However I came away with a few clues:

But this is just scratching the surface. I haven’t had time yet to delve into the printed programme yet, so these impressions are very much subject to change. I suggest that you have a look for yourself!

Bill Walton

I always look forward to the LIFF preview so after missing last year it was with a sense of anticipation that I went along to the Vue on Wednesday especially as the venue was bragging about their new seats….I could have happily watched more trailers [and you now can – see below] but was glad that the screening was only 55 minutes as I could not have slouched in those seats for any longer despite having fiddled with the adjustment throughout, there was not a comfortable setting for a back now in its 7th decade….

It was a whirlwind of trailers….

I picked out the same ones as Bill plus:

Our task is now to go through the brochure and working out which films and venues align with work and other commitments with the backstop of the Leeds Film Player [the clashfinder can help with this]

Andy Smith


The festival guides are available from Vue Leeds in The Light, Leeds Town Hall now and more sites around Leeds and Yorkshire soon. For a guide in the post, email your details to leeds.film@leeds.gov.uk.

A PDF version is available online and tickets and passes are on sale now.

A number of festival fans have also put together some things that may help you plan your festival.

  • Clashfinder – see what films are on at the same time, highlight your choices, export to your calendars
  • The Films of #LIFF2021 – a Letterboxd list of most of the films showing at the festival
  • Online films at #LIFF2021 – a Letterboxd lists of most of the films available on the Leeds Film Player during the festival
  • LIFF2021 Trailers – a YouTube playlist of 80+ trailers for films at the festival

Review: Censor (2021)

 Niamh Algar in CENSOR, a Magnet release. © CPL/SSF. Photo credit: Maria Lax. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

Censor is Prano Bailey-Bond’s spine chilling debut feature. Set in the mid 80s against the backdrop of social unrest, Thatcherism and the rise of the video nasties. We follow Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) who is a film censor. She lives a nocturnal existence watching a plethora of gore and sin in the films she is charged with watching. One day she views a film that reminds her of a tragedy from her childhood. Triggered by this, she sets out on a journey in which her fiction and reality gets blurred.

The dark and depressive world that Bailey-Bond creates is heightened by Cinematographer Annika Summerson whose hellish visuals adds an expressionistic touch. It is notable that she uses 35mm which echoes the ambience of this bygone era.

The script which Bailey-Bond co-wrote with Anthony Fletcher, is razor sharp, with one scene in particular of suitably over the top gore mirroring the video nasties themselves. However amongst the blood shed there’s occasional moments of truly dark humour. The acting is chilling with Michael Smiley delivering a cool and calculated performance as sleazy film producer Doug Smart. However, the stand out is Niamh Algar who is magnetic on screen. Enid’s character’s arch is one of the film’s takeaways and Niamh plays her unravelling superbly.

The main criticism I have of the film is it’s running time. Although admittedly most horror films tend to be under two hours, you can’t help but feel a little cheated with a running time of one hour and twenty four minutes. You are left with a sense of events being rushed over and plot points not fully explained to get to the deliciously cynical Lynchian style ending.

Sam Judd

Censor is available as a premium rental (£10) from most online platforms including BFIPlayer and Curzon Home Cinema