A Road Three Hundred Years Long: Cinema and the Great Migration

The Department of Film’s companion series to the exhibition One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North features the world premiere of a new MoMA commission: Thom Andersen’s Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams (2015). In Juke, Andersen reconsiders the work of Williams, the pioneering African American writer-director whose central dramatic theme in such films as The Blood of Jesus (1941) and Go Down, Death! (1944) was the battle between the sacred and the profane, the church and the juke joint.

Accompanying the premiere of Juke is a concise selection of fiction films by independent African American writer-directors, including Eloyce and James Gist, Oscar Micheaux, and Spencer Williams; and nonfiction films of the 1920s-1940s, including newsreels, amateur films, ethnographic studies, home movies, and New Deal social documentaries by William D. Alexander, Zora Neale Hurston, Pare Lorentz, Edgar Ulmer and others. For black audiences during the Great Migration, these moving images stood in stark contrast to their lives in the South, offering the promise of deliverance from impoverishment, injustice, and violence—the promise, though perhaps not the fulfillment—and visions of a new black urban modernity.

The legacy of the Migration is reflected in more contemporary films like Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (1990), Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), and Kevin Jerome Everson’s Company Line (2009). Guest presenters include Hilton Als, Thom Andersen, Lynne Sachs, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart.            

Organized by Joshua Siegel, Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art; and Thomas Beard, independent curator; with Candace Ming, research assistant. Special thanks to Martin L. Johnson and Dan Streible.