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Pearl Bowser, expert in early Black filmmakers, dies at 92

Pearl Bowser, a film historian, curator and collector who was instrumental in preserving and bringing to light the works of Black filmmakers from early in the last century, especially those of Oscar Micheaux, whom one writer described as “the Jackie Robinson of American film,” died Sept. 14 in Brooklyn. She was 92.

Her daughter Gillian Bowser confirmed the death.

Ms. Bowser developed an interest in the forgotten works of early Black filmmakers in the 1960s when, while working as a researcher on a colleague’s idea for a book about Micheaux, she traveled to California from New York to interview aging actors who had been in movies made by Micheaux decades earlier.


She began hunting down and collecting movies by Micheaux and other Black filmmakers from the early decades of the 1900s — works that were, for that period, triumphs of independent filmmaking, since they were generally made on shoestring budgets and sometimes dealt with topics that mainstream movies would not touch. Micheaux’s “The Symbol of the Unconquered” (1920), for instance, was an indictment of the Ku Klux Klan.

Those films also serve as historical documents, depicting Black communities in ways not seen in mainstream movies of the time.

“Oscar Micheaux’s early films are full of ordinary settings of community: the church, the house, the apartment,” Ms. Bowser told USA Today in 1998. “You see the way people lived in that period.”

By the early 1970s, Ms. Bowser was curating film series, taking the works she had discovered by Micheaux and others into theaters and classrooms. She continued to do that for decades.

“They were telling stories that were not being shown on the screen, Black stories,” she told students at Fort Lee High School in New Jersey in 2004 before showing them “The Symbol of the Unconquered” (a film that, like others of Micheaux’s, was shot in Fort Lee). “And by showing the Black experience, we’re telling the American story in its totality.”


Donald Bogle, the noted film historian, said Ms. Bowser’s work on Micheaux was pivotal.

“Not much was known or acknowledged about Micheaux for too long a time,” he said by email. “But Pearl made it her mission to bring his work and career to light. Over the years, she devotedly dug for information on him, and I can remember those occasions when she excitedly told me about new things she was unearthing.”

Among the places her search took her, she said in newspaper interviews, were the national archives of Spain and Belgium, where she found silent classics by Micheaux with the title cards written in the languages of those countries, which she then had to have translated back into English.

In 2000, she and Louise Spence published “Writing Himself Into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films and His Audiences.”

“Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence’s scholarly examination of Micheaux serves a dual purpose,” Renée Graham wrote in a review in The Boston Globe. “Through six essays, they analyze Micheaux’s work, how it was received by both Blacks and whites, and how his films encouraged fresh discussions about race. But Bowser and Spence’s book also rescues the filmmaker’s accomplishments from decades of obscurity.”

Ms. Bowser’s expertise, though, encompassed much more than Micheaux-era films. Her lectures and film series covered a wide range — for instance, she presented “Films of Africa and the Caribbean” at the Brooklyn Museum in 1986. And the collection of hundreds of films, videotapes and audiotapes she donated in 2012 to the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution is rich in material related to Black filmmakers in the 1960s and ’70s.


“Pearl didn’t just revive Micheaux’s legacy; she helped preserve and shape the narrative of independent Black film,” Ina Archer, media conservation and digitization specialist at the museum, said by email. “Across her five-decade career she wove a continuous thread through a century of Black film that is only just now beginning to come into focus.”

Pearl Johnson was born June 25, 1931, in Harlem, where she grew up. According to a Smithsonian Institution biography, her mother, also named Pearl, was a domestic worker, and young Pearl would often accompany her to work at apartments in lower Manhattan, helping to fold handkerchiefs in exchange for an allowance.

As a child she came to know Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, a Harlem underworld figure who was also well known in the borough for giving out food baskets and encouraging children to borrow books from his vast library.

“I remember one time I mentioned to Bumpy that I wanted to grow up to be a philosopher,” Ms. Bowser told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1997, “and he said, ‘I’ve got a book you might be interested in.’”

He gave her something by Friedrich Nietzsche. She was about 15 and didn’t understand a word.

“It taught me to think before I spoke to Bumpy,” she said. “because even though I was young, he took me and my dreams quite seriously.”


Later, according to the Smithsonian biography, she worked in one of his numbers joints. She also studied for a time at Brooklyn College before dropping out and taking a job at CBS, where she worked on a team that analyzed television ratings.

In 1955 she married LeRoy Bowser, who would later become a regional vice president of the National Urban League. He died in 1986. Her daughter Gillian survives her. Another daughter, Joralemon Bowser, died in 1978.

Ms. Bowser made a few films herself, including “Midnight Ramble,” a documentary she made with Bestor Cram for the PBS series “The American Experience” about “race movies,” as films made by Micheaux and others for Black audiences were called.

In the late 1960s, Ms. Bowser also wrote a newspaper cooking column. In 1970, with Joan Eckstein, she published her best recipes in a book, “A Pinch of Soul.”

“The authors,” one reviewer said, “provide a complete array of soul food cookery to fit the needs of today’s elegant hostess.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.