#2: Commandment Keeper Church (1940)
Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston dabbled in documentary film way back in the late twenties, well before she wrote her most famous work Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Three years after its publication, she travelled around South Carolina filming the Gullah people, Lowcountry sea islanders with a uniquely preserved African language and culture. Their community has been under increasing threat of displacement over the last hundred years, and Hurston’s film — Commandment Keeper Church — is a great act of preservation.
The crowd is the community, and the community is the church. Hurston captures a woman furiously tapping to the melodic liturgy. In the above shot, the band plays in the southern sun. The preacher is taking a well-earned rest from proselytising the word. No rest for the guitarists either side. Hurston’s films are often described as anthropological, but a modern audience will find them as poetic as they are descriptive. Commandment Keeper would make a perfect double-bill with Daughters of the Dust (1993), Julie Dash’s masterful dreamwork about a Gullah family moving to the mainland.