Pearl Bowser, the Godmother of Black Independent Cinema, Has Joined the Ancestors


by Veracity Savant

October 6, 2023

Pearl Bowser was an institution!

Film historian, curator and luminary Pearl Bowser, affectionately known as the “Godmother of Black Independent Cinema,” passed away on September 14th at the age of 92, The New York Times reports.

According to RogerEbert.com, Bowser was born Pearl Johnson in Harlem, New York, on June 25, 1931. Discovering her love for academia early, Bowser excelled in school and was awarded a scholarship to Brooklyn College. It was there that she honed in on her love of Black films. 

Surrounded by the social and political currents of the time, Bowser became a member of an interracial club called the Paul Robeson Club and married civil rights activist LeRoy Bowser in 1955. By the 1970s she was on a quest with other cultural historians to unearth and pay homage to the rich history of Black cinema. Her first big undertaking came the same year, with Bowser bringing to life “The Black Film” retrospective at the Jewish Museum. The next year, she began traveling and teaching on the history of Black film across the nation. 


Best known for showcasing the works of Black filmmakers from the early 20th century, Bowser is specifically remembered for her work to shine a light on pioneering filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. She uncovered the director’s lost archives and co-wrote the book “Writing Himself Into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films.” 

Bowser believed that understanding Black cinema and its history was critical to future generations of filmmakers, the influence on their lens, and the representation and voices that would be prevalent in mainstream cinema. Committed to ensuring the work of early Black filmmakers would not be lost, Bowser organized her own film festival, the Black Film History Series, and the country’s first American women’s film festival in 1979. Simultaneously, she served as director of the Theater Project at Third World Newsreel, the nation’s largest distributor of independent films by people of color. 


During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Bowser expanded her influence as a filmmaker, director, and producer. The 35th Flaherty Film Seminar, programmed by Boswer, featured trailblazing cinema like Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” Ayoka Chenzira’s “Zajota and the Boogie Spirit,” and Cheick Oumar Sissoko’s “Finzan.” Bowser also made her directorial debut in 1994 with “Midnight Ramble,” exploring the rich history of “race films” during Hollywood’s golden age. 

Bowser continued to create institutions and pathways for Black films over the years, founding the Chamba Educational Film Services, a company dedicated to distributing films by Black filmmakers. She also founded African Diaspora Images, a visual and oral history collection documenting the history of Black filmmaking. And she received numerous accolades and awards over the course of her life, eventually donating her collection of works to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). 


The impact of Bowser’s work and her advocacy for Black independent cinema has transformed the way we view Black cinema. And she has inspired filmmakers and enthusiasts to gain new appreciation for the diversity of Black storytelling.

As we reflect on Bowser’s immense legacy and her fierce dedication, we are reminded of the power of Black art to be a vehicle for social change. 

While the Godmother of Black Independent Cinema may have transitioned, her influence lives on in every filmmaker who strives to tell stories that celebrate, challenge, and uplift the richness of the Black experience. We will forever remember Pearl Bowser’s impact on cinema and the world at large.

Photo by Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture


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