When I was in elementary school, my father returned from a business trip with a treasure in his briefcase: A book of 10 paper dolls featuring great black entertainers, each with a short biography and several detailed costumes from his or her best-loved films.

Cutting out the paper dolls and costumes was more than an exercise in dexterity: It was my entré e into the intoxicating world of black cinema. This is where I first encountered names like Dorothy Dandridge, Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel, Bill Robinson, and Ethel Waters.

My interest in black Hollywood and media portrayals has long outlasted those paper dolls (which I recently replaced for nostalgia's sake). But now some of those paper dolls are coming to life again with the DVD debut of 12 historic films, five of them from black Hollywood's heyday—just in time for Black History Month.

It's easy to view the earliest of these films with a sense of outrage, as many of the outdated images and mischaracterizations of African-Americans offend modern sensibilities. (Indeed, the first three films begin with a disclaimer to this effect.) Many black Americans found them offensive, even during their era. Still, it's important to recognize that these films often represented a backhanded advance of sorts.

Hallelujah (1929)

directed by King Vidor

The first all-black feature film from a major studio, this musical tells the story of Zekiel (Daniel L. Haynes), a young sharecropper who struggles to resist the forces of gambling and a beautiful-but-wicked girl named Chick (Nina Mae McKinney). Zekiel becomes a preacher following a dramatic conversion scene (featuring music by the Dixie Jubilee Singers), but is unable to stay away from Chick (who seems to have her own conversion ...

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