Arts Desk

How a Howard Professor Resurrected Lost D.C. Evangelist Film Hellbound Train

More than 80 years ago,  James Gist was pretty sure all his neighbors were going to hell.

That's why, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Christian evangelist filmmaker and his wife Eloyce visited black churches and meeting halls in Washington, D.C., where they screened their bible-thumping movies in the hopes of spurring their peers to abandon sin.

The Gists are now long gone, but for the last 16 years, a Howard University professor and film producer has attempted to resurrect their cinematic legacy. In the mid-1990s, Steven Torriano Berry was asked by another academic, his friend Gloria Gibson, if he could help her reassemble a long-tattered 1929 film by James Gist, Hellbound Train. “The Gists’ granddaughter contacted [Gibson] and let her know the film was at the Library of Congress, but it had been old and fragmented and broken up and it was in pieces,” says Berry, who is on the faculty of Howard's department of radio, television, and film. “She got permission to gain access to the footage, but she needed someone to actually put the pieces back together, and me being the filmmaker that I am, she asked if I would be interested, and I said yes.”

For years, Hellbound Train had sat in the Library of Congress. After three months of work—and the addition of more film fragments accessed by the chair of Berry's department, Dr. Bishetta Merritt—Berry put the film back together, added his own score and soundtrack, and in the process discovered pieces of a 1933 film by Eloyce Gist, Verdict Not Guilty. Although Berry’s versions are not in the original sequence, Berry believes they're the only nonfragmented versions of the films. On Thursday, Berry will show both films at Sankofa Cafe and Bookstore.

“I had no idea what the original structure of [Hellbound Train] was and I purposely didn’t try to take it back to that," Berry says. "The best I could do in my opinion was recut it to my senses and also recut it for a 21st century audience.”

In an effort to keep the Gist’s work from being forgotten, Berry has screened the films across the country since 1996, when he showed Hellbound Train at the Black Arts Festival in Atlanta.

Hellbound Train comprises a series of vignettes of “sinful” acts, any of which could book you a spot on that locomotive to perdition: Women deceiving their husbands; gamblers and tipplers; crooked men conducting illicit business; and insolent children disrespecting their parents make up the 20-minute silent film. At the end of each scene a character dies, and a round man in a form-fitting devil suit hops off a train and does a little jig as he accepts a new passenger. “It’s pretty interesting,” says Berry. “According to Hellbound Train, if you are not a bible-toting, scripture-quoting Christian, you’re headed toward the Hellbound Train. Being made back in 1929, of course it was a different world back then."

Verdict Not Guilty is Eloyce Gist’s directoral debut, a seven-minute short about a woman who in the afterlife must plead her life’s case before God in order to enter heaven. During her life on earth, the woman “took medicine to keep from becoming a mother” and the devil, who serves as the prosecutor, is very adamant about taking this woman to the fiery gates.

Although Berry is unsure where James and Eloyce Gist lived, he believes they shot their films in the neighborhoods near Howard University. (Some of the homes appear to be in Bloomingdale, for example, and one scene contains a streetcar marked "Columbia.") Much of the information about the Gists and the films was lost in a house fire, according to a great-grandchild with whom Berry spoke.

Berry believes the Gists were pioneering black independent filmmakers, but he says their religious subject matter has made explaining their importance a tough sell. “Being so vested and the response not being what you wanted, it was hurtful. After the premiere at the Black Arts Festival everybody involved just dropped it,” Berry says. “If this was Spike Lee that had taken this historic, black, religious film rediscovered at the Library of Congress tattered and in pieces, restructured it and presented , you know, the Gists would be up there with [the influential black director and producer] Oscar Micheaux right now.”

The films Hellbound Train and Verdict Not Guilty show Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Sankofa Cafe and Bookstore, 2714 Georgia Ave. NW.

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