7 Silent Movies That Are Progressive, Actually
Don’t worry, I’m not arguing that THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) or THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) are “woke.” I’m not even necessarily saying the movies I’m about to list are unassailable from modern criticism; nothing is, of course. But coming from an era that many people today now regard as dreadfully out of touch, not just artistically but thematically and socially, these seven movies are probably even more impressive. And there really are more than seven “progressive” movies before 1929 (ostensibly the beginning of the sound era). Having written about silent movies for some time now, though, I often get asked about the questionable content in them. Of course, many are glaringly racist and/or sexist, which was the case up until…well, now. But as with films today, many silent movies are deeply humanitarian. I feel kind of redundant explaining this. They’re movies. There are good ones and bad ones, and most of them are bad. That’s the nature of the film industry. Anyways, if you want to find some themes in film that you may think were not explored 90, 100, 115 years ago, check out these movies!
THE EX-CONVICT (1904)
D: Edwin S. Porter
Well, Edwin S. Porter sure did make a whole host of “problematic” movies. But he also ushered in a whole host of “social drama” films in the mid-1900s that eschewed the fantasy and relatively neutral actualities of the day. THE EX-CONVICT “elevated” the incredibly short dramas of its time, telling a compelling story about why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover in just under ten minutes. It’s simple, but in hindsight, Porter’s call for human decency in the face of an individual’s troubled past is pretty bold for 1904; he never even reveals the ex-convict’s crime.
D: Lois Weber
Already somewhat progressive in that it was directed by one of the few woman directors of the era (although there were more than people may know and certainly more with more influence before the sound era), HYPOCRITES was Lois Weber’s best work. The controversial feature (at just about 50 minutes) received criticism for its full-frontal female nudity and anticlerical message. The nudity comes in the form of “The Naked Truth,” a double-exposed, spectral, naked Margaret Edwards acting as a commentary on the hypocrisy of organized religion in a series of episodes. Weber took Porter’s social drama innovations to loftier heights, making stronger arguments for more sound causes.
THE IMMIGRANT (1917)
D: Charlie Chaplin
I was going to try avoiding putting movies from my ongoing favorites list, which get a lot of attention already with essays dedicated to each and everyone. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave a Chaplin film off this here list; he was just the most socially conscious comedian of the silent screen. And I have in fact written about THE IMMIGRANT before. Suffice to say, Chaplin passionately argues that humans don’t deserve to be treated like livestock and do deserve some empathy and compassion when they arrive, most likely confused, in a foreign place where they want to try and make a better life. And he does it all with hilarious comedy. THE IMMIGRANT is truly one of Chaplin’s best shorts, and a condensed representation of the humanity he would imbue in almost all of his movies.
WITHIN OUR GATES (1920)
D: Oscar Micheaux
It’s truly a shame that much of the work of Oscar Micheaux, the preeminent African American filmmaker for decades, is now lost. But thankfully, from his silent filmography, we have access to WITHIN OUR GATES. It’s also the oldest surviving film by an African American director. It is also an incredible, fiery protestation of Jim Crow and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan by way of the story of a mixed-race woman. WITHIN OUR GATES has been cited as Micheaux’s response to D.W. Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). I think that’s true; Micheaux uses Griffith’s own language to take a stand against institutionalized racism rather than celebrate it. WITHIN OUR GATES is not just a progressive silent film; it’s a vital work of art for all time.
BED AND SOFA (1927)
D: Abram Room
Many radical films came out of the silent Soviet film industry, but maybe none had a more personal touch than BED AND SOFA. Ostensibly a “three’s company” kind of comedy, BED AND SOFA is actually a remarkable validation of polyamory, womanhood, and even abortion. It’s a frank film that eschews state and party verbiage for an honest portrayal of the working poor in Moscow. Various countries banned the film outright, including the US and UK; Russian filmmakers praised BED AND SOFA while the state quickly realized that it must be condemned. But it’s also beautifully shot, making its messages even more potent and perhaps lending some credibility to authorities’ fears that the movie could awaken some new ideas.
THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN (1928)
D: Germaine Dulac
UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929) may have overshadowed it, but THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN is a fantastic, feminist culmination of the avant-garde film movement slowly but surely building steam during the 1920s; a movement, by the way, dominated by men (like the rest of the film industry, to be sure). Although some would classify Dulac as an Impressionist (and her film THE SMILING MADAME BEUDET  confirms this), others see THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN as the true Surrealist predecessor to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s film. Regardless of its relation to another, more famous film, Dulac’s short tells the story, such as it is, of a priest lusting after a married woman. His erotic hallucinations are the focal point of a critique of male sexuality and, really, a very early revelation of the “male gaze” as we know it today. And the conversation of THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN as a piece in a film history belies the complex dive into the subconscious that the 40-minute film is.
DIARY OF A LOST GIRL (1929)
D: G.W. Pabst
The second of the groundbreaking collaborations between German director Pabst and American star Louise Brooks (the first being PANDORA’S BOX ), DIARY OF A LOST GIRL could have simply been a “fallen woman” story. Instead, Brooks’ characterization of her “lost girl” makes it no easy task to see her as a stereotype, and indeed Pabst’s general commentary on how we treat our most vulnerable and poor girls wraps around the personal story. Brooks’ Thymian is not a character by the patriarchy; she is a character born from the patriarchy.
There are many more silent movies, like any other kind of movie, with important stories to tell. Feel free to reach out if you want more suggestions; I’m nothing if not someone who has watched a lot of silent movies.