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Not a lot is known about Detroit filmmaker Richard Maurice, whose 1928 silent film Eleven P.M. will play at the Senate Theater in Detroit on Saturday, May 9 at 8pm as part of this year’s Cinetopia Film Festival. Maurice, originally from Cuba, was a tailor in Detroit before moving into filmmaking. After releasing two feature films a decade apart (only Eleven P.M. survives) he became involved in union organizing and died in New York City in 1955. Other than these brief snippets of information, Maurice remains an enigma.

His one film that remains, Eleven P.M., can best be described as surreal: filmed and set in Detroit, the story revolves around a poor violinist (played by Maurice himself) who tries to save an orphaned girl from the clutches of a hoodlum. However, it is because of its dream sequences, special effects, and particularly its conclusion—which Criterion describes as “one of the most bizarre endings in film history”—that Eleven P.M. has captured fans’ hearts.

Maurice was an important part of a genre of early African American filmmaking commonly known as “race films”, which featured black casts and were aimed primarily at black audiences, and which spanned from about 1915 to the early 1950s. Fewer than one hundred of the five hundred films produced survive to this day, and the ones that are still with us are of varying quality.

Eleven P.M. remains influential due in part to its innovative use of cinematography: in their essay “Richard D. Maurice and the Maurice Film Company”, film historians Pearl Bowser and Charles Musser praise the movie’s use of “location filming, unusual angles, and tracking shots as well as special, almost surrealist effects” that help to “distinguish the film from its surviving counterparts of race cinema.”

Eleven P.M.’s setting in Detroit also marks it out as relatively unique among silent films of the era. While most silent films were filmed in Los Angeles and New York (and some in Chicago and even Florida) Detroit as a location is rare. According to Malika N. Pryor, Senior Director of Education and Programs at the Detroit Historical Society,  Maurice lived and ran his filmmaking business in Black Bottom, a predominantly African American neighborhood on Detroit’s Near East Side where Eleven P.M. was shot.

“The film is actually noted for its rare focus and corresponding footage of the city itself,” Pryor explains.

Pryor will moderate the post-film discussion, which will feature panelists Juanita Anderson, Senior Lecturer and Area Head of Media Arts and Studies programs at Wayne State University; Paige Watkins, Director of the Black Bottom Archive; Stephen Ward, Director, Semester in Detroit and Associate Professor Residental College, Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at University of Michigan; and Samantha Noel, Assistant Professor of Art History at Wayne State.

The Detroit Historical Society is bringing together a body of cultural arts scholars and professionals who can speak to the power of image, the quality of the film given the time it was produced, the import of preservation of narrative art as archive, particularly regarding the Black experience, and to the historic cultural multiplicity of Black identity in the U.S. It will be followed by a brief Q&A.

The screening will be accompanied on the historical Wurlitzer organ by Senate Theater organist Scott Smith. Lindsay Robillard, member and volunteer with The Senate Theater, says that seeing Eleven P.M. at the Senate, with an organ accompaniment, is a not-to-be-missed event. “Eleven P.M. is a severely under-recognized piece of Detroit’s film history,” Robillard explains, “[and] The Senate Theater, with the Fisher Theater’s original Wurlitzer theater pipe organ, is a special place to bring Detroit’s film past into focus for today.”

Join us for this unique event at the Senate Theater in Detroit on May 9 at 8pm. Tickets are $10 and entry is included with your Cinetopia pass.