Genre: Supernatural/Legal Drama/Silent Film
Year Released: 1933
Distributor: Kino Classics
Running Time: 8 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: G
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Heaven Bound Travelers
-This review reflects the remastered version on Kino Classics’ Pioneers of African-American Cinema as seen on Blu-Ray and on Netflix. I will review the complete films separately instead of an anthology review.
-Co-director Eloyce Gist is the first African-American woman to direct a movie ever.
-James Gist, the husband of Eloyce was a minister and the films the Gists made accompanied some of their sermons.
I know I keep using this phrase, but this does apply here. This is an Iridium Eye first! It’s a review involving a silent film and it’s my oldest film review so far. Prior to that, the oldest film I reviewed was Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo which was released in 1961. This predates that Japanese period piece film by 28 years and it’s older than most of your grandparents for all of you reading.
Verdict Not Guilty revolves around two scenes: the gates of judgment and earth itself. A woman recently dies of childbirth, but that child was born out of wedlock. She’s being judged by the devil for her previous vices on earth while the judge is none other than God himself with a literal angelic jury around him.
I know a film like this is quite old being made in the 30s, but I will say that the remastering job went well. Remastering old 16mm film can’t be easy, but at least I can see what’s going on unlike other silent films that have been destroyed by the sands of time. For a movie made by non-professional filmmakers at that time, they did a good job with the materials they had at the time. They even add a bubbly transition when the movie switches from heaven to earth and back whenever they did flashbacks. It would look really cheesy now, but props to them for adding that random effect. I did think it was interesting even though it was unintentionally hilarious seeing the jailer wearing a nun headdress while donning a skull mask though.
The title itself gives away the ending, so it’s obvious what’s going to happen, but even then the plot itself is subtle as a shotgun. Since James and Eloyce Gist were into evangelizing, the message really shows in the story. It’s obviously an allegory of a woman who’s sinned trying to seek salvation while the devil accuses her of all the bad things she’s done in this heavenly courtroom. Verdict Not Guilty is such a prototypical Christian film in using the message while sacrificing things like subtlety, nuance, or even a more compelling story. The short film comes across as some kind of church play that just happened to be filmed with 30s film equipment.
I want to give a movie like this props for it’s place in film history, but Verdict Not Guilty just wasn’t for me even as someone open-minded to much older films. The preachy presentation really turned me off with the entire story. The message was placed over storytelling or filming which was another demerit. I did like the piano and organ soundtrack which did fit the film while being competently played. It’s good that they were able to make a silent film like this without a Hollywood budget, but I’ve seen better silent films made close to that time period and before it.
Adjustable Point System:
Add 1 point if you really like silent films
Subtract 3 points if you can’t stand Christian overtones
-Competently scored film
-Production is better than it’s limited budget
-The death by childbirth plot was edgy for it’s time
-Preachy Christian messages
-Corny presentation such as the Jailer
-Message over storytelling
Final Score: 3/10 points
Content Warning: This was an innocent time for films. The only objectionable thing is that the woman died in childbirth and has gambled, but those subjects have been done even in G rated movies that came out decades later.