Early Black Women Filmmakers: Eloyce Gist and Zora Neale Hurston

by Christina N. Baker

Eloyce Patrick King Gist

Eloyce Patrick King Gist was a screenwriter, author, and director. Together with her husband James Gist, she produced a handful of unpolished but nonetheless powerful films that the pair exhibited largely at churches and to congregations throughout the country. Those films—Hellbound Train (1930), Verdict Not Guilty (1933) and Heaven-Bound Travelers (1935)—were simple morality tales that cautioned against sinful behavior and warned of divine judgment. Their intention was to advance Christian values by underscoring the need for spiritual and moral improvement, which is aligned with a politics of respectability that was believed by many to be a route to promoting racial uplift.


The recovery, restoration, and recognition of the films of Gist and Hurston offer new insights into their pioneering work as ‘Foremothers of Black Cinema.’


Verdict Not Guilty (1933)


Better known than Gist was author, playwright, and poet Zora Neale Hurston, who today is best remembered for her remarkable novels such as Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston was formally trained as an anthropologist. Eventually, she returned to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, where she conducted research and filmed ethnographic footage that preserved the culture, music, and folklore of the people, much as she did in her own writing.

Together, Gist and Hurston provide an excellent example of the ingenuity and enterprise of early race filmmaking women.


Hellbound Train (1930)


Zora Neale Hurston

Florida Footage



About the Presenter

  • Christina N. Baker

    Christina N. Baker

    Christina N. Baker is Associate Professor of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Merced. Her work focuses on the intersection of race and gender, with an emphasis on Black feminism and women of color in film and media. She is the author of Contemporary Black Women Filmmakers and the Art of Resistance (The Ohio State University Press, 2018), Black Women Directors (Rutgers University Press, 2022), and the edited collection Kasi Lemmons: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2020).


Discussion Questions
  • As a novelist and playwright, Zora Neale Hurston was a superb storyteller. How did she bring her writer’s perspective, especially her gift for narrative and keen eye for detail, to her ethnographic work? What story was she trying to tell in her films?

  • The films that Eloyce Gist produced with her husband James had overtly religious themes. Is moral allegory still a viable format for contemporary filmmakers? Which contemporary filmmakers use it, and how effective is that approach? Can you think of other examples of successful religious-themed filmmaking?

  • The Gists found an audience for their films in African American community groups and churches. In what ways do you think their audience and exhibition practices shaped their filmmaking? Did it give them less or more freedom to express their ideas?

Suggestions for Further Reading
  • Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

  • Dixon, Aimee. “Zora Neale Hurston” @ Women Film Pioneers Project. Zora Neale Hurston – Women Film Pioneers Project (columbia.edu)

  • Gibson, Gloria J., ”Cinematic Foremothers: Zora Neale Hurston and Eloyce King Patrick Gist.” In Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era. Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. 195-209.

  • Gibson-Hudson, Gloria. “Recall and Recollect: Excavating the Life History of Eloyce Patrick Gist.” Black Film Review 8.2 (1994): 20-21. On-line @ docdelcoversheet (princeton.edu)

  • Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

  • Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road: A Memoir. Rpt. New York: HarperCollins/Amistad, 2006.

  • Li, Stephanie. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in American History. ABC-CLIO, 2020.

  • Morgan, Kyna. “Eloyce King Patrick Gist” @ Women Film Pioneers Project. Eloyce King Patrick Gist – Women Film Pioneers Project (columbia.edu)

  • Plant, Deborah G. Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography of the Spirit. ABC-CLIO, 2007.