Friday, February 18, 2022

Rare all-Black drama, 'The Flying Ace' (1926), tonight at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Mass.

A not-very-subtle promotional poster for the all-Black drama 'The Flying Ace' (1926).

In honor of Black History Month, tonight (Friday, Feb. 18) the Regent Theater of Arlington, Mass. is screening 'The Flying Ace' (1926), with live music by me. 

It's a rare surviving example of what some scholars call "Race Cinema," meaning movies made for segregated theaters that were part of the American movie landscape in the first half of the 20th century.

'The Flying Ace,' a rare surviving example of this type of film, was recently added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being either "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

I think 'The Flying Ace,' produced by Norman Studios of Jacksonville, Fla., applies to the first two distinctions: cultural and historic. It's a vivid reminder of racism that permeated everyday life in its era—so much so that people set up separate theaters for people of different skin color!

In terms of being "aesthetically significant"—well, you can make up your own mind on that. But I believe that any film from a century ago, no matter what its level of aesthetic achievement, has a lot to say to us today, if only for just the passing of time. 

And let's be clear about one thing. By screening 'The Flying Ace,' neither I nor the Regent Theatre are celebrating the fact that for many decades, movie theaters in the United States were segregated by race. 

No. 'The Flying Ace' is a concrete artifact of a shameful legacy of racism that pervaded society at the time, and with which we still grapple today.  

But by acknowledging that it once existed, and preserving this artifact from the era (and I believe screening vintage film before the public is part of preservation), we can be better equipped to confront racism in our own time.

So hope to see you at the Regent tonight at 7:30 p.m. Much more info in the press release below.

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Kathryn Boyd and Laurence Criner star in 'The Flying Ace' (1926).


Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Honoring Black History Month

Regent Theatre to screen rare vintage crime melodrama with all-Black cast

'The Flying Ace' (1926), recently added to U.S. National Film Registry, to be shown with live music on Friday, Feb. 18

ARLINGTON, Mass. — Can discrimination exist in an America where everyone is Black?

That's among the questions posted by 'The Flying Ace' (1926), a rare surviving example of so-called "race" movies produced early in the 20th century for Black audiences in segregated cinemas.

'The Flying Ace,' recently named to the U.S. National Film Registry, will be screened in honor of Black History Month on Friday, Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. at the Regent Theatre, 7 Medford St., Arlington, Mass.

General admission is $15 per person. Tickets available at the door or online at

The screening will feature live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.

'The Flying Ace' was produced by Norman Studios in Jacksonville, Fla., using professionals such as Laurence Criner, a veteran of Harlem’s prestigious all-black theater troupe the Lafayette Players, but also many non-professionals for minor roles.

In 'The Flying Ace,' Criner plays Capt. Billy Stokes, a World War I fighter pilot known as "The Flying Ace" because of his downing of seven enemy aircraft in France.

Returning home to resume his former job as a railroad detective, he's assigned to locate a stationmaster who's gone missing along with the $25,000 company payroll.

While investigating, Stokes begins romancing the stationmaster's daughter Ruth (Kathryn Boyd), causing a rivalry with another suitor which leads to a break in the case.

With Ruth's safety now at risk, Stokes' dogged pursuit of the suspects leads to climax highlighted by a dramatic airborne chase which calls upon his piloting prowess.

Films such as 'The Flying Ace' were shown specifically to African-American audiences in areas of the U.S. where theaters were segregated.

Norman Studios was among the nation's top film production companies making so-called "race" films for this market from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Featuring all-Black casts in stories meant to inspire and uplift, such films were popular with African-American audiences at the time. In Norman Studios films, the stories often took place in a world without the racial barriers that existed at the time.

In 'The Flying Ace,' Capt. Stokes is a pilot returning home from serving honorably in World War I—but Blacks were not allowed to fly aircraft in the U.S. military until 1940.

In an essay for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, critic Megan Pugh wrote that Capt. Billy Stokes " a model for the ideals of racial uplift, fulfilling aspirations that Black Americans were not yet allowed to achieve."

"At a time when Hollywood employed white actors in blackface to play shuffling servants and mammies, the Norman Film Manufacturing Company...hired all-black casts to play dignified roles."

"Instead of tackling discrimination head-on in his films, Norman created a kind of segregated dream world where whites—and consequently, racism—didn’t even exist," Pugh wrote.

"While it’s impossible to measure the influence The Flying Ace had on its viewers, it is reasonable to assume that audiences found its lead character inspirational. Billy Stokes was a black male hero who would have never made it onscreen in a Hollywood movie of the time," Pugh wrote.

Filmed in the Arlington area of Jacksonville, Fla., 'The Flying Ace' is a unique aviation melodrama in that no airplanes actually leave the ground. The mid-air scenes were filmed in a studio in front of neutral backdrops.

A monochrome lobby card for 'The Flying Ace' (1926).

Although 'The Flying Ace' may appear crudely made to modern audiences, in 2021 the movie was named to the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Of films produced for Black-only audiences in segregated theaters, very few survive. 'The Flying Ace' is unusual in that it survives complete, and in pristine condition. The film was included in 'Pioneers of African American Cinema," a DVD collection released in 2016 by Kino-Lorber.

A live musical score for 'The Flying Ace' will be created by accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer who specializes in music for silent film presentations.

Rapsis said the Regent Theatre screening is a rare chance to see the film as it was meant to be experienced—on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

'The Flying Ace' (1926), a silent crime melodrama with an all-Black cast, will be shown in honor of Black History Month on Friday, Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. at the Regent Theatre, 7 Medford St., Arlington, Mass.

General admission is $15 per person. Tickets available at the door or online at For more information, call the theater at (781) 646-4849.

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