An Oscar for Micheaux

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COURTESY SEPARATE CINEMA ARCHIVE

A poster for Oscar Micheaux's 1932 production of 'The Girl From Chicago'

I think of Micheaux as the Black Pioneer of American filmnot just because he was a black man, or because in his youth he pioneered the American West, or because he was the greatest figure in "race" movies and an unjustly ignored force in early American cinema. Micheaux is America's Black Pioneer in the way that André Breton was Surrealism's Black Pope. His movies throw our history and movies into an alien and startling disarray. — J. Hoberman in "Bad Movies," reprinted in Gilbert Adair's collection "Movies"



Haskell Wexler is a man of many distinctions. He wrote, directed and photographed the 1969 "Medium Cool," a ficto-realist movie (made during the Chicago Democratic Convention) that still sears with its craft and anger. His documentaries include "The Bus," the Fonda-Hayden "Introduction to the Enemy" and "Underground" (the Weathermen). His career as a cinematographer includes crucial collaborations with Norman Jewison ("In the Heat of the Night"), Hal Ashby ("Bound for Glory"), Terrence Malick ("Days of Heaven") and John Sayles ("Limbo"). He has worked with everyone from Mike Nichols ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf") to Michael Moore ("Canadian Bacon"). And if over the past 35 years a director needed someone to shoot concert footage ("Gimme Shelter") or second-unit stuff on a low-budget lefty feature (Ken Loach's "Bread and Roses"), this eye artist has been the go-to guy. Wexler is 80 now, still full of vitality and vinegar.

Back in 1938, as a 16-year-old in Chicago, he worked as a camera loader on an Oscar Micheaux movie. There wasn't that much film to load, since the ever-scrimping director had to work with "short ends" (the unexposed bits of film left over from reels shot by a production company, then collected and sold to cheaper outfits). Wexler — one of the small team of white men acting as technicians for the black director — was there one day when Micheaux shot a scene, then finished it. The next scene was set in a different room. There was no question of erecting a new set or installing other furniture; Micheaux would have to use what he had. "Just put different curtains up," he declared.

Wexler couldn't remember the name of the movie, if indeed it had one during production. We do know that Micheaux released four films in 1938-39. Could this one have been "Swing" or "Lying Lips"? But those two seem to be set in Harlem. "Birthright"? Haven't seen it; can't say. So there's just the chance that Wexler was present for Micheaux's masterpiece, "God's Step Children." I confess I get a tingle even typing this. It's as if I knew someone who had walked into the Sistine Chapel in 1509 and seen a fellow up on the scaffolding, painting God's hand.

Perhaps I exaggerate. Faithful readers may think I lie, since I did spend my last That Old Feeling column itemizing Micheaux's failure to master the rudiments of film vocabulary. But his movies exert a strange, not entirely unhealthy fascination on me; why else would I burden you with 6,000 words on their enduring power to astound?



O.M. and D.W.

I'm also impressed by the sheer determination of the man. Compare, for a moment, Micheaux (born in 1884 in Metropolis, Ill., on the Kentucky border) with that of another pioneer, D.W. Griffith (born nine years earlier and 250 miles east in La Grange, Ky.). In his short films, and then in the epochal features "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance," Griffith did more than any other individual to define the visual and narrative lexicon of movies; in an alternate universe he would be called the white Micheaux. Yet Griffith's career spanned only 24 years and 30-some feature films. After "The Struggle," his last film as director, he was kaput in Hollywood while in his mid-50s. The town considered him a silent-film anachronism — a Victorian relic due for attic consignment in the Depression. To those affronted by the contemptuous portrait of blacks in "Birth of a Nation," he was an embarrassment to his medium and his race.

Many progressive blacks had a similar opinion of Micheaux. They decried the director's favoring of light-skinned actors; for most of his "colored" players, the color was off-white. They abominated his stern view of working-class blacks. (What they thought of the dramatic and technical gaffes in his films is not on the record.) The "darkie" stereotype activities of shooting craps and betting on numbers, properly criticized for their use in so many white-made Hollywood films, Micheaux freely used as well. His films also played on the notion of black women who want a whuppin' from their men. In the 1932 "The Girl from Chicago," the vixen Liza revs into a purple patch of passion when she tells her beau, "I can only seem to love you, and feel it, when you beat me. Wade, why don't ya take your fists and smack me in the mouth? Go ahead, Wade! Smack me in the mouth with your fists so I can love ya!" (Just wondering: how do you smack someone with your fists?)

Yet Micheaux was either deaf to criticism or spurred on by it. Of course, he had not Griffith's great height to fall from; any descent for Micheaux would have been from the curb to the street. He kept working that street, a near-anonymous peddler hawking exotic wares, finally exceeding Griffith in number of feature films (about 40 to about 35) and years as a director (30 to 23).

When they were young, Griffith and Micheaux had both aspired to be novelists. Micheaux did in fact write a half-dozen or so novels while he was a South Dakota homesteader, selling them to his white neighbors. In "Murder in Harlem" (a/k/a "Lem Hawkins' Confession"), a Micheaux surrogate played by Clarence Brooks does the same to his black neighbors, peddling "a fine new novel by a Negro author... Of course everyone is ordering a copy, and why shouldn't they? A work like this by one of our group is something to order... Will you take one?" Oh yes, a young woman replies, "If for no other reason than that it's by a colored author." Then Brooks, expressing what must have been the dank residue of Micheaux's disappointment in his own door-to-door days, adds: "We belong to a not very appreciative group [blacks] when it comes to any achievement by each other, especially if they are privileged to meet that person ordinarily."

Like Griffith, Micheaux was both a 19th century preacher and a 20th century filmmaker; he used modern technology to impart lessons of traditional morality. It happens that Griffith was a brilliant film artist, Micheaux an at-best muddled craftsman. The political postures of the two men were out of fashion even when their stories and films found public favor. Both men ended their careers failures; both won educated devotees after their deaths.

The weird fact is that, today, at least as social artifacts, Micheaux's films (available from the folks at Facets Multimedia) are the more watchable. That may be due to the slumming, so-bad-it's-good mentality of contemporary film scholarship and film cultism. It helps explain why, to take two directors from the 50s, the movies of world's-worst-director Edward D. Wood are rented and written about more than those of the social realist Stanley Kramer, who was among the most honored filmmakers of his time while Wood was reviled by the few who even knew he existed. Critics as well as moviegoers are always in the mood for a good giggle, "Mystery Science Theater"-style, at the detritus of more innocent decades.



HOWL

Micheaux's films are, on their solemn face, unintentional howlers. They are full of tendentious speeches and would-be-hot repartee (someone, please explain this vamping come-on: "You can park your chewing gum on my instep"). In "The Girl from Chicago," Liza threatens to snitch on the man she's two-timing Wade with; he shoots her; she screams, but as if she'd heard the shot, not been hit by one; only then does she grab her chest and fall. Later in the film, actor Carl Mahon announces himself as a Secret Service agent and begins to open his jacket as if ready to flash his badge. But someone must have forgotten the prop, so Micheaux cuts to a shock reaction from another actor, then back to Mahon buttoning his jacket.

Mahon, for one, knew how to ad-lib when working for a director whose first take is also his last. When an important word in actress Star Calloway's dialogue is drowned out by a car horn in an outdoor scene in "Chicago," Mahon simply repeats it. But often the actor stares out at the camera, frantic for guidance. One nightclub scene cuts to Mahon and Calloway after a song; he turns to her and freezes up. From off-camera we hear Micheaux's voice, prompting. "You gotta give it to her." Mahon then repeats brightly, "Well, you gotta give it to her." The oddest thing about this moment is that it occurs at the beginning of the scene. Micheaux could have excised his cue, but he left it in. At times, I suppose, those short ends just weren't short enough.

Why didn't Micheaux hire more top black actors? Perhaps because they'd seen his work. Good actors may have thought they could not look good in his films. They saw veterans of the Lafayette Players and other stage stalwarts often defeated by Micheaux's graceless dialogue, his necessarily brief shooting schedules and his sub-par directing of actors. Faced with the dilemma of either playing small, demeaning parts in Hollywood films or collaborating with the only black filmmaker around — if that filmmaker was Oscar Micheaux — they chose Hollywood, the stage or anonymity.

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