Black Cinema: Micheaux Must Go On

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For all the artistic freedom he enjoyed, Williams was still a white man's employee. To achieve true independence, blacks needed to raise the capital that would allow them to pursue their own visions. And in the 30-plus years of race cinema, there was only one black man with the drive and doggedness to write, produce, direct, finance and distribute his own films. That was Oscar Micheaux, the first black to direct a silent feature, and the first to direct a talkie feature. In so many ways, Micheaux was the D.W. Griffith of race cinema. And also its Edward D. Wood, Jr.


The Surrealists loved bad movies, seeing them as subversive attacks on the tyranny of narrative form. What would they have made of Edward D. Wood's horrifyingly inept cine-poems — or of Oscar Micheaux's melodramas, with black actors in whiteface?
— J. Hoberman in "Bad Movies," Film Comment, July-August 1980

Take a stroll on the north side of Hollywood Blvd. At no. 6721, in front of Joe's Diner, across from the Ripley's Believe It Or Not emporium, stop to glance down at the pavement. There you will see three consecutive stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: for Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and Oscar Micheaux. You recognize two of the names. The tan tantalizer Dandridge was the first black to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar ("Carmen Jones," 1955); Belafonte was and is the cool, sexy actor-singer with a half-century's radiance. But Micheaux? Considering his instructively bizarre, virtually anonymous career, no one would have expected Micheaux to achieve this celebrity in cement. No one but Micheaux himself.

A self-made success — or colossal failure, depending on your indulgence for strange movies — Oscar Micheaux was born in Metropolis, Ill., in 1884. After various menial jobs he followed Horace Greeley's advice, went West and became a South Dakota homesteader. He lived among whites and, it is said, took a white woman as his lover. In his late 20s he began writing novels; to finance their printing, he went door-to-door, raising funds from his white neighbors. His first self-published, semi-autobiographical novel, "The Homesteader," appeared in 1913. When black film outfits sprang up after "The Birth of a Nation," Micheaux offered his novel to the Lincoln Motion Picture Company on the condition that he also direct. Lincoln declined, Micheaux bolted and began raising money for his film as he had for his books. "The Homesteader" premiered in 1918.

Thus began one of the most bustling, inspiring, preposterous and sustained bursts of misdirected energy in movie history. Over the next 30 years, Micheaux helmed about 23 silent films and 17 talking pictures. A full-service auteur, he typically adapted one of his own novels for the screen, directed it, produced it and released it. He financed the films by showing a previous work and a synopsis of his next project to exhibitors, friends, strangers on the street and the occasional Negro businessman. And when the film was ready, he peddled it theater door to theater door. (Sometimes he got help from his wife, the actress Alice B. Russell. She appeared in many of his films and, under the name A. Burton Russell, was often listed as producer.)

Many of these films were lost for decades, then recovered and restored; many are still missing. But enough are extant — and available from the resourceful archivists at Facet Multimedia — to give ample evidence of Micheaux's social fervor, his rudimentary story-telling technique and his peculiar views on uplifting the Negro race. Micheaux's films must be seen to be disbelieved. But for a full understanding of movie history and film style, black history and American history, they surely must be seen.

The silent Micheaux films I've seen are not poorly made. And unlike most films aimed at blacks, Micheaux's were movies about blackness (sort of — I'll get to that shortly). The 1925 "Body and Soul," which I discussed in my last That Old Feeling column, has a robust narrative that nearly matches the charismatic presence of Paul Robeson as a preacher who charms, abuses and steals from his congregation of womenfolk. "The Symbol of the Unconquered" (1921) is a rambling, mostly charming love story about a black man who loves a light-skinned black woman but is afraid to propose to her for fear of rejection, as she was afraid to cozy up to him for fear she was too light for him. The original film climaxed in a sequence advertised as "the annihilation of the Ku Klux Klan." Alas, those anti-"Birth of a Nation" scenes have not survived. But the film shows what Micheaux learned from Griffith: melodrama, at full throttle.

The 1920 "Within Our Gates" is even better (stranger). Another garbled answer to "Birth," "Gates" bastes a murder plot together with both white and black villains. A white woman rails against the education of black girls ("Thinking will give them a headache") and worries that it will give them the notion to vote. One Negro layabout, who has lyingly implicated a fellow black in a murder case so as to ingratiate himself with his white boss, preens in a dialogue intertitle: "Here I is 'mong da whi' fo'ks, while dem other niggahs hide in the woods." He is surrounded by white men and, in a grisly shot, imagines himself lynched. At the climax, a white man attempts to rape a light-skinned black woman, who is revealed to be ... his own daughter!

One oddity about this crusading pioneer was that he was a bit of a racist. Or, anyway, a shade-ist. Over and over he filmed the scenario of a light-skinned women passing as white, and a dark-skinned man ignoring a women of his own shade to aspire to that wan princess. Her lightness put her atop the hierarchy of virtue or, at least, of perceived romantic appeal. Like Griffith, Micheaux's feminine ideal seemed to be prim, virginal Lillian Gish; he insisted that his actresses wear chalk makeup to make them seem whiter, lighter — Gishier. "The first offense of the new film is its persistent vaunting of intra-racial color fetishism, "wrote the black critic Theophilus Lewis, reviewing a 1931 Micheaux talkie, "Daughter of the Congo," in the New York Amsterdam News. "Even if the picture possessed no other defects, this artificial association of nobility with lightness and villainy with blackness would be enough to ruin it."


Edward Wood may be the Worst, but Oscar Micheaux is the Baddest — with all that that implies. ... Scenes climax in a cubist explosion of herky-jerky jump cuts wherein an actor appears in a succession of slightly askew angles. ... Actors play multiple roles, some characters seem blessed with precognition while others get marooned in alternate universes. ... Lines are delivered in unison, there are awkwardly failed attempts at overlapping dialogue, some actors appear to be reciting by rote or reading cue cards.... Left stranded in scenes that are grossly overextended, his performers strike fantastic poses, stare affectingly into space, or gaze casually off-camera.
— Hoberman, "Bad Movies."

To talk about Objectively Bad Films (from now on, OBF's), we need a brief course in moviemaking and movie-watching. Nearly all films strive to make their technique invisible. Audiences may be enthralled or bored by the picture, but they usually don't notice — at least, they're not supposed to — how the placement of the camera, the delivery of lines and the editing rhythm create a plausible fictional world. Even mediocre movies speak the language of film grammatically, if not beautifully.

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