Black Cinema: Micheaux Must Go On

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Bad movies, by their very deficiencies, instruct us in film grammar. Watching an OBF — and seeing, say, a sudden, senseless close-up from the same angle as the master shot it interrupted — the viewer intuitively realizes that, in a dialogue scene involved two people sitting next to each other, consecutive close-ups are usually photographed from diagonal angles, to give the viewer the sense of his head turning from one speaker to the other, as he would if he were in the room with them. The first filmmakers created this convention and many others, and all later directors have followed it. But not the makers of OBFs. By drawing our attention, in their visual faux pas, to the film-grammar rules they are breaking, OBF's offer the viewer education by embarrassment and increase appreciation for films that have even the minimum daily requirement of competence.

Micheaux's work represents the apogee or nadir of Bad filmmaking. (If he'd been a British subject, the Queen could have given him a New Year's honor: an O.B.E. for his O.B.F.s.) His close study of Griffith's visual lexicography got him through the silent period, but the demands for realism in sound films harshly exposed his inadequacies of technique. "The longer Micheaux made films," Hoberman observes in his perception-busting essay, "the badder they got." The director seems not only to have learned nothing from 30 years of filmmaking, but also to have seen no other films.

Micheaux's films are often absolved for the conditions under which they were made: a short shooting schedule and budgets in the $15,000 range. Yet another race movie — Dudley Murphy's "The Emperor Jones" with Robeson — was made in a week in 1933 for $10,000. And that looks like "Citizen Kane" next to any Micheaux film of the period.

And they're bad — in a way every bit as fascinating as they are stupefying. As Hoberman notes, "It's been said that Micheaux deliberately left mistakes in his finished films — to give the audience a laugh."

None of these criticisms are meant to imply that blacks couldn't make good movies, or that Negroes of the time were roiling with shade-ism, intra-racial rivalry and self-hatred. It's preposterous to extract generalizations about a society from the films a few people make in it. Who can say what Hollywood's superhero movies, serioso dramas or idiot teen comedies "tell us" about America? Or the ultra-violent Japanese movies about Japan? Or Micheaux's movies about blacks? His films are his; they don't, and shouldn't have to represent all black social and artistic aspirations of the years between the wars. Coincidence and ambition made Micheaux the one black whose significant body of film work has survived. A different roll of the fates would have left us with some other black moviemaker, with a different agenda and perhaps a firmer grasp of cinema style.

But we're stuck with Micheaux's films. So are African-American film scholars. They are obliged, encouraged, desperate to pore over these films, these few precious artifacts from a crucial period in black history, that happen to have been crafted by a man who never came near learning how to make coherent movies. It's as if, for scholars of Middle English, the main extant text was not Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" but the barely literate, borderline-sociopathic scrawlings of one Gawain the Smithy.

Micheaux is thus both an opportunity and an embarrassment for black academics. Some throw themselves into this task, rightly figuring that bad films are no less revealing of an artist's complicated worldview than good ones. Others blame Micheaux's technical infelicities on a lack of funds, and ignore or rationalize the shade-ism. That must be how Micheaux got his star on the Walk of Fame and a post-mortem Golden Jubilee Award from the Director's Guild, and why the Producers' Guild has an Oscar Micheaux Award for those "whose achievements in film and television have been accomplished despite difficult odds." Actually, that's proper: a prize for sheer perseverance in a racially inequitable society, given in the name of a man whose passion to make movies overcame his inability to make good ones.

Next time: Micheaux's transgressive talk

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