An Oscar for Micheaux

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

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It's about a brother John (played by Lorenzo Tucker, "the black Valentino") who returns home from school — after 20 years! — to be introduced to his sister Rena (Lucille Lewis). "Meet your brother," their mother says to Rena. "He's a great man. And pretty." What light-skinned John learned at Rip Van Winkle U. was that he could pass for white. Now he is determined to marry his sister to a white socialite who doesn't know John's or Rena's true color. As a title card notes: "It was silently understood that she, as had he, was to forget that she had a mother — or had ever belonged to the Negro race."

He moves to a nicer part of town and hires three dark-skinned black servants (including the beguiling Mabel Garrett from "Ten Minutes to Live"). Their interest in the lord and lady of the manor constantly concerns John; "Oh Rena Rena, please hush," he apostrophizes, "the servants might hear." They do more than snoop: they take over the movie. At what should be the film's climax, they decide to have a party. They call to a piano tuner who happens to be just off-camera. Then they perform "River, Stay Away from My Door" and a few other songs and dances. Seven of the film's last 10 mins. (in its extant form) are devoted to specialty numbers.

John's plans for gentrifying the family go awry when Rena hooks up with the dark-skinned Frank (Mahon). It's none too persuasive, as Mahon looks distracted and the pretty Lewis turns in a heartbreakingly inept performance. It's hard to tell whether Micheaux's actors were victims or co-conspirators in their director's cinematic self-sabotage. Yet one wonders if Katharine Hepburn in her vibrant young maturity could have given any persuasive spin to convoluted verbiage like this plaint: "Rest assured, that however and between whom I'm compelled to choose, they can never stop me from loving you."

Acting skills Lewis may lack. But there's truth, power and hurt — a hint of Emily Dickinson with a case of the emotional vapors — in Rena's big speech about passing for white while with her fianc and his friends: "I am constantly thinking of who I am, and who they are, and how they would hate and despise me if they knew the truth; how they would scorn and look at me, and point their fingers at me, and call me that unspeakable name." When John says, "Sister sister, where on earth are you drifting to?", Rena starkly replies: "God knows where, John. I only know that I am not a white girl, but a negress. And happy and sorry as only I know they can be. I know I could go on sharing their joys, their sorrows, their poverty, their — their everything."

Here it is, folks: synoptic Micheaux — everything to condemn and cherish in one 69-min. package. The film's preview trailer offers refreshing truth in advertising, letting prospective viewers know which famous Hollywood films have been plagiarized: "A combination of events that shocked, but gripped and held you, in 'Imitation of Life' and 'These Three.'"

In short, this decades-spanning story of pretty, rotten Naomi has taken the plot of a child's slandering her teacher from Lillian Hellman's "These Three" and the race-betrayal of passing for white from Fannie Hurst's "Imitation of Life." It tosses in a triangle love story, with the adult Naomi, whom her mother had left to be raised by a kindly neighbor, falling in love with the neighbor's son Jimmie — the boy she had been raised to think of as her brother, and who is really in love with the teacher's daughter. Slander! Passing! Semi-incest! Utter confusion by the reader trying to ingest all this plot in one paragraph!

Only Micheaux could decide that, in the same movie, two actresses would play one character (Naomi as a child, then an adult), while one actress would play two characters (Naomi's teacher and, later, the teacher's grown daughter Eva). Only Micheaux would figure that these two purloined plots were not enough for one short film. So besides the Naomi-Jimmie-Eva triangle, he adds a sub-subplot of her beau's being asked to join a numbers racket. All this so Micheaux can inveigh, yet again, on the weakness of the lower-class (dark-skinned) black male.

"Why is it so," Eva asks, "that many, most of our men, when they go into business, it's got to be a crap game or a numbers bank or a policy shop. Why can't they go into some kind of legitimate business like white people?" Jimmie responds that black men "seek the line of least resistance. The Negro hates to think. He's a stranger to planning." He then tells a friend who wants to bring him into a numbers bank, "I hate all these cheap rackets that have submerged the Negro into the helpless creatures they are. And so far as I'm concerned, I wouldn't be a party to it if it was possible to make a million dollars, all clear."

The first half of the film is full of the child Naomi's recriminations. She sneaks into a white school, is dragged back to the black one, trips a classmate and, when chastised by her teacher, spits at the woman. Many regretful spankings ensue, and Naomi is packed off to a convent school. She returns (for the film's second half) a seemingly cleansed woman. But she now loves her brother and is crushed when he wants to marry her off to a sweet-natured but rude black farmer.

The plot mechanism from "The Veiled Aristocrats" is replayed here, but this time we are to sympathize with the matchmaking brother, because he wants her to stick with her kind. Micheaux is canny enough to see the pathos in Naomi's plight; the film sympathizes a little with her passion, and the excellent performance by Gloria Press tilts the modern viewer's feelings toward a troubled soul exiled from two worlds. In one sense, she is the noble sufferer so often played by Greta Garbo: the tortured woman who renounces happiness in obeisance to the social norm. Garbo was a goddess deigning to play by mortals' rules; Press is a woman ostracized from two worlds — one that she doesn't feel she belongs to, the other that won't want her if they discover who, what, she is.

Naomi has two climactic speeches. One (punctuated by the intrusive dog?s barking; as usual, no time for Take Two) is to Jim, her almost-brother, would-be-lover. She speaks of following his advice and marrying Clyde the farmer as "this sublime sacrifice — for to marry a man I do not love is, to me, like committing suicide," and begs him to declare his love for her. He doesn't, she marries Clyde and a year later, makes her final, fatal decision. "I left him," she tells the woman who raised her, "and I'm leaving the Negro race... I'm going away from all I ever knew, to the other side... If you see me, you don?t know me. Even if you pass me on the street, I am a stranger. You are a stranger.... Oh, I know it's hard, but for me it's the only way. One other is suicide. And I want to live, Mother, I want to live!"

Micheaux learned more from Victorian novels — from their teeming plots, principled masochism, highfalutin speechifyin' — than he ever did from movies. (Well, he learned a bit from "Imitation of Life": he lifted Naomi's speech to her mother almost verbatim from Fredi Washington's to Claudette Colbert, which doesn't make the "God's Step Children" scene any less poignant.) He ends the film with a sad echo of the beginning. Naomi stands outside the home to which her birth-mother had brought her, then looks inside. Jim and Eva now have five children, one of them the son Naomi left behind. All seem happy. Naomi is not; apparently her attempt to pass in the white world has failed. She walks away, to a nearby bridge, and drowns herself. The waters serve as her baptism and her last, absolving lover.

As Micheaux's naked film style made good actors stand out in greater relief, so the twisted melodrama of his plots reveals the social anguish of his characters. In "The Veiled Aristocrats" and "God's Step Children" these morose mulattos and would-be whites cry out across the decades. They make themselves heard, poignantly, above the distractions of "bad" film technique and naive acting styles. They reach out to those outsiders (outside in race and time) who may approach Micheaux films as unintended laff riots. We come to sneer, and there is much to sneer at; but if we have any capacity to be touched by a naked cry of pain from 70 years past, we leave in awe.

Coming this month in That Old Feeling:
Queen and Boy George on the London stage
Martin Scorsese's "My Voyage to Italy"
100 Years of Richard Rodgers
Fred Astaire: That's Dancing

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