Oscar Micheaux: The Superhero of Black Filmmakers

This is a documentary screening on April 1st on Sky Arts at 2.40 a.m. This appears to be the only Sky channel available on Freeview, Channel 11. It offers a range of programmes on the arts including frequent studies of cinema, film and film-makers. The majority of these are rather lightweight; they tend to ‘talking heads’, which means the comments are spread across a series of interviewees and rarely have the space to develop complex comments. And the extracts from films tend to be short and not necessarily illustrative of the important points. Some, like the programmes on Buster Keaton or Josephine Baker, involve the European Media Company Arte and are more analytical. This documentary falls rather in the middle.

Oscar Micheaux was a pioneer film-maker in what was known in early C20th USA as ‘race cinema’. These were films produced specifically for black audiences and usually screened in segregated cinemas in the South and either in segregated auditorium or programming in the North. The earliest ‘race’ film dates from 1905 but the cinema took off around 1910 , mainly in Chicago. There were independent ‘race films’ production companies like The Lincoln Motion Picture Company [1916 to 1921] owned by black entrepreneurs. Most companies in this field were owned by white entrepreneurs. There were also black production crew and ‘stars’ like comedian Mantan Moreland, who actually appeared in a few mainstream Hollywood titles. The ‘race cinema’ died out at the end of the 1940s when Hollywood finally decided to attract the ‘black dollar’; and then the 1950s saw the appearance of black stars in Hollywood like Sidney Poitier.

Oscar Micheaux was possibly the most important producer and director in this field. His Micheaux Film Corporation was set up in Chicago in 1918 and he later also worked in New York. Between then and 1940 he made forty four movies; most, like much of the ‘race cinema’, are lost. But the surviving silent and sound films are key examples of that cinema and also are seminal film texts in the history of US film and black film-making.

This documentary provides a biography of Micheaux whose early career included becoming an author and a diy distribution company for his novels. His early films were adaptations of his novels, notably The Homesteader, based on his own experience as a tenant farmer in South Dakota. Three of his films get special attention. The most important is Within Our Gates (1919), which was a conscious riposte to the very successful and influential but deeply racist The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915). Within Our Gates only survives in a print that suffered from censorship and which only offered Spanish translations of the title cards. Even so, the representation of US racism and the black experience remains essential viewing.

Body and Soul (1925) is the most complete of the surviving silent titles and stars Paul Robeson. Robeson was already a star in music and theatre but Micheaux was the first producer to offer him a film role. The comments on this title also note Micheaux’s use of style and technique to embellish the narrative and to experiment with film form. Murder in Harlem (1935) is an example Micheaux sound film. Like other independent producers this technological innovation made production both more difficult and more expensive.

The programme is very good in presenting Micheaux’s biography and good on the three main titles. The other films studied are less clearly handled; the themes that Micheaux bought to his films need fuller explanation. Thus Symbol of the Unconquered (1920, surviving incomplete) deals with both inter-racial relationships [commented upon] and ‘passing for white’ [not commented upon]. These types of themes also relate to the Harlem Renaissance which is mentioned but not in any great depth.

Where the programme omits important aspects is in a discussion of ‘race’ cinema’ itself. There are only brief mentions of other film-makers and films in the area, but over its life something like 500 titles were produced. Moreover, one of the problems of ‘race cinema’ was lower production values than those found in mainstream Hollywood films. This applies to Micheaux’s films as well, though he was more ambitious than most. To appreciate his technical achievements one needs to appreciate the difficulties that black independent film-makers faced.

I suspect this emphasis is due to the sense in the title, though it seems overblown when discussing the 1920s and 1930s in the USA. The emphasis is due to the production and editing; some of the individual comments in the programme suggest that people were also talking about the ‘race cinema’ and its context. We do get examples from The Birth of a Nation but little sense of the emerging Hollywood film capital which set the context for this alternative cinema. Whilst the Griffith films stands out in early US mainstream film it was in many ways typical of a whole series of films with a ‘white supremacy’ set of values and the denigration of African Americans.

It should be added that Micheaux is not really well known as a cinema pioneer. This is in part due to the way that Hollywood appropriated African-American audiences in the 1950s. But his films are key to a proper sense of the USA film world in those decades.

This ‘Sky Original’ is screening for a second time; the actual programme runs 80 minutes with something like four sets of advertisements totalling 15 minutes. It seems there is a ‘catch-up’ function for subscribers to Sky and this most reactionary media empire.

Wikipedia has a page on ‘Race film’, with many links including to Oscar Micheaux. ‘Studying early and silent cinema’ (Auteur Publishing 2014) is in Central Library Lending and has a discussion of both Within Our Gates and The Birth of a Nation with material on Hollywood and ‘race cinema’ in the 1920s. The only videos seem to be in the USA and not of great quality. You Tube has material under ‘Oscar Micheaux’ including Within Our Gates and Murder in Harlem. There are several other titles as well but not in great condition.

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