Friday, November 5, 2010

Oscar Micheaux

Early this coming Monday morning, Turner Classic Movies is showing the 1920 silent film Within Our Gates. I saw the end of this film a few years ago, as I was flipping through channels and came to a disturbing image of a black man being hanged. Eventually the channel showed the movie again and I got to see the whole story, which concerns a black woman trying to raise money for a school; but a man who loves her accidentally learns her shocking past. Writer Patrick McGilligan, in his biography of director Oscar Micheaux, writes "Within Our Gates was Micheaux's most explicit rebuttal to D. W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation. (Even the new title was a reference to the epigraph that introduced Griffith's 1919 film, A Romance of Happy Valley: 'Harm not the stranger/Within your gates/Lest you yourself be hurt.')" (p. 137).

Micheaux was the first African American to produce a full-length film; in fact, he also directed and wrote films as well as a few novels. Among Micheaux's several films this is the earliest that has survived. McGilligan writes, "Micheaux was a unique storyteller, using film methods that were as idiosyncratic and modern-minded as anything being tried in Hollywood at that time. One of his unusual techniques was repeating scenes from different subjective viewpoints to reveal the crucial missing pieces of a puzzle." In the case of this film, for instance, the killing of the landowner is twice shown, once to tell the basic story and again to show the truth about the killing (p. 142).

TCM has also shown The Symbol of the Unconquered from 1920. This films concerns a black man who owns land on which oil is discovered, but racists--including a black man who passes for white--try to intimidate him out of his land. "Micheaux's central motif" in this story, as in other films, "was 'passing,' and the sexual tension that transpires between a man and a woman of seemingly different races torn by their love for each other." Unfortunately the film is now incomplete and is missing compelling scenes, like the defeat of the Klan! But even in both the complete and fragmentary scenes, one can see (as McGilligan notes) Micheaux's knwoledge of German Expressionist style and avant-garde film techniques (pp. 155-156).

Coincidentally, my daughter had to write a report this week about an 1800s play, "The Octoroon," about a light-skinned black woman and a white man in love. When I saw Within Our Gates I looked up the film on and discovered that Micheaux (1884-1951) had grown up in Metropolis, IL, a community near which I lived in the 1980s. I don't know if Metropolis honors Micheaux, who left when he was 20. He is not so well known today, but he has finally become recognized as a pioneering figure. His films give us a truthful look at race relations of the early 20th century. In fact, Micheaux realized he was not going to get rich making provocative films with racial themes, often banned in certain parts of the county like the South, and yet he continued to churn them out, using favorite actors, financing his own efforts, and living a life of drama, showmanship, and conflict as he addressed censors and racial barriers. McGilligan's biography traces Micheaux's interesting career and provides information about Micheaux's lost and extant films. The author writes on page 3, "Indeed, Micheaux was the Jackie Robinson of American film. No, a Muhammad Ali decades before his time, a bragging black man running around with a camera and making audacious, artistic films of his own maverick style, at a time when racial inferiority in the United States was custom and law."

(After I posted this short piece, I was alerted to this website:


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