Life Comes Through

The bizarre genius of Oscar Micheaux
by David Schwartz  posted February 4, 2009
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In February 1994, the Museum of the Moving Image presented Oscar Micheaux: Film Pioneer, the first major retrospective devoted to the legendary filmmaker. This essay on Micheaux by the Museum's Chief Curator, David Schwartz, is being republished here in conjunction with the series and conference Faded Glory: Oscar Micheaux and the Pre-War Black Independent Cinema.

Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of American film. Born to ex-slaves, and inspired by Booker T. Washington, Micheaux was a tenacious entrepreneur, novelist, and filmmaker. The most prolific director of race movies, he willed an astonishing 45 movies into existence between 1919 and 1948.

Raised on a farm in Illinois, Micheaux left home at 17 and became a Pullman porter. He began his artistic career with an autobiographical novel, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913), which proposed the black settlement of the Northwest as the solution to America's racial problems. An aggressive self-promoter, Micheaux published his own books and sold them door-to-door. In 1918, he was approached by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company (the largest producer of race movies) for rights to his novel The Homesteader. Despite having no experience in film production, Micheaux demanded creative control, and the negotiations fell through. With characteristic boldness, Micheaux formed his own production company, and made the movie himself, thus launching his film career. He would eventually become the only black producer who succeeded in making movies from the 1920s into the 1940s. Micheaux distributed his films in much the same manner that he sold his books, touring the country with prints in hand, booking them into segregated theaters.

His movies were modeled on familiar Hollywood genres, including musicals, gangster movies, social-problem films, and melodramas. Yet they presented an authentic picture of African American life missing from Hollywood productions. "I have always tried to make my photoplays present the truth," wrote Micheaux, "to lay before the race a cross section of its own life, to view the colored heart from close range." In attempting "to raise our people to greater heights," Micheaux frequently depicted members of his own race harshly. He thought blacks were responsible for their success, or lack of success, in a capitalist society, that all it took to achieve the American dream was hard work and education. Micheaux's idiosyncratic social theories have been viewed by some critics as reactionary. As film historian Jane Gaines describes, Micheaux was an aspiring black intellectual who "was seeing black culture through the eyes of the white culture, for which this vision of an irredeemable black underclass was flattering and entirely functional."

Micheaux's films reveal deep ambivalence about assimilation and interracial romance. The racial conflict is often played out in the form of tragic romances between black heroes and mulatto heroines. Interestingly, while the men in his films tend to be either outlandish scoundrels or wooden role models, the women are much more complex. Nearly all of the plots are driven by the emotions and machinations of the female characters; in a Micheaux film, we are much more likely to see two women fight over a man than vice versa.

Relentlessly pragmatic, Micheaux cobbled his films together by any available means. The casts combined professional actors with amateurs who were barely able to remember their lines, resulting in oddly compelling performances. And more bizarre than the acting or dialogue was the editing. Filled with mysterious flashbacks, incongruous action, unexpected temporal jumps, Micheaux's films move with syncopated rhythm and dream logic. Like a true auteur, Micheaux made films that are instantly recognizable, creating a distinct world all their own. Imbued with a sense of urgency and inventiveness, Micheaux's films are consistently fascinating and they ultimately upend traditional notions of quality. As Ken Jacobs wrote in 1970, praising God's Stepchildren, "Where art fails, life comes through." Filled with the texture of documentaries¡ªreal locations, real people, and unscripted gestures that seem to occur out of the director's control¡ªMicheaux's films are revelatory in ways that no Hollywood film could be.

Today, Micheaux elicits a widely divergent set of interpretations. Is he a revolutionary genius whose films defy Hollywood convention in favor of an Afrocentric aesthetic; a reactionary charlatan who reinforced negative stereotypes; an inept amateur whose clumsy films fell laughably short of Hollywood standards; or an unintentional genius who produced films of astonishing formal invention? Micheaux should be neither idealized nor dismissed. His films reward close attention, which is the goal of this, the most extensive Micheaux series ever presented.  

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February 6-19, 2009 Faded Glory: Oscar Micheaux and Black Pre-War Cinema

THE AUTHOR

David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.

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