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Retrospective: Oscar Micheaux and the Birth of Black Independent Cinema

To watch an Oscar Micheaux film is to see the miracle of a tragedy. 

Though Micheaux produced over forty pictures — spanning the silent era and through the advent of sound — only eighteen such works survive (nearly all of his silent pictures are considered lost). The films that remain are often incomplete because of either missing footage or degraded sound. Micheaux, in that regard, isn’t an exception. Due to negligence and erasure, many of the great treasures of early Black cinema exist today only in script form, printed ads in newspaper archives, or other marketing material. The fact that any films still exist from Micheaux is a gift, even if we can sadly sense how much is lost or missing. 

Beginning this Friday, May 3, audiences at Film Forum can screen the pioneering producer and director’s work. Over the course of a week, the theater will be showing seventeen of his films — rich pictures that traverse genres (melodramas, musicals, and cappers), complex politics (miscegenation, passing, and racial uplift), and a bevy of incredible Black talent (Paul Robeson, Edna Mae Harris, Juano Hernandez, Robert Earl Jones, and more). Along with live accompaniment, seven newly restored titles, a tribute to historian/filmmaker/archivist Pearl Bowser on March 5, speakers such as DJ Spooky, Ina Archer (who co-consulted on the series with Bret Wood), and Bowser’s daughter, Gillian Bowser, will also add historical context to Micheaux’s life and career. 

For Micheaux, context is necessary. Because his films aren’t always polished; their technical achievements are often harder to spot. The disquieting racial politics at play, especially the philosophical conversations Micheaux engages with through his filmmaking — the stark difference between being aligned with the teachings of Booker T Washington or W.E.B. DuBois — are mostly lost on contemporary audiences. So is the complex subject matter, the unique scenes of Black life, the looming fears of lynching, and the limited opportunities of the time that he so furiously captures. He is, simply put, a messy, complicated artist.

Micheaux was born on a farm in Metropolis, Illinois, on January 2, 1884. During his later teenage years, he moved to and lived in Chicago before departing to Gregory County, South Dakota, where he became an author. His successful novel The Conquest also launched his film career. Rather than allow the Lincoln Motion Picture Company to adapt the story without his input, he opted to retitle it "The Homesteader," producing and directing the film independently. “Within Our Gates,” “The Symbol of the Unconquered,” and “Body and Soul” — his only three silent films to survive — are defiant Western epics, each critiquing the bounds of religion, racism, and passing by posing self-hating Black people, tragic mulattos, the Ku Klux Klan and morally murky individuals seeking to cheat or disenfranchise the race, at the heart of his stories.  

As a silent film director, Micheaux was at his strongest: His literary style (he wrote seven novels in total) imbued his intertitles with moral messages that at once developed his film’s characters while furthering his deep thematic desires. The revealing editing of “Within Our Gates,” “The Symbol of the Unconquered,” and “Body and Soul” further demonstrates how much the medium complemented his keen eye for depicting the morally corrupt psychologically of bigoted villains. His use of shot/reverse shot, in particular, dissected the double standard at play in who gains sympathy, personhood, and protection from and by the law. 

“Micheaux’s stories, themes, characters, and ideas resonated beyond the sounds and images of a specific film to other texts, such as news stories, magazine articles, oral tales, songs, sermons, and other films,” noted Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence in Writing Himself Into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences. These early films, in their words, “constituted a Grand Narrative” that sought to tell the story, in all its setbacks and triumphs, of Black Americans. 

Though Micheaux’s work lost some dexterity with the introduction of sound, he remained one of the trailblazers. Many Black silent film companies (REOL Productions, Ebony Film Corporation, Norman Film Manufacturing, and the aforementioned Lincoln Motion Picture Company) went out of business because of the increased cost of film production required for sound. Micheaux was the only one left standing. He continued to push the medium, promoting stories of Black life that displayed scenes of upward mobility and high-stepping nightlife. The latter is critical. 

While Micheaux usually set nightclubs as corrupt spaces, he also showed the immense talent brimming there: women chorus lines in revealing costumes, suave crooners, unique performers (his picture “Underworld” even has rope dancing), and minstrel scenes involving Black Blackface and double-speak — the latter of which purposefully employed stereotypes to conjure slippier truths. “At the very least, however, it seems fair to suggest that black blackface formed around — and worked to release or ameliorate — a knot of anxieties, tensions, pressures, and contradictions in the lives of blacks in America,” explains Arthur Knight in Disintegrating the Musical. It’s a performance style Micheaux uses in “Darktown Revue” and “Ten Minutes to Live,” whose intentionality is difficult for unacquainted audiences to grapple with.    

Micheaux, unsurprisingly, wasn’t without controversy, and not just among white audiences. He was intensely interested in one-drop narratives — a single drop of African blood rendering someone not white — and deployed to awaken viewers to the phony science behind segregation. Conversely, he could also be colorist, often casting light-skinned actors in heroic roles and as romantic leads. Racial betterment in his films is often coerced through bootstrapping, and his sense of humor, especially his love of minstrel performance, is often misunderstood. 

Micheaux wasn’t afraid to critique the Black community, taking aim at corrupt clergy, domestic abuse, rampant gambling, and other less-than-positive images. “In doing so, his films reflected not only many of the social and moral dilemmas Black urban audiences faced in their daily lives but also provided Black newspapers with the contradictory material on which they thrived — opportunities to celebrate his artistic and entrepreneurial achievements and to attacks his often scandalous and flattering representational choices,” notes Jacqueline Stewart in Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity.    

If not for the late Pearl Bowser, along with other historians, who helped to rediscover many of Micheaux’s lost race films, we might still be clutching at the stories of his films rather than watching them. In 1970, Bowser curated the imperative retrospective “Black Film” at the Jewish Museum. She ventured to the national archives of Spain and Belgium, where she found prints of Micheaux’s pictures. Books, essays, and films, including the American Experience documentary “Midnight Ramble,” further reclaimed the director’s place in cinematic history. 

The retrospective coming to Film Forum — dedicated to Bower’s legacy — is an accumulation of her work and the continued efforts by contemporary curators, historians, and academics to honor the memory of Micheaux, whose influence can be seen in the careers of Tyler Perry and Spike Lee. And whose obvious importance, weighty images, barbed critiques, and soaring hopes for Black folks are ripe for rediscovery.   

Oscar Micheaux and the Birth of Black Independent Cinema is playing at Film Forum from May 3 to 9. Further details can be found here

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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