Building an Empire

J. Hoberman

  • Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films and His Audiences by Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence
    Rutgers, 280 pp, £38.95, August 2000, ISBN 0 8135 2803 8
  • Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux by J. Ronald Green
    Indiana, 368 pp, £21.95, August 2000, ISBN 0 253 33753 4

The 20th century is over but the aesthetic returns are far from counted. Take the case of the novelist and film-maker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951). The most prolific director of so-called race movies and the forebear of American independent cinema, Micheaux is one of the most significant American film-makers – as well as one of the most obscure. Hardly known outside the world of film history and African American studies, Micheaux has over the past decade become a small scholarly industry, the subject of academic conferences, a regular newsletter and an annual film series. A documentary of his life has been shown a number of times on public television in the US; last autumn, the New York Film Festival presented a restored print of his best-known silent, Body and Soul (1925), with a new jazz score performed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. (Max Roach has composed music for another Micheaux silent, The Symbol of the Unconquered.) There are now the two books and at least two more are on the way.

There is, as yet, no Micheaux biography, although his story is compelling. His parents were born in slavery and he was raised on a farm in rural Illinois. He worked for several years as a Pullman porter – one of the few professional jobs available to African American men – and purchased a homestead in South Dakota. (The state had a population of 166 blacks according to its 1905 census.) There, in 1913, Micheaux began his artistic career with a first-person novel, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer. The hero was named Oscar Deveraux; the novel, which was dedicated to Booker T. Washington, celebrated Micheaux’s successful reinvention and proposed the black settlement of the North-West. Micheaux followed Washington’s bootstraps philosophy and published and distributed The Conquest himself, embarking on an aggressive round of personal appearances in black communities. His second book, The Forged Note: A Romance of the Darker Races (1915), was a logical sequel – an account of a black writer’s adventures while promoting his book in the South.

The Forged Note concludes with the disillusioned writer’s return to South Dakota; Micheaux revisits the state in his third novel, The Homesteader (1917), an elaborate reworking of The Conquest which attracted the interest of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company – one of several black-owned or black-oriented movie studios created in response to the segregation of American movie theatres and in particular to D.W. Griffith’s stunning assault on African Americans in The Birth of a Nation (1915). First and foremost a businessman (as he is seen by the authors of Writing Himself into History), Micheaux stipulated in the sale of the screen rights that he would direct the film. When the deal fell through, he raised capital among his public and made the picture himself – at eight reels, it was the longest race film to date.

Thus began the career of the director whom J. Ronald Green provocatively introduces as Griffith’s great adversary and antithesis. As a follower of Booker T. Washington, Micheaux preached a gospel of self-help and individual responsibility. Between 1919 and 1940 (with one last epic, The Betrayal, in 1948), he wrote, directed, produced and distributed perhaps as many as forty feature films, exhibiting a tenacity unparalleled in American independent cinema. At times, Micheaux distributed his films as he had promoted his novels, driving across the country, showing his new script to ghetto exhibitors and securing an advance against the movie’s gate. When he had raised enough capital, he returned to Chicago or New York and shot the film.

The Micheaux revival received a major boost in the early 1990s with the rediscovery in European archives of two ‘lost’ silent films. Reinforcing the notion of Micheaux as a politically engaged artist, Within Our Gates (1920) and Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) – a Western in which the villain is the Ku Klux Klan – are not simply topical but sensational films that deal with the rape of black women and the lynching of black men. As Bowser and Spence suggest in Writing Himself into History, such candour was rare in the early African American cinema, where self-congratulatory accounts of racial progress were the rule.

While Micheaux had intermittent problems with local censors, his career thrived during the mid-1920s, the period of his major critical successes, Birthright and Body and Soul – the latter provided the young Paul Robeson with his first movie role, following his star appearance in Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones. Nevertheless, the self-taught Micheaux seems to have lacked a certain artistic credibility. When Body and Soul opened in New York, the city’s leading African American newspaper, The Amsterdam News, devoted more than four times as much space to a review of Douglas Fairbanks’s Don Q, Son of Zorro, despite Robeson’s celebrity.

Micheaux has largely been written out of accounts of the Harlem Renaissance and of cinema history, but his films are filled with commentary on contemporary black personalities and cultural debates. Green, in particular, finds topical and intertextual references that range from the ‘hilariously ironic Lillian Gish lookalike’ parodied in Within Our Gates to the deliberate echoes of the NAACP Secretary Walter White’s undercover investigation of Southern lynching, found in The Girl from Chicago; for Green, the rival entertainers in Swing represent Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, the two poles of cultural autonomy and assimilation.

In 1928, a combination of factors – Hollywood’s penetration of the race market, the novelty of sound films, the withholding of credit that presaged the stockmarket crash – drove Micheaux into bankruptcy. Although he managed to survive, alone among the black independents of the silent era, most of his subsequent films were financed by whites. When Micheaux re-established his independence, it was at the expense of the quality of his product; competition was greater, not only with Hollywood, but with the wealthier white producers of ‘all-black’ films. His audience declined and he was attacked in the African American press for poor craftsmanship, sensationalism, frequent reuse of The Conquest theme and, most bitterly, for his apparent racism. In the 1940s, Micheaux wrote another series of self-published novels. These were pulpier than his early fiction – murder-mystery plots with beautiful ‘Negro Nazi’ spies and black super-detectives – but they are no less tendentious. Several attack or parody the novelist Richard Wright, whom Micheaux evidently regarded as a rival, and warn against Communist-inspired ‘race-mixing’.

A striking element of Micheaux’s work is the harshness of his judgments of the Negro masses who, he maintains, lack initiative, ‘that great and mighty principle’ which he identifies with being American: ‘Before I had any coloured people to discourage me with their ignorance of business or what is required for success, I was stimulated to effort by the example of my white friends and neighbours, who were doing what I admired, building an empire.’ He considered lack of ambition an impediment to racial progress and was hostile towards the black church, which he saw as contributing to the passivity of its followers.

In the novels, Micheaux minimises the power of institutional racism in American life, preferring in general to blame its victims. Literary historians have little sympathy for him. Carl Milton Hughes writes that Micheaux ‘attempts to be a serious writer, but he hardly has the creative imagination and misses the reality of things by his theatrical posturing’; Robert Bone attacks Micheaux’s work for having ‘lost all contact with Negro life and culture’. The only book on Micheaux’s literary output, reworked by Joseph Young from his doctoral dissertation, is bluntly called Black Novelist as White Racist: The Myth of Black Inferiority in the Novels of Oscar Micheaux (1989).

Projected on the screen, Micheaux’s views are – if anything – even more offensive. In part, this is because his social theories are baldly dramatised, with genteel middle-class characters actively reproaching their feckless or criminal brethren, whose characterisation is often akin to minstrel-show caricature. The astonishing God’s Stepchildren (1937) is a version of Imitation of Life in which the central character – constrained by the overpowering ‘goodness’ of her adopted family – is driven to sin, both in her sexual desires and her wish to pass for white. The movie is interspersed with statements so extreme (including a remark by the film’s hero to the effect that only ‘one Negro in a thousand’ can think) that the Harlem chapter of the Communist Party succeeded briefly in having it withdrawn from circulation. Clearly, Micheaux’s rehabilitation is not an easy matter.

In casting lighter-complexioned actors as his middle-class leads, Micheaux has often been accused of reproducing a colour caste system. But, as Bowser and Spence demonstrate, this racial schema isn’t absolute. ‘In several of his films – The Symbol of the Unconquered, The House behind the Cedars and God’s Stepchildren, for example – we would argue that Micheaux is not reproducing “colour prejudice” but rebuking it.’ The authors further suggest that Micheaux’s use of minstrel-show stereotypes was an attempt to show the pernicious effects of ‘misplaced values and low self-worth’.

Green, too, believes that Micheaux turned these negative images to his own didactic ends ‘to mount a complex, nuanced, extended critique of racist stereotyping’. He also argues that Micheaux, whose dogged allegiance to the genteel values of a black middle class never flagged, even as it grew increasingly otherworldly, has himself been victimised by the anti-bourgeois prejudices of his detractors (and even some of his champions). Indeed, he suggests that Micheaux’s low-budget movies demonstrated, in effect, the possibility of a middle-class means of production. In defence of Micheaux’s blunt fault-finding, both books stress that his films were made for and seen almost exclusively by black audiences in secure, self-segregated social spaces. From this perspective, contemporary critics misread the effect that Micheaux’s movies had on his original audience and confuse his brand of ‘tough love’ with self-hatred. But Micheaux’s racial attitudes are only one reason why his movies are so problematic.

Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote of Last Year in Marienbad that

either the spectator will try to reconstitute some ‘Cartesian’ schema – the most linear, the most rational he can devise – and this spectator will certainly find the film difficult, if not incomprehensible; or else the spectator will let himself be carried along by the extraordinary images in front of him, by the actors’ voices, by the soundtrack, by the music, by the rhythm of the cutting, by the passion of the characters.

But Robbe-Grillet’s movie is as straightforward as a Mary Pickford two-reeler in comparison with the early Micheaux talkie Ten Minutes to Live (1932). Micheaux is not simply D.W. Griffith’s racial or political antithesis; his films abandon Griffithian narrative conventions. Within Our Gates is almost impossible to follow: ‘any explanation is pointless,’ one inter-title usefully remarks. Micheaux introduces new characters and complications almost until the end of the movie. The subplots never come together, in part because the film-maker employs a reverse chronology with flashbacks that don’t refer to the original story. (The combination of lurid racial melodrama and avant-garde narrative complexity can only be described as Faulknerian.)

Body and Soul has a typically blunt social message, detailing the rise and fall of Robeson’s jackleg preacher. The original movie was evidently so strong that it failed to pass the New York censor. According to one historian, Micheaux was compelled to recut it, introducing a baffling framing device by which the heroine awakes to discover that nearly everything we have seen is a dream. Robeson’s role is split in two – he plays the bogus preacher and an upstanding, timid inventor. The presence of these identical twins is never explained. The star’s easy charisma renders the rest of the cast all the more awkward and amateurish; that Robeson is the best actor in the film makes him seem all the more duplicitous.

Micheaux’s films, particularly his talkies, were made with a pioneer’s pragmatism. His was an aesthetic dictated by necessity. He shot whole – often violent – sequences in a single take; based 75-minute narratives of considerable complexity around two or three sets (often the homes of friends); reused footage with impunity; and carried the post-dubbing of his soundtracks to the outer limits of possibility. He cobbled together scenes out of imperfect takes and blatant inserts, with sound bridges and dubbed dialogue papering over the mismatched shots. Add to this his indifference to continuity and fondness for narrative delirium – the use of inter-titles to superimpose one story over another, for example – and you have a recipe for mindboggling originality. Ten Minutes To Live employs deaf-mute characters, letters and telegrams, flashbacks and long lyrical interludes to narrate the two separate murder stories that punctuate the dizzying stream of entertainment flowing from the single-set cornucopia known as Club Libya.

Micheaux included lengthy cabaret sequences not only because they were crowd-pleasers but because hiring free or low-budget acts cut his costs. In Swing, the set is so full of kid hoofers, femme trumpeters, exotic hoochie-coochie dancers – there is even a small army of tapping chorines – that the interpolated narrative begins to seem like vaudeville. His tight budget and use of rented equipment and technicians restricted his shooting of retakes. The camera grinds on relentlessly as actors blow their lines, miss their cues, respond to off-screen direction, recover and continue. His cast seems to have had little, if any, rehearsal time. Dialogue can be delivered in unison, parenthetical directions are overheard, some actors appear to be reciting their parts by rote or reading cue cards. Gossips act out their secrets with kabuki-like motions; a child asks, ‘Can I play now?’ then joins in a game of ring-a-ring o’ roses with two other children on the set.

The self-contradictory fantasies of these films have a documentary strength that lays bare the grand illusion of cinematic continuity: the dream-machine is destroyed as cinemagic and as a vehicle for propagandist myth. Micheaux’s films are unequalled in their capacity to inspire consciousness of the processes and plastic possibilities of cinema. In their utter nuttiness, their moment-to-moment unpredictability, their blunt ingenuity, they are unique. Green looks for analogies – he compares Micheaux’s technical rawness to Italian neo-realism and the early films of Fassbinder. But Micheaux’s impoverished mise-en-scène is far more extreme. Not until Andy Warhol purchased a sound-on-film Auricon camera in the mid-1960s would anyone make more stripped-down and radically practical movies. Moreover, where Warhol’s largely unedited films follow a vigorously minimalist logic, Micheaux’s narrative structures are eccentric in the extreme, exceeding those of the posthumously celebrated ‘bad’ film-maker Ed Wood Jr.

Twenty years ago, I concluded an essay entitled ‘Bad Movies’ with the thought that if Micheaux’s astonishing mistakes were deliberate aesthetic strategy, then he was surely the greatest genius cinema ever produced. Now it seems as though his intentions are neither here nor there. As both of these books demonstrate, his movies contain an extraordinary surplus of content to go with their idiosyncratic form. Micheaux did indeed write himself into history and what we understand as film history will have to be reconsidered to encompass his achievement.