Charmed space of silent showman

Writing Himself into History
January 17, 2003

Born in Illinois, the fifth of 11 children of former slaves, Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) began work as a Pullman car porter before investing his savings and becoming a homesteader on the famous Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. After losing his land through the (alleged) financial dishonesty of his father-in-law (a minister), Micheaux turned his hand to writing novels.

An ardent and skilled self-publicist, Micheaux decided to produce his semi-autobiographical novel The Homesteader as an eight-reel "photoplay" melodrama - produced and distributed by his own motion picture company. It premiered in Chicago in 1919, despite opposition to its portrayal of a venomous black preacher as "the embodiment of vanity, deceit and hypocrisy". Now celebrated as an outstanding pioneer of black cinema, Micheaux produced about 40 films during his 30-year career, half of them before the advent of sound. Only three of his silent films still exist.

An admirer of Booker T. Washington (to whom he dedicated his novel The Conquest ), Micheaux believed in "industrial education" and preached a gospel of self-help and race advancement. But he was criticised in the contemporary black press for his (often clumsily improvised) cinematic portrayals of the seamier aspects of African-American urban life, as well as for making excessive use of light-complexioned performers.

In From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures (1975), Daniel J. Leab claimed that "Micheaux's films were not designed to uplift or to enlighten. They were meant to entertain, to appeal to his concept of black popular taste and to make money". Pearl Bowser, founder of the African Diaspora Images collection and an authority on African and African-American film, and Louise Spence, professor of media studies at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut, offer a partial corrective to these criticisms. Although they concede that Micheaux was arrogant and self-centred, and "first and foremost a businessman", they present him as a complex figure who used a "socially constructed identity" to explore such volatile subjects as rape, peonage, lynching and miscegenation. Within Our Gates (1920), with its exposure of lynching, can be seen as a deliberate response to D. W. Griffith's racist masterpiece Birth of a Nation (1915).

Micheaux was also aware of the growing popularity of cinema and the potential black audiences for "race" movies. Part trickster and part showman, he was prepared to hoodwink or defy film censors, and sometimes made flamboyant guest appearances during the showing of his movies. As Thulane Davis notes in her foreword to these six "linked essays", Micheaux - like jazz musicians of the 1920s - "was a man working at the margins, in a new medium that was both an upstart form and, in his case, 'Black' in expression". Similarly, where Zora Neale Hurston's accounts of black life and culture in her native Eatonville, Florida, evoked a sense of "community", Micheaux's novels and films extolled the promise of the American West for black migrants.

Micheaux was ignored or dismissed by the middle-class intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance, but regarded them as kindred artistic spirits. Unlike the "niggerati", he possessed the common touch. He arranged for his films to be shown in segregated and "coloured theatres", and asserted that moving film was "one of the greatest vitalising forces in race adjustment". Yet Bowser and Spence observe that Micheaux's silent films "were seldom vexed in moral ambiguity", and that he may well have produced "sensational" pictures to attract audiences.

Writing Himself into History includes production stills from, and advertisements for, Micheaux's productions, and close textual analyses of his surviving silent films, which, like his novels, "were acts of recollection and imagination, creations and recreations shaped by his personal experience and the desire to construct an image of himself for his audience". He transposed his life (real and imagined) into his films, presenting himself as an exemplar racial uplift. Bowser and Spence (rather too generously) suggest that Micheaux's "self-image as a pioneer, on the land, in his novels and in his film-making was a charmed space he could return to and manipulate over and over again".

These accessible essays are a valuable addition to the growing body of scholarly work on an extraordinary individual.They make optimum use of Micheaux's letters and articles and will be of interest to students of African-American culture. Minor blemishes are the overuse of exclamation marks, the misnaming of journalist Ray Stannard Baker and of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association.

John White is emeritus reader in American history, University of Hull.

Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films and His Audiences

Author - Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence
ISBN - 0 8135 2803 8
Publisher - Rutgers University Press
Price - £16.95
Pages - 288

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