Pordenone 2001
feature by Sean Axmaker, 7 December 2001

Oscar Micheaux And His Circle

The critical consensus is slowly evolving around the primitive films of Oscar Micheaux, the pioneering African American novelist and producer/director. The key is the word “primitive,” which refers as much to his production realities as to his stylistic choices (much of which were dictated by his economic and technical limitations). There is a movement afoot to re-examine his films in a whole new context, not in comparison to the conventions of Hollywood (or for that matter any of the European studios) style, but as a kind of guerrilla statement made outside the system.

The selection shown at Pordenone were largely gathered from a traveling series making the rounds in the US (in conjunction with the new book, Oscar Micheaux and his Circle, by Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser), which is an unprecedented look into a chapter of silent film production that has been virtually unseen outside of the “race” theaters” that thrived in the cities from the twenties to the early forties. Preservation of early African-American cinema only began recently, and without the kinds of studio vaults and private archives that routinely saved even B films from the past, many of the films remain incomplete. Body and Soul (1925), the first feature to star Paul Robeson, is missing the entire first reel which establishes the fact that Robeson is playing identical twins (a good man who pretty much disappears for much of the film, and a crook who disguises himself as a priest to swindle his brother’s small southern town congregation). Even more frustrating is the climax of The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), the story of African American homesteaders in the West that was partially inspired by Micheaux’s own experiences. As the Ku Klux Klan gathers to drive a former soldier off his land and defile a single young black woman living alone in the wilderness, the intertitles describe a missing scene where the soldier drives off the horsemen with bricks! The earliest of the Micheaux features presented is the 1920 Within Our Gates, his second film, a heartfelt plea for education and a portrait of racism in the South punctuated with a horrifying lynch-mob scene. Sincere and passionate, the earnest film was not a great success when first released and Micheaux turned to more traditional genres to pull in audiences, folding his themes into crime melodramas and adventures, but decades later his passion overcomes his narrative bumpiness and technical limitations and the horrors of racism are communicated with startling clarity. It remains his most gripping film. A selection of Michaeux’s sound films also played at the Ruffo, along with the documentary Midnight Ramble (1994).

Michaeux wasn’t the only African-American director of the silent years, but he was the most prolific. Sadly, only these three films survive from his silent era output, but Pordenone 2001 also featured works by Roy Calneck (Ten Nights in a Barroom, 1926, an all-black cast version of a popular temperance play), Frank Perugini (The Scar of Shame, 1929, a social drama about skin color and class within the African-American community), and Richard D. Maurice (Eleven P.M., 1929). To my great frustration the timing of this last film (it played on the morning of Napoleon and I had a train to catch) prevented me from seeing it to the conclusion, but what I saw was invigorating and inventive.

In addition, Pordenone 2001 offered a sketch of early “race” cinema directed by whites and starring early African-American stars (such as the hilarious Bert Williams in A Natural Born Gambler, 1916) and the first feature length version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1914), which is also notable for the performance of singer/songwriter/actor Sam Lucas as Tom, very likely the first African American to play a lead role in an American film. A Pictorial View of Idlewild (1927) is a twenty-five-minute documentary portrait of the summer vacation spot in Michigan that catered specifically to the black middle and upper classes of the mid-west.




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