[News] Oscar Micheaux - the pioneering Black director's career in context
news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jul 12 14:41:34 EDT 2021
*A new documentary puts the pioneering Black director's career in context
alongside a restoration of his work.*
Eric Kohn - July 11, 2021
Historians may now acknowledge Oscar Micheaux
<https://www.indiewire.com/t/oscar-micheaux/> as a pioneering Black
filmmaker, and the industry could be catching up
However, that acclaim certainly didn’t follow him through his lifetime,
when the hustling novelist and director made complex dramas about Black
life in America across three decades, starting with the silent era and
continuing for many years after that. By the time of his death in 1951, the
child of former slaves in Kentucky had written six novels and directed 44
films, but around 80 percent of them have been lost.
Needless to say, most people have been late to the party when it comes to
Micheaux’s career, including Cannes <https://www.indiewire.com/t/cannes/>.
But the festival’s Cannes Classics sidebar made up for that this year by
screening a new restoration of Micheaux’s 1935 crime thriller “Murder in
Harlem,” alongside a new documentary about the filmmaker’s contemporary
resonance, “Oscar Micheaux – The Superhero of Black Cinema,” directed by
Francesco Zippel. The double bill marked the seventieth anniversary of
Micheaux’s death as interest in his career has started to rise.
Italy’s Cineteca di Bologna and Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation
produced the 4k restoration of “Murder in Harlem,” which adapts the
real-life events from Georgia in 1913 when a Black man when was falsely
accused of a murder actually committed by a white man. While lesser known
than Micheaux’s most celebrated works, 1920’s “Within Our Gates” and the
striking 1925 Paul Robeson drama “Body and Soul,” it contains one of the
boldest moments in the filmmaker’s career: When a nightwatchman discovers
the corpse of a white woman in the first scene, he gazes directly into the
camera, as the terror on his face reflects his awareness that he’ll be
accused of the crime.
It’s a stunning window into the constant fear of racial assault that
surrounded Micheaux’s era, and one of several key scenes singled out in
Zippel’s documentary, which Cineteca di Bologna co-produced with Sky. (No
U.S. distribution plans have been announced.) The new movie takes a modern
approach to Micheaux’s legacy, assembling a wide range of talking heads to
discuss his contemporary resonance while recapping his rocky career.
Historians such as the Academy’s Jacqueline Stewart and biographer Patrick
McGilligan outline Micheaux’s journey from Kentucky to Iowa and around the
country, as he launched an ambitious DIY effort to sell his novels door to
That eventually landed him his first directing gig, to adapt his own “The
Homesteader,” and he spent much of his career overseeing the releases of
the projects to come. The movie also turns to contemporary filmmakers for
insight, including Amma Asante, Kevin Willmott, and the late John
Singleton. Collectively, they analyze Micheaux’s distinctive ability to
explore Black life in America through an unfiltered lens, providing a
repudiation of the racist sentiments emboldened by the success of D.W.
Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” Ample footage from Micheaux’s work
compliments this analysis: “Within Our Gates” features a harrowing sequence
in which a young boy’s parents are lynched by a white mob as the boy
escapes just in time. That tension between white and Black establishments
continued to percolate throughout the Micheaux movies to come, and the
documentary makes the case for many of them.
Film scholar Richard Peña pushes back on assessments that Micheaux was an
unskilled director, arguing instead that he was “playing with form,” and
much of the footage supports this perspective. Others, including musician
Chuck D. and The Old Vic’s Kwame Kwei-Armah, explore the cultural value of
Micheaux’s story, in particular the way his “pull yourself up by your
bootstraps” philosophy enabled him to succeed in an industry that was
rigged against Black artists from the start. The documentary shows how
while Micheaux’s legacy faded in the much louder call for policy reforms in
the Civil Rights era, his artistry continues to inspire future generations.
“I think you can draw a direct line from an Oscar Micheaux to a Spike Lee
to a Sam Pollard to a Shaka King,” one subject says.
Only five pictures of Micheaux have been uncovered from throughout his
life, but “Oscar Micheaux – The Superhero of Black Cinema” also includes
some remarkable behind-the-scenes footage of the filmmaker directing in the
1920s, fully in command of his actors as he gestures from beside the
camera. Though Micheaux expert McGilligan says that Micheaux’s career is
“the greatest American story that nobody knows anything about,” the
existence of this tribute and restoration means that could change, and soon.
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