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Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era

Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era


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Oscar Micheaux—the most prolific African American filmmaker to date and a filmmaking giant of the silent period—has finally found his rightful place in film history. Both artist and showman, Micheaux stirred controversy in his time as he confronted issues such as lynching, miscegenation, peonage and white supremacy, passing, and corruption among black clergymen. In this important collection, prominent scholars examine Micheaux's surviving silent films, his fellow producers of race films who alternately challenged or emulated his methods, and the cultural activities that surrounded and sustained these achievements. The relationship between black film and both the stage (particularly the Lafayette Players) and the black press, issues of underdevelopment, and a genealogy of Micheaux scholarship, as well as extensive and more accurate filmographies, give a richly textured portrait of this era. The essays will fascinate the general public as well as scholars in the fields of film studies, cultural studies, and African American history. This thoroughly readable collection is a superb reference work lavishly illustrated with rare photographs.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253021359
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/28/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Pearl Bowser is founder and director of African Diaspora Images, a collection of historical and contemporary African American and African films and memorabilia. She is author (with Louise Spence) of Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences.

Jane Gaines is Professor of Film at Columbia University and the author of two award-winning books, Contested Culture: The Image, the Voice, and the Law, and Fire and Desire: Mixed Race Movies in the Silent Era.

Charles Musser is Professor of American Studies and Film Studies at Yale University. His books include The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 and Edison Motion Pictures, 1890–1900: An Annotated Filmography.

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Oscar Micheaux and His Circle

African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era

By Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, Charles Musser

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2001 Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser, Eds.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02155-7


Black Silence and the Politics of Representation


With conferences such as Oscar Micheaux and His Circle at Yale University and the celebration of 100 Years of Black Cinema at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, we approach a new stage in the understanding of American cinema and its relation to Black Americans. We have come to the end of the beginning. Even in contemplating the amazing history of Black-oriented "race movies," we ought to be beyond the aha! stage, and should have gotten past the "gee whiz" experience.

So positioned, the agenda now should be to provoke cinema studies toward a serious examination of racism as a slice of the apple-pie history of U.S. cinema. Too often, presentations on American cinema smoothly sidestepped the issue in favor of anecdotal nostalgia. This examination demands an integration of "race movies" into the whole history of Black people in cinema. Such an agenda would also offer valuable lessons that illuminate other cultural histories.

There are many interpretive tools for this task, but few serve better than the concept of unequal development. This is one of the points where the politics of representation can use some input from political science. To make my sources plain, I am influenced here by two books, Samir Amin's Unequal Development and Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Rodney's title contains an important warning. We cannot tolerate the trap of thinking that the sub-development of some societies is all their fault. Rodney wants us to treat underdevelopment as a verb. In African society, as elsewhere, somebody underdeveloped somebody else. As William Blake said, "Pity would be no more, if we did not make somebody poor" [my italics].

Unequal development takes place wherever there is an exploitative/dependent relationship. Unequal development means that less powerful societies must join the competition for survival and prosperity at a pace set for the convenience of more aggressive societies. Unequal development means that a more powerful society draws from the less powerful selected goods and resources without regard for what the loss of those resources will mean to the exploited. The experiences of women visà-vis men in almost every social arena serve as a continuing example of unequal development.

Unequal development is a major factor in the construction and development of Black cinema. Just as Karl Marx noted that it is alienation that hires a coach and goes to the opera, unequal development, which we might call "Undie" here, for its resemblance to those garments that are seldom seen but considered fundamental to anyone's public equipment, is a constant almost-embodied companion in the filmmaking process. Undie's role is crucial in the development or mal-development of the screen, though rarely given top billing or even a credit. Undie is an executive producer, along with the executive producer; Undie directs beside the director, helps pick the cast, fires some of the crew, determines the narrative line — in fact, its fingers work to shape the whole film. Unequal development is as much an invisible hand in the making of the movie as any force of capitalism functioning silently in the marketplace. So even though Undie is less glamorous than some of the players we'd rather talk about — the stars, the aesthetic thrills, the sexy gossip abut personalities, the dial-a-dream stories — we've got to account for him (him advisedly) or else be chumped off as dilettantes in the wind.

Samir Amin talks about the distortion of some societies and their economic life under unequal development. Perhaps the most significant damage is to a society's history, which is sharply interrupted and rechanneled by outside pressures above and beyond the external pressures that impinge on any society at all times. You can know what I mean by thinking of a moment in a people's collective memory after which everything changed radically because they came: their boat sailed into the harbor, and a peaceful group of folks suddenly became "natives." Alongside this trauma stands the amputation of the society's decision-making process. Also implanted in this moment is the awesome wound to the group personality: if "we" are no longer making decisions for ourselves, where is the "us" in our actions, and who, then, are "we"?

In the period of Black silents, there are certain signifiers of Undie's presence. For instance, there is the relatively small number of race movies actually completed between 1910 and 1930 — say 500 — compared to the thousands coming out of Hollywood in the same period. This number might direct us to the legal and economic prohibitions against competition. Even though there are popular arguments against measuring "equality of results," the inequality of production on this scale tells us something. That is, if one population is making thousands of movies and another, admittedly smaller, one is making proportionately fewer, and yet another group is making none, we might look for the reasons beyond the answer that they didn't want to or didn't have the talent and guts — or to some other such jingoistic "science."

One of the explanations for the relatively small number of Black silent films is segregation laws. (Given the selective national memory, there will soon be a need to recall and verify this system, lest some youths begin to disbelieve it ever existed.) Legal segregation of people in movie theaters took different forms — from separate "White" and "Negro" theaters to different sections in theaters to different screening times ("midnight rambles" for Blacks after regular hours) — and gave race movie producers such as Noble Johnson of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company a captive audience of people who wanted the experience of watching themselves in a movie where they were not humiliated. But it also made the invisible hand of capitalism visible and forbidding when it came to reaching a larger audience or finding the most suitable venues for race films. The memoirs of George P. Johnson (Noble Johnson's brother) document the frustration of not being able to book a theater where their company was certain it could do good business with a White audience and speaks of a very profitable run in a White theater to White audiences in Long Beach, California, as proof that it could be done. Some of these theater owners were downright indignant at the thought that films that did not inferiorize Blacks were being proposed for their spaces. The limited number of movie houses where Blacks could see a race movie created an upper limit on the profit that could be made. Right away we can see the distortion of what might be thought of as artistic creativity. Oscar Micheaux soon learned that with this absolute cap on profits, another rehearsal or another take would mean dollars spent that could never be recouped.

Censorship was another signifier of Undie's presence at work. To be sure, in the era of silent movies, censorship applied to everyone. But the unequal burden of censorship for non-Whites is made evident by the number of times Micheaux was faced with censorship for a variety of possible offenses, usually connected to race in one way or another. Apparently, local censorship boards had wide or varying leverage with regard to what they deemed inappropriate for their communities. We know, to take a couple of casual examples, that Micheaux's Body and Soul (1925) was pressured in some communities because of its unflattering portrait of a Black preacher. The story persists that Micheaux then started showing the film with alternate endings, whichever got over in the territory he was working. And the anti-racist Within Our Gates (1920) faced banning in Chicago and other cities on two grounds; first, that it might inflame recently riotous neighborhoods, and second, that it again contained scurrilous depictions of ministers. Micheaux soon suppressed the historically important Within Our Gates, and never made another major assault on racism in his movies, nor did other filmmakers until Melvin van Peebles in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song in 1971.

Along with the repression of social commentary about racism, censorship worked hand in hand with Undie to inhibit race movies through the unofficial and official taboo against miscegenation. When the widespread prohibition was formalized in 1934 under the Breen Office, it made official what was already in place. Under the category of Sex, not Race, comes the injunction: "Miscegenation (sex relationships between the White and Black races) is forbidden." Censorship, particularly sexual censorship, obviously pressured movie expression for all filmmakers. But the ban on miscegenation was particularly burdensome for Black Americans, since it was based on the inference that the goal was to protect Whites, who would be unequally lowered in social symbolic status by such imaginary commingling. Such a prohibition silently reinforced the policy of denying directorial roles to Blacks in the industry.

Just as White directors made an advantage out of sexual censorship, overcoming the obstacles with cutaway shots to waterfalls or raging fireplaces, so Micheaux toyed with the boundaries of the permissible regarding race-mixing. Declaring that nothing would attract so racialized a society as an advertisement saying "SHALL RACES INTERMARRY?," he played throughout his career with the scenario in which an apparently White woman discovers in the eleventh hour that she possesses one drop of Black blood (enough in those apartheid days to finalize a Black identity) and can therefore marry her Black lover. Micheaux was even accused of trying to "pass" one of his films as a "White" film with actors so light and the story so general that a White audience might take it for a typical Hollywood product. Micheaux's witty outfoxing of the system provides a certain malandro satisfaction. But look at what this particular bit of unequal development did to the possibilities of Black cinema. Can we miss the multifarious messages that translate into a disproportionate number of light-skinned Blacks in race movies, particularly among women? And how does that disproportion, combined with a similar imbalance in Hollywood movies, affect African-American self-perception?

The destructions in the wake of unequal development are sometimes casual accidents — the grass that is trampled when elephants fight. But sometimes they arrive through a conscious, aggressive will to dominate. When the exploited population begins to pool its resources to shape alternative plans for prosperity, the counteraction from the more powerful sector may be neither casual nor accidental. There is a telling exemplum in the dilemma Universal Studios presented Noble Johnson. This handsome, athletic actor was a featured player who played all the races between White and Black in Universal movies, including Douglas Fairbanks's Thief of Bagdad (1924). But when he became the star of Lincoln's race movies (made by Lincoln, his own company), Universal saw it as unwanted competition and gave him an ultimatum (if I were in Amos 'n Andy, I would be forced to say "ultomato"): do one or the other, but you can't do both.

The course of race movies was significantly altered by Johnson's resignation from Lincoln Pictures, the most adventuresome and promising Black movie company of its day, which collapsed soon after his departure. This repressive action carries several features of Undie dynamics. Like Edison, Kodak, and other industry entities, Universal was exercising the power of monopoly against weaker competitors, in this case monopolizing talent the way the industry did through contractual development of superstars. By all accounts, Noble Johnson had the potential to become a very large star in race movies, a phenomenon they had never produced. So his departure was also a kind of brain drain, yet another one of Undie's skills. Thereafter, major African-American performers such as Paul Robeson and Lena Horne got involved in race movies but usually left as soon as crossover bridges were stable enough, and they never looked back, except maybe with embarrassment. Observing this pattern, we need not assess blame; the whole point, in fact, is to watch the curvature of Black cinema in the making and how it was influenced by factors other than commitment, race loyalty, or other personal issues.

The need of Undie is to take from a less technologically sophisticated society those things of use to the developers, whether they be educated leadership or material resources, without regard for whether the host society needs the resource or for the imbalance the removal of that resource will leave behind. The revolutionary actions of capitalism have driven populations away from subsistence agriculture, whether it be enclosures in sixteenth-century England or the colonially administered taxation that forced farmers in Africa and other places into a money economy. The force of action has been against what capital does not want. Also prominent in this transformation is the implantation of what capital does want, frequently a single cash crop such as coffee, cocoa, bananas, sugar cane, slaves, or tobacco, the kind that original farmers could not subsist from alone. What this commoditizing drive eliminates often includes the cultural identity of the people and societies in its path.

Similarly, the American culture industry has consistently taken what suits it from African-American culture, what amuses it or strokes its illusions of superiority or infuses the deadness of its industrialized mentality with spirit. And it does so with a single-mindedness consistent with stereotyping. It makes raids on Black culture in ways that suggest single-crop economic exploitation rather than exchanges that facilitate sustained growth. The stereotypes embodied in Step 'n Fetchit comedy were a single cash crop for the U.S. image industry. In fact, Black comedy, inflected by minstrelsy, has been a perennial U.S. cultural cash crop whose economic vitality only highlights the difficulties and the importance of serious Black drama as a force to restore cultural balance. All-Black cast musicals became a single cash crop briefly during the Cabin in the Sky (1943) period, enough to cripple the growth of race movies, along with the "Negro interest films" of roughly the same period. And in the late 1980s, New Jack gang-banging movies became a single cash crop, while more nourishing forms of film representation languished.

The challenges Hollywood encountered in the face of Hays Office moral censorship can give us, through metaphor, a lesson. The prohibitions against explicit eroticism, as said before, provoked cute substitutions. The camera pans away from the steamy, groping lovers to waves crashing onto rocks on the beach. The waves can be read as an image displacement, using one image where another might have naturally, realistically been put into place. The question then becomes: Given the prohibitions against picturing Blacks as humans, which also implied the muzzling of attacks against their dehumanization through racism, how did the various framers of Black imagery "make waves"? In other words, when we look at this body of representation, particularly the self-portraits of Blacks in silent race movies, what is a direct projection of unequal development, the signature work of Undie, and what is image displacement, including the self-censorship of the oppressed? Are the stuffy, genteel manners of Black characters in race movies the "waves" that, first of all, compensate for the demeaning stereotypes and then stand in place for a more realistic portrayal that had to be rejected as possible ammunition for further denigration? Might not the same calculation enter into the quotient of brilliance smuggled into the minstrel performances of Step 'n Fetchit as "waves" winking at another reality?

The development of character types is a place where this image displacement shows up as a major determining factor in race movies. In Hollywood, a powerful change came through the rise, along with sound movies, of the common man as hero — the likes of John Wayne, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, and so forth — to supplant a more European gentleman type, such as John Barrymore or Ronald Coleman. The advance in the power of films to communicate effectively with large democratic audiences was retarded in race movies by the mimicry of refined snob behavior. It was not until Ralph Cooper injected an entirely new style of acting — a more demotic language of personal presentation — in Dark Manhattan (1937) that we can measure the loss (through stiffness) in earlier race movie performances. This overcompensation toward "proper manners" counts as one of the distortions Samir Amin attributes to unequal development. The number of such distortions in the personal fates of minority cultural producers soon become too astronomical to contemplate except in individual biographies. But to cite one more, as emblematic of the many, Cooper was arguably the most charismatic actor to come out of race movies since Noble Johnson, but his potential was squashed between Hollywood and race movies, at great loss to the American screen.


Excerpted from Oscar Micheaux and His Circle by Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, Charles Musser. Copyright © 2001 Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser, Eds.. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents


The Touring Package: Programs and Credits
Introduction: Oscar Micheaux and Race Movies of the Silent Period / Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser

I. Overviews
1. Black Silence and the Politics of Representation / Clyde R. Taylor
2. The Notion of Treatment: Black Aesthetics and Film / based on an interview with Peter Hessli and additional contributions from Pearl Bowser, A. J. Jafa
3. From Shadows 'n Shufflin' to Spotlights and Cinema: The Lafayette Players, 1915-1932 / Sr. Francesca Thompson
4. The African-American Press and Race Movies, 1909-1929 / Charlene Regester

II. Oscar Micheaux
5. Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates: The Possibilities for Alternative Visions / Michele Wallace
6. Within Our Gates: From Race Melodrama to Opportunity Narrative / Jane Gaines
7. Oscar Micheaux's The Symbol of the Unconquered: Text and Context / Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence
8. To Redream the Dreams of White Playwrights: Reappropriation and Resistance in Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul / Charles Musser
9. Black Patriarch on the Prairie: National Identity and Black Manhood in the Early Novels of Oscar Micheaux / Jayna Brown
10. Telling White Lies: Oscar Micheaux and Charles W. Chesnutt / Corey Creekmur

III. Micheaux's Contemporaries
11. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: The Flying Ace, the Norman Company, and the Micheaux Connection / Phyllis Klotman
12. Colored Players Film Corporation
An Alternative to Micheaux / Charles Musser
Lost, then Found: The Wedding Scene from The Scar of Shame (1929) / Pearl Bowser
13. Richard D. Maurice and the Maurice Film Company / Pearl Bowser and Charles Musser
14. Cinematic Foremothers: Zora Neale Hurston and Eloyce King Patrick Gist / Gloria J. Gibson

Appendix A. The Reemergence of Oscar Micheaux: A Timeline and Bibliographic Essay / J. Ronald Green
Appendix B. An Oscar Micheaux Filmography: From the Silents through His Transition to Sound (1919—1931) / Compiled by Charles Musser, Corey Creekmur, Pearl Bowser, Charlene Regester, Ron Green, and Louise Spence
Appendix C. A Colored Players Film Corporation Filmography / Compiled by Charles Musser
Appendix D. Norman Film Manufacturing Company: Production and Theatrical Release Dates for All-Black-Cast Films / Compiled by Phyllis Klotman

Bibliography / Compiled by Kristen Barnes, Jane Gaines, Fred Neumann, and Hank Okazaki
About the Contributors

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From the Publisher

The 14 essays cover a range of topics, from overviews of black American performance and cinemas, to detailed analyses of Micheaux films, to thoughtful discussion of the work and impact of other groups of African American performers and filmmakers. The essays are lively and readable, casting light on an underrepresented fact of American film history. —Library Journal This collection of essays by leading scholars in the field restores Oscar Micheaux to the place he deserves in film history. The book will be a reference for anybody interested in the pioneers of American cinema. —Manthia Diawara, author African Cinema: Politics and Culture Oscar Michaeux and His Circle is a marvel of scholarly cooperative effort, an omnibus book of heroic scope befitting its authors' ambition to recreate the complex African American world of the 1920s that Micheaux and his movies meant to serve. . . . The book features an uncommonly rich trove of photographs, stills from his movies, advertisements, and other ephemera of his age, along with thorough-going bibliographies and filmographies. —Thomas Cripps, author of Black Film as Genre and Making Movies Black This is a landmark text, essential for teaching and reference. . . . A splendid collective achievement. —Hazel V. Carby, author of Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America and Race Men

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