The dark truth of cinema, the truest American art form outside of television, is that it was founded as entertainment for the white norm. Whiteness is seen as a given and a status quo of early cinema, while any other race, especially black, is seen as useful only as entertainment. There was a need (and there remains a need) for an antecedent to a starkly monocultural screen, which was for a time filled by a brave few independent filmmakers. Their films, a hodgepodge of melodramas, genre pictures, and the unclassifiable, were at the time characterized as a single genre- “race films”.
~ Race Films Spotlight: Prehistory, Oscar Micheaux, and Body and Soul (1925) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1920s Oddballs ~ Race Films Spotlight: Hallelujah (1929) ~ Race Films Spotlight: Paul Robeson and Emperor Jones (1933) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1943’s Black Musicals
The first producer of films for African-American audiences was the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, founded by Noble Johnson; a handsome, 6’2, light-skinned entrepreneur and character actor known for playing ethnically and racially ambiguous characters on the big screen. All of five films made by the unprosperous and thus short-lived production company, commonly cited as originators of the “race film” genre, are now lost; the first of these films, by virtue the first feature by a black production company, is aptly called The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition
In spite of its brief appearance on the filmmaking stage,
the Lincoln Company established a legacy simply by existing, trail-blazing for later and more successful film producers. One of the projects the Lincoln Company had courted before it folded was an adaptation of The Homesteader, an autobiographical book by the independently published Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux, a self-made man and an acolyte of Booker T. Washington, broke off discussions over disputes as to the extent of his involvement in the film’s production. Still inspired by this new frontier of black expression, and in an extension of his ferocious dedication to self-sufficiency, he decided to make The Homesteader under his own production company and become a maker of “educational” films about race issues, targeted at his own black middle class. In an inspired appropriation of the presiding class’s wealth, Micheaux funded his all-black Micheaux Film and Book Company by coercing the investments of white businessmen he had met in any early career as a Pullman porter.
Only three of Micheaux’s films from the silent era survive. The first, Within Our Gates (1920), is considered to be the earliest surviving feature by an African-American director. The film was pragmatically produced, employing borrowed props, costumes, and sets, without any reshoots. The result is a surfeit of listless subplots, and occasionally borders on incoherent, but remains valuable from a historical perspective, for its avoidance of negative black stereotypes, its depiction of the divide between Northern and Southern blacks, even for its demonstrative prejudices against darker-skinned African-Americans and separatism. The final minutes, intercutting a mass lynching and an Oedipal rape attempt to appropriately nauseating effect, feature some of the most shocking images of the early screen.
Micheaux thereafter became a prolific director, making a still-surviving satire of the Ku Klux Klan, Symbol of the Unconquered, in the same year as Gates, and several intriguing lost films- his two adaptations of novels by black author Charles Chesnutt, and his parody of pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, Marcus Garland (1925). His most fascinating surviving silent, Body and Soul (1925), a scathing critique of blind trust in religion, is not
coincidentally his most linear and coherent. (By default- there’s still a confusingly established and barely onscreen twin brother for the film’s villain). The only one of his films to retain its original intertitles, Soul possesses the touch of an inadvertent auteur- in Micheaux’s propensity for casting the cream of flexible-faced character actors for his criminal types, in a title card announcing two enormously hatted old women as “Sis Caline and Sis Lucy, District Grand Matron of the ‘Household of Ruth’”, in the stylish implication-by-necessity brought to a rape scene in order to appease censors. To further elevate its status, Soul is the feature debut of singer and stage performer Paul Robeson, playing a false preacher; charismatic even without his distinctively robust voice, Robeson would go on to become the most popular black actor of the 1930s, and a major civil rights leader of the 1940s and 50s. The film might qualify as the best of the independent race films, were it not for a cowardly twist ending that takes much of the air out of its bolder elements.
Micheaux’s career in the 1930s, and by extension the entire race film movement, would be hurt by the introduction of sound to the screen. His lack of technical prowess and employment of unprofessional actors was easily cloaked by silence; in this new era, poor photography, fluctuating sound quality and community-theater self-consciousness render his films borderline unwatchable. Micheauxs of the 1930s and 1940s were reviled by critics, even as they tackled the same ambitious themes with typical fearlessness. His fortieth and final film, The Betrayal (1948) was met with negative reviews from mainstream and black presses; the director would die three years later. His gravestone fittingly reads: “A man ahead of his time”.
Check back next time for insight on some of the more outlying race films of the 1920s.