[Blackstudies-l] Pioneers of African-American Cinema

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Fri Apr 13 02:23:10 EDT 2018

Black Pictures
Darryl Pinckney <https://www.nybooks.com/contributors/darryl-pinckney/>
APRIL 19, 2018 ISSUE <https://www.nybooks.com/issues/2018/04/19/>
Pioneers of African-American Cinema
directed by Richard Norman, Richard Maurice, Spencer Williams, and Oscar
Micheaux; curated and including essays by Charles Musser and Jacqueline
Najuma Stewart
Kino Lorber, five DVDs, $79.95
Poster for *The Exile* (1931), the first sound feature written and directed
by Oscar Micheaux, based on his novel *The Conquest: The Story of a Negro

Gustave Flaubert’s next best seller after *Madame Bovary* was *Salammbô*, a
historical novel about a revolt of mercenaries in third-century-BC Carthage.
The black novelist Charles Chesnutt saw the Italian film director Domenico
Gaido’s adaptation, *Salambo*, in a Cleveland movie theater in 1915.
Chesnutt remembered that when Spendius, the mercenary general’s black
lieutenant, came on the screen, a white woman sitting next to him remarked,
“Well, look at the coon! He’s a spy and a traitor, no doubt.” The medium of
film was still rather new, but the attitudes projected through it were the
familiar, vicious ones that Chesnutt, born a free black in North Carolina
in 1858, had made it his life’s work to write against.

In 1915, Chesnutt joined the nationwide protests against the distribution
of D.W. Griffith’s *The Birth of a Nation*. In Boston, where the film had
its premiere, the black newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter staged
pickets, but W.E.B. Du Bois at the NAACP, founded in 1909, wondered if the
efforts to stop the film only helped to advertise it. Griffith’s technical
achievements were nullified by the film’s being based on the white
supremacist novels of Thomas Dixon, Du Bois said. The Civil War battle
scenes were one thing, but Griffith glorified the Klan and depicted “the
emancipation and enfranchisement of the slave” as “an orgy of theft and
degradation and wide rape of white women.” *The Birth of a Nation* gave a
tremendous boost to the popularity of movies. Yet Du Bois thought that
“without doubt the increase of lynching in 1915 and later was directly
encouraged by this film.”

Booker T. Washington joined calls for *The Birth of a Nation* to be banned.
His “Tuskegee Machine” had enjoyed some influence with Republican
administrations, but that vanished with the election to the presidency in
1912 of the Virginia-born Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Washington, who had
advocated racial survival through accommodation of Jim Crow practices in
the South, said nothing publicly when one of Wilson’s first acts was to
segregate federal government agencies in the nation’s capital. Du Bois had
supported Wilson’s presidential bid, as had Trotter, who in 1914 felt so
betrayed that curtains were going up to divide black clerks from white
clerks that he led a delegation to the White House. Wilson had Trotter
thrown out.

In 1915, Wilson welcomed Griffith to the White House for a special
screening of *The Birth of a Nation*. He is supposed to have said, “It is
like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all
so terribly true.” Thomas Dixon, who was also a Baptist minister, was a
friend of Wilson’s. Wilson’s father, a Presbyterian minister, had been a
Confederate loyalist, and Griffith’s father was a Confederate officer. It
turned out that Griffith was the Great White Hope, with his stated
intention to make every white American a southern partisan. The film of
black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson knocking out his white opponent in
Reno, Nevada, in 1910 had been banned everywhere in the South.

In his study *Slow Fade to Black* (1977), Thomas Cripps points out that
Griffith used black people for his scenes showing violent black mobs and
incompetent black legislators, but not for black characters, or for scenes
with dialogue. Witnesses reported black audiences cursing and weeping at
the antics of white actors in black face. White audiences in the South
howled for the lynching of black characters on the screen. In a couple of
small towns in 1915 white men walked out of theaters after seeing *The
Birth of a Nation* and killed black men. Chesnutt was still writing
against *The
Birth of a Nation*in 1917, arguing that its principal villain, a black
captain in the Union army, would incite whites at a time when America
needed unity.

The film is so offensive that I find myself wanting Abel Gance to be the
father of modern cinema, though *Napoléon* was not made until 1927. It says
something about Du Bois’s coolness of judgment that he gave Griffith his
due as an innovator. Years later Du Bois recalled the unease caused by the
boycott of a racist motion picture:

We had to ask liberals to oppose freedom of art and expression, and it was
senseless for them to reply: “Use this art in your own defence.” The cost
of picture making and the scarcity of appropriate artistic talent made any
such immediate answer beyond question.

The socially cautious Washington was alive to the possibilities of film as
an educational tool, as propaganda. In 1910, he collaborated with a black
firm to produce a film about the Tuskegee Institute, the school of
industrial education he had founded in Alabama in 1881. It opened at
Carnegie Hall but was not a success. In 1913, a second film about Tuskegee
that he made with another black company failed because tickets cost too
much. Washington had also tried, without success, to interest white
companies in adapting his best-selling autobiography, *Up from Slavery*

In *Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era* (2001), Jane M.
Gaines shows that thirteen black film companies were operating by the end
of World War I, although most of them released only one film. According to
Gaines, William Foster directed the first black film, *The Railroad Porter*,
a one-reel comedy, in 1913 (other sources say 1912). He stressed the
importance of movies to race consciousness and cited cases in which blacks
succeeded in having some racist caricatures taken out of circulation. Black
producers and directors founded their own film companies out of a desire to
counter racist images and enable blacks to see themselves on the screen as
they really were. Nevertheless, the noted black photographer Peter P. Jones
followed his first film venture, a newsreel about black Shriners, with *The
Troubles of Sambo and Dinah* (1914).1

Blackness was often a source of comedy in American culture. *Uncle Tom’s
Cabin* was first made into a short film in 1903, as a compendium of black
stereotypes prevalent since slavery, according to Donald Bogle in *Toms,
Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in
American Films* (1973). *A Nigger in the Woodpile* (1904), a blackface
comedy, is one of those productions from the era when film was not far from
its nickelodeon origins. Foster envisioned motion pictures as a thriving
industry for black people, and warned that if they didn’t invest in their
own films, white people would step in and grab the profits. The millions of
dollars *The Birth of a Nation* was said to have earned at the box office
was in itself a news story.

The black actor Noble Johnson starred in thirty-four films for his Lincoln
Motion Picture Company between 1915 and 1918, playing mostly ethnic
characters—Native Americans, Latinos, Arabs—not black ones. But Universal
Pictures, the white studio that wanted him under contract, got him to
resign from all-black Lincoln, by then a competitor. In 1916, the Frederick
Douglass Film Company produced *The Colored American Winning His Suit*, and
then two more films, one of which was a documentary, *Heroic Negro Soldiers
of the World War* (1919). Emmett J. Scott, Booker T. Washington’s
secretary, attempted to make a film in answer to Griffith’s. What began
with the title *Lincoln’s Dream* became *The Birth of a Race*. After Scott
had to bring in white backers, his film as released in 1918 had nothing to
do with black progress since slavery and was instead about two white
German-American brothers who fought on opposite sides during World War I.

Early black films are periodically screened at cinemas and museums and many
of them can now be streamed on YouTube, but an informative, fascinating,
and convenient boxed set of them, restored by the Library of Congress, has
been issued as *Pioneers of African-American Cinema*. In its five discs of
more than two dozen feature films and extra material, *Pioneers* covers a
great deal. Three slapstick comedies represent the work of the Ebony Film
Corporation of Chicago, which may have been white-owned: *Two Knights of
Vaudeville* (1915), *Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled* (1918), and *A Reckless
Rover* (1918), in which a black man takes refuge in a Chinese laundry and
finds an opium pipe. A four-minute fragment from *By Right of Birth* (1921)
is all that remains of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company’s many films.
Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart provide helpful essays and
notes. The aesthetic, even the subjects, are sometimes remote from us; we
need to know what we’re watching and why.

The *Pioneers* collection includes documentary footage: clips from Zora
Neale Hurston’s folklore-collecting trips in 1928 (as well as sound footage
Hurston shot in 1940) and Reverend Solomon Sir Jones’s short home movies
shot between 1924 and 1928, showing tastefully dressed black families in
Oklahoma, their automobiles, and streets of brick houses. In *Hell-Bound
Train* (circa 1930), brilliantly restored by S. Torriano Berry, the
evangelists James and Eloyce Gist present a horned, caped devil as the
engineer on a smoking locomotive racing sinners to the flames. Dancing is
the original sin, leading to drunkenness, unwanted babies, and shootings.
However, the party of well-dressed young black people at which the dire
consequences of dancing unfold looks like the greatest fun. It’s been
helped by a newly created score from Reverend Samuel Waymon, Nina Simone’s
A still from *Hell-Bound Train*, written and directed by James and Eloyce
Gist, circa 1930

White directors of feature films sometimes took on serious themes of black
life. The great black stage actor Charles Gilpin stars in *Ten Nights in a
Bar Room* (1926), in which a man’s alcoholism destroys his family. In the
beautifully shot *The Scar of Shame* (1929), a cultured black man’s fear of
his mother leads to the suicide of his lower-class wife.

But the business of film was entertainment, which meant escapism. The
*Pioneers* collection offers two films produced by the Jewish-owned Colored
Players Film Corporation. The well-made *The Flying Ace* (1926), also in the
 *Pioneers* collection, is the best-known film by Richard E. Norman, a
white director of movies with black casts. Black audiences enjoyed taking
time off with a thriller that climaxes in a bicycle, car, and plane chase.
The bad cop, the railroad general manager, the dentist, bootlegger, pretty
heroine, and dashing aviator are all black. The title cards are not in
dialect, and even the comic character, a one-legged veteran, is a hero and
catches bad guys.

Not all black directors took the race problem as their subject. *Eleven P.M*.
(1928) is the only surviving film by Richard D. Maurice, an offbeat black
filmmaker in Detroit. His is a revenge tale in which a duped fiddler comes
back as a dog to bite to death the man who destroyed his family. Toward the
end there is a scene in which the fiddler, played by Maurice, who sort of
looks like James Cagney, is shown as having a dog’s body. Or maybe that was
a dream about reincarnation had by a young and handsome black reporter we
see whose copy was due at eleven o’clock.

Oscar Micheaux, the most prolific of early black filmmakers, is the best
known because more of his work survives than that of any other black
director from the period. Born in 1884 into a large, proud family on a
southern Illinois farm, he went from shoeshine boy in Chicago to Pullman
porter. In 1905, he purchased land in the Rosebud Sioux reservation in
South Dakota, eventually acquiring five hundred acres. It was harsh,
isolated country. When Micheaux lost the land to foreclosure in 1912, he
turned to writing, producing three autobiographical novels, *The Conquest:
The Story of a Negro Pioneer* (1913), *The Forged Note: A Romance of the
Darker Races* (1915), and *The Homesteader* (1917), publishing the last two
books himself.

The Lincoln Motion Picture Company approached Micheaux about securing the
rights to *The Homesteader*, but the ever-ambitious Micheaux wanted to
direct the film himself. The son of former slaves, he subscribed to Booker
T. Washington’s ideas concerning economic self-reliance for blacks. His
Micheaux Book and Film Company raised money from small investors, largely
white farmers, and he released *The Homesteader* in 1919. Micheaux was
self-taught as cameraman and director. Everyone was. No copy of the eight-
or nine-reel film—then the longest film made by a black director—is extant.
Francine Everett in *Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A*., directed by Spencer
Williams, 1946

The film is lost, but we know the plot from the novel. *The Homesteader* is
a convoluted tale of love lost and found under the heavy snows of the
prairie. In fiction, Micheaux could correct life. His marriage had ended
when his wife’s domineering father took her back to Chicago after she
suffered a stillbirth. She’d found homesteading unendurable in any
case. In *The
Homesteader*, on the other hand, when white-looking Agnes learns that her
mother had “Ethiopian” blood, she decides to “share what is Ethiopia’s” and
returns to Jean Baptiste, the strong, vigorous colored farmer who’d refused
her when he thought she was white, though he was in love with her.

Micheaux’s “photoplay” *The Homesteader* was heavily advertised in black
Chicago. A tenor sang and an orchestra played at each showing of his
“silent art.” This was a few months before four days of race rioting in
Chicago, during which thirty-eight people died. Riots would erupt in two
dozen other American cities in the Red Summer of 1919. Two hundred blacks
trying to form a labor union in Elaine, Arkansas, were massacred.
Seventy-six black men were lynched elsewhere in the South that summer. Fear
of more racial violence may have kept black people from movie houses, and
whites did not go to *The Homesteader* after all.

Micheaux directed twenty-two silent films. Copies of his earliest surviving
films were found not long ago in two European archives. He survived the
crash of 1929 and was the only black silent filmmaker to move into talkies,
producing fifteen films between 1931 and 1948. Maybe thirteen of his films
in all survive. *Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking
and Race Cinema of the Silent Era*, the catalog for a seven-part program of
films shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 2001, contains a complete
filmography of his silent films, using reviews to reconstruct lost work in
surprising detail.2

The three surviving silent films by Micheaux are in the *Pioneers* collection.
In his second, *Within Our Gates* (1920), he moves away from the Booker T.
Washington–like race neutrality of his novels. The oldest surviving
feature-length film by a black American, *Within Our Gates* depicts in
flashback the lynching of the heroine’s loving adoptive parents and her
near rape by her biological father, a white man. It is considered
Micheaux’s rebuttal to Griffith, showing the innocence of lynched blacks
and just who had done the raping in American history, as Toni Cade Bambara
notes in a PBSdocumentary, *Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the History
of Race* (1994). Micheaux also shows the injustice of sharecropping, the
importance of independent black institutions, and the way racism in the
South cut across class lines among whites. *Within Our Gates* was banned in
southern states as incendiary. (Whereas Micheaux’s mob constitutes hardly
thirty extras, a crowd of thousands cheered the burning of a
seventeen-year-old black boy in Waco, Texas, in 1916.) But even in black
Chicago the film was not a success.

*The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Ku Klux Klan* (1920), like
all of Micheaux’s work about the Northwest, extolls the frontier as a
refuge for black men. It turns the Klan into land thieves and features a
self-hating black villain who passes for white and beats his own mother to
death. Love triumphs once the rugged, light-skinned black settler realizes
that the lovely new neighbor he’s been fighting for is black, not white.
Another film Micheaux produced in 1920, *The Brute*, about a boxer, is
lost. Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence in *Oscar Micheaux and His Circle* say
that in the film Micheaux condemned racketeering and the abuse of women.
The roles of black women in these films are not much different from the
roles of, say, Mary Pickford in the same era. Women needed to be saved. But
of course not even light-skinned black women had been rescued in anyone’s
film melodramas before the advent of race films.

Paul Robeson made his film debut in Micheaux’s *Body and Soul* (1925), a
tale of struggle between good and evil. Robeson plays twin brothers, a
sociopath and a noble inventor. He often had to switch characters within
minutes during filming, and scenes were done in one take, with little
rehearsal, so tight was Micheaux’s budget. Robeson is an animating
presence, and not much more can be said for the melodrama—like *Borderline*,
an experimental film Robeson made with H.D. in Switzerland in 1930. Both
Thomas Cripps and Donald Bogle have speculated that the *Body and Soul* we
have may show the effects of censorship and hasty editing, that it is
missing scenes and only suggests the original. Charles Musser, however,
concludes that the one copy in existence seems reasonably complete. He
interprets the film as a reworking of two early Eugene O’Neill race plays,
as well as of a play by the then well-known Nan Bagby Stephens.

Alain Locke’s anthology *The New Negro* (1925), that defining moment of the
Harlem Renaissance, talks about art, novels, poetry, drama, and music of
black people, but has nothing to say about black America and film (or
photography). Moviegoing for blacks in Jim Crow times often meant sitting
in segregated balconies—the buzzard’s roost, nigger heaven. In the heyday
of race movies in the 1920s, black vaudeville houses became movie theaters,
but even so, only three hundred of the nation’s estimated 20,000 movie
theaters catered to black audiences. Movies were collaborations, costly to
make, and not entirely trusted by black filmgoers because they were such
common vehicles of racist expression.

Though the black press supported Micheaux’s early efforts, he came in for
criticism from black people who objected to his drunks, gamblers, corrupt
ministers, thieves, and murderers. Representations of lowlife did not fit
with racial uplift, the goal of creating positive images of black people.
Black novelists and black playwrights were under even more pressure when it
came to the content and tone of their work, because they had the prestige
of high culture that film didn’t as yet. At the same time, realists in
black literature were driven by their determination to tell the truth about
racism, social conditions, and American history.

Strangely absent in Micheaux’s work is the atmosphere of the Great Northern
Drive, the mass migration that would see half a million blacks leave the
South for the North during World War I alone. The romance for him was the
West, not the big city. Then, too, his literary sources were pre-Harlem
Renaissance novels, starting with his own. In 1924, Micheaux made an
adaptation of the white novelist T.S. Stribling’s best seller
*Birthright* (1922).
Two hours long, it is now lost, but was said to have followed closely the
novel’s plot concerning the travails of an educated black man who has come
home to the South to teach black youth. Stribling thought of his work as
explaining black people in the setting of their degraded environment. In
1924, Micheaux also adapted *The House Behind the Cedars* (1900), Charles
Chesnutt’s novel about a black girl passing for white who falls in love
with a white man. The lost film had a happy ending, unlike the novel, and
Chesnutt was unimpressed.

The coming of sound spelled the end of the black movie, because white film
companies saw black musicals as a lucrative market. Some blacks thought
that silent film deprived Paul Robeson of his greatest asset, his voice,
while some black critics now see singing and dancing as the slippery road
that led back to the old racial stereotypes. Josephine Baker in *La Sirène
des tropiques* (1927) is dancing furiously while being ogled by white men
in black tie in the wings. But silent films were never silent; the musical
accompaniment could make a difference, and most of the early black films of
the *Pioneers* collection have had new scores commissioned.

Oscar Micheaux in his silent period kept his faith in his ability to make
his own opportunities, even as segregation intensified. His early films are
about color consciousness, whether about hierarchies within black
communities or interracial romances that turn out not to be interracial
because the woman has one drop of black blood and under US law that was
enough to make her black. They may not have the disciplined construction of
other directors’ work, but they have a kind of mystery, are seemingly about
more than he can say, as if in the pioneering days the lines blurred
easily. He often had light-skinned black actors play white characters.

Some argue that while Micheaux’s films may be technically flawed, it is
more important that he was a one-man black outfit, that he wrote, directed,
produced, and distributed his films himself. Micheaux stopped making movies
during World War II and wrote three more novels based on his prairie
experiences. But he got right back to it when he could. His last
film—another remake of his first novel—came out in 1948. He died in 1951.
His sound films tended to be reworkings of his silent films, and not as
good. His time was gone and the medium had changed around him.

In 2014, the Museum of Modern Art screened *Lime Kiln Club Field Day* (1913),
a black comedy made by the Biograph Company, a white company, but never
released. It starred the black musical legend Bert Williams. Williams’s
character gets the girl and kisses her at the end. Most films of that time
did not show blacks at leisure or being intimate. Williams won hearts in
America and Europe playing a sad man, but he was still a black man
performing in blackface. “Your self image is so powerful it unwittingly
becomes your destiny,” Micheaux said.

   1. 1

   See Anna Everett, *Returning the Gaze: A Genealogy of Black Film
   Criticism, 1909–1949* (Duke University Press, 2001). Everett raises the
   question of how much control Jones had over his own company. ↩
   2. 2

   See also Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence, *Writing Himself into History:
   Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audience* (Rutgers University
   Press, 2000). ↩

© 1963-2018 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.

Maria Helena Lima
Department of English
Comparative Literature Director
James and Julia Lockhart Professor, 2014-2017
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