Within Our Grasp
The legend of Oscar Micheaux
By Jill Jordan Sieder

From Gadfly March/April 2000


When the American Film Institute named D.W. Griffith's Civil War saga, The Birth of a Nation, as one of its 100 best films of all time in 1998, a collective groan went out among African-Americans and film buffs of all stripes who consider this early moving picture, however captivating it may be, the apotheosis of racist, historically haywire Southern mythology. They wondered how a film that romanticizes plantation life, ridicules blacks and glorifies the work of Klan-led lynch mobs ever made the cut. One could imagine Booker T. Washington, who had enjoined blacks across the country to engage in intense protests against the film back in 1915, spinning, nigh, even convulsing in his grave. After so much struggle, this is the cultural document that stands for our time, for all time? Oh Lord, put the truth to this lie.

Or perhaps Washington is perfectly content in the heavenly ether, rubbing elbows with his old friend Oscar Micheaux. Maybe he knows that Micheaux, the first black film auteur of the 20th Century, has already set the celluloid record straight and is on the verge, finally, of getting his due.

Who is Oscar Micheaux? If you haven't encountered him already, chances are you soon will. In the next year or so, a flurry of book and film projects will reintroduce Americans to this impetuous, self-starting, sometimes conniving, always controversial black businessman. A firebrand independent filmmaker, Micheaux made more than 40 films about and starring blacks between 1918 and 1948.

Literally. Two of Micheaux's early silent films, the ones that film historians now consider his most powerful and important, were considered lost for more than 60 years, until old prints were discovered in musty European film archives a decade ago. Prior to that, only 10 of his films were known to have survived, the bulk of those from the sound era. But when scholars got a look at the restored versions of Within Our Gates (1919) and Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), they were bowled over, realizing they now had precious material on hand which compelled them to rewrite film history and, ultimately, to reinterpret the new light and shadow cast on a difficult, violent era of America's social history.

The extant version of Within Our Gates, a 35-mm print which was returned to the U.S. from a film archive in Madrid in the late 1980s, translated back to English from Spanish and released on video in 1994, tells the story of Sylvia Landry, a poised young mulatta woman struggling against the odds to raise money for the Negro school where she teaches in Vicksburg, Miss. At the turn of the century. Landry travels north to Boston, where she is hit by a car and then helped and befriended by a wealthy white society matron. The matron debates the merits of boosting black education, but eventually gives her $50,00 for the school. Landry also meets a handsome black doctor, who comes to her aid when her purse is snatched. By film's end, they fall in love. It's an uplifting, but not terribly compelling story were it not for its final scenes, in which Sylvia, in a nightmarish flashback, recalls her near-rape at the hands of a white plantation owner and the unjust, brutal lynching of her sharecropper parents by a fanatical white mob.

Within Our Gates, which elicited fierce protests among blacks and whites even before its nationwide release in 1919, is considered by many to be Micheaux's direct response to The Birth of a Nation. Birth had prompted emotional protests and near-riots across the country, from Boston to Atlanta, and spurred the young NAACP to mobilize against it in 1915. Both films were released during a violent decade when an average of 60 blacks were lynched each year. Because of the tense racial climate, others see Within Our Gates more broadly as Micheaux's response to the outrages and challenges of the Jim Crow era, the first in a one-two cinematic punch that also included Micheaux's somewhat autobiographical Symbol of the Unconquered, which chronicles the efforts of a noble black man to stake out a living as a homesteader in the Midwest.

In Symbol of the Unconquered, the black hero holds his ground and chivalrously protects a lovely light-skinned mulatta neighbor (who is passing as white) as a local gang of thieves and hooded, torch-carrying Klansmen plots to frighten him, steal his land and finally, to kill him. Though how they do it remains unknown due to a key missing reel, the amorous "black" couple emerges from the ordeal unscathed and thrilled to discover their shared racial identity. Laced within these (and many other) Micheaux melodramas are themes of inter- and intra-racial tensions and hatred, many of which are expressed sexually.

Scholars, historians and cinephiles vigorously debate the intentions, merits and deficits of these two daring "protest" films and others in the complicated Micheaux oeuvre, which, most critics agree, lost its artistic and political edge toward the end of his career. But no one can see Micheaux's early silent films and walk away wondering if black Americans endured the injustices of those times in seething silence, under the cover of vaudeville subversions and Step 'N Fetchit-style clowning, or if they rebelled more openly. His films, and the emerging record of the flap they caused in many of the cities to they traveled to, from Chicago to Richmond to New Orleans, prove that there was a sustained, articulate protest, and that Micheaux helped lead the charge.

Further, they show that several decades before Hollywood-backed films like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Jungle Fever took on some of America's touchiest racial issues, including fear of miscegenation and black self-hatred, a wily black independent director who is the grandson of a slave, making films on shoestring budgets, was deliberately provoking those debates among his black and white contemporaries and making everyone squirm.

Among those convinced that Micheaux went toe-to-toe, frame-to-frame with Griffith's Civil War epic in Within Our Gates, consciously attacking and inverting certain powerful images and their meanings, is Jane Gaines, the director of Duke University's film studies program, and a co-editor of the Oscar Micheaux Society Newsletter, based in Durham, N.C. In an essay about the two films in Dixie Debates, a 1996 book on southern culture, Gaines dissects and compares the jarring rape and lynch sequences in each film.

The Birth of a Nation centers around the lives of two families, a wealthy, genteel Southern family, the Camerons of South Carolina, and the Stonemans of Pennsylvania, who become intertwined in a carefree, idyllic, antebellum South. They intermarry, and their lives are ravaged by the Civil War and the woes of the Reconstruction era, in which blacks take control. The film begins with the nostalgic subtitle, "Quaintly a way of life that is to be no more, we hear an audible sigh." Its climax includes two scenes in which white women are molested by black men. In one scene, Lucy Stoneman, played by a doe-eyed Lillian Gish, is chased around a drawing room by Silas Lynch, a black man who says he wants to marry her. In another scene, a younger Cameron girl called "Little Sister" is chased to her death when she jumps off a cliff to avoid being violated by Gus, a lecherous, renegade mulatto.

Gaines notes that the ensuing rage of the white men, who don Ku Klux Klan robes and race on horseback to rescue Lucy from the clutches of Silas and who also hunt down and lynch Gus, is sanctioned by Griffith, a proud Kentuckian. Remaining faithful to Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s racist 1905 novel, The Clansman, on which The Birth of a Nation was based, while ratcheting up the novel's emotional impact, the film delivers the same message: the white-ruled social order of the glorious Old South, torn asunder by war and still threatened in the post-Reconstruction period by boundless black appetites for white men's livelihoods, land and even their women, must be restored, swiftly and violently.

In Within Our Gates, Gaines argues, similarly staged scenes are compressed and interwoven for a dramatically different effect. Micheaux cuts back and forth between the attempted rape of the young Sylvia Landry and the hanging and burning of her parents. The rape of Sylvia, who circles around the room, "her desperation echoing the trapped animal panic of Lillian Gish," is suddenly arrested when her attacker, an angry, scapegoat-seeking white farmer (whose plantation has gone to seed and whose brother has been murdered), poised to rip her dress from her bosom, notices a scar above her breast and realizes that she is his daughter, borne of slavery days. Instantly revealing the white man as a two-time rapist while averting the actual rape, Micheaux "has it both ways," says Gaines. He "castigates the white patriarch" even as he "proclaims the total innocence of Sylvia," whom Gaines views as standing in for all the black women, slaves and offspring alike, raped by whites throughout American history.

"Whereas Griffith uses the family to justify Gus's lynching," Gaines observes, "Micheaux uses the family to argue the inhumanity of the practice, essentially showing the ideal family suffering the consequences of vigilante justice."

It is not clear if the mostly-black audiences who packed into the 500 or so theaters on the predominantly southern Chitlin Circuit that thrived before the Depression were able to view versions of Micheaux films close to the ones we have now, or if the versions they saw were dramatically altered. For instance, the introductory subtitles for Within Our Gates, as translated from La Negra, the print found in Madrid, read: "This is the American South, where ignorance and lynch law reign supreme." Micheaux probably couldn't have gotten away with that in the U.S. In fact, the potency of his cinematic images and messages caused so much anxiety in America that many of his films were virtually shredded by censors before their release.

In 1920, in Chicago, where race riots had plagued the city a year earlier, black and white ministers alike exhorted the mayor and the police chief of to ban Within Our Gates. Later that year, Chicago's film censor board, which included the Reverend A.J. Bowling, a black, Harvard-educated minister, demanded several potentially inflammatory scenes be cut from Symbol of the Unconquered, including "all scenes of colored man holding white girl's hand after subtitle 'strongly desirous'" and dialogue such as, "She is nothing but a Negress," "Old Darkeys," and, "He is one of those arrogant educated Negroes." Bowling's documented reaction to the film seems to indicate that the black bourgeoisie was just as skittish about the films as were many whites, says Charlene Regester, a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (and the co-editor of the Micheaux Society newsletter).

Regester, who is writing a book on how early "race films" were received by the black press and by the public at large, has uncovered many other instances in which Micheaux films were protested, censored and banned. Police stopped the run of Within Our Gates in New Orleans, and (inaccurately) warned theater owners elsewhere in Louisiana that "nine Negroes are lynched" in the film. In Shreveport, the Star Theater refused to book the film because of its violence and "its nasty story." In 1925, the Virginia film censors board rejected Micheaux's film, The House Behind The Cedars, based on black writer Charles W. Chesnutt's fairly realistic novel about the trials faced by a mulatta woman and a southern white aristocrat who become romantically involved. The Virginia censors said the film treaded on "dangerous ground" in its mixed-race love affair and warned that it might "cause friction between the races and incite to crime...especially in the negro houses for which it is intended."

Micheaux cut the scenes showing the North Carolina aristocrat courting and embracing his dark-skinned lover but sent a blistering response back to the Virginia censors board, whom he accused of being "unduly alarmed." Wrote Micheaux: "There has been but one picture that incited the colored people to riot, and that still does, and that picture is The Birth of a Nation."

The sneaky Micheaux, however, seems to have pulled off a bit of an end run around his critics given the way he hyped his films. Advertising for Within Our Gates doesn't mention the earnest, tame school teacher story told in the film but instead promises a "Spectacular Screen Version of the Most Sensational Story on the Race Question Since Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Where, you might ask, did a black man get the money, the know-how and above all else, the nerve to make films like these in the early 1920s? Just what impetuous planet did Oscar Micheaux come from?

His beginnings were humble enough. Micheaux was born in Metropolis, Ill., in 1884, the fifth of 13 children and the grandson of a slave. Moving to Chicago in the early 1900s, he held various blue collar jobs, from coal miner to stockyards worker to Pullman porter. Having saved up his money and been imbued with the philosophies of hard work and self-determination espoused by black leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Horace Greeley, he decided to strike out for the Great Plains. Among those who took it to heart when Greeley said, "Go West, young man and grow up with the country," Micheaux set out for Winner, S.D., where he bought a small piece of land on an Indian reservation and, working furiously, amassed 500 acres by the time he was 25.

The only black homesteader in the area, Micheaux wasn't much of a farmer, apparently, but supported himself by boxing hay initially and later, by selling novels that he wrote and self-published. Relying on his charismatic personality and salesmanship, he sold his novels door-to-door to his neighbors, who were primarily European immigrants and Native Americans. Set in the prairie, and highly autobiographical, his novels, such as The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913) and The Homesteader (1917), featured mostly adventurous and successful black characters, some of whom were involved in doomed interracial romances. (Much of the sexual interplay in his books and films seems colored by Micheaux's first failed romances, including an affair with a white, possibly Scottish woman in South Dakota and his marriage to Orleans McCracken, the daughter of a prominent Chicago minister, which ended miserably when she left him to return to her family home.)

In 1918, Micheaux, now living in Sioux City, Iowa, was approached by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, a black-owned enterprise based in Los Angeles, to turn The Homesteader into a feature film. Brothers George and Noble Johnson (a successful Hollywood character actor who passed as white for years) sought to buy the film rights. After a few months of negotiation and lively correspondence, Micheaux had learned enough about the film-making process that he decided to make the movie himself and did so, producing a (now-lost) eight-reel film on a budget of $5,000. The film, which toured black theaters across the nation to generally enthusiastic receptions, propelled him to found the Micheaux Book and Film Company, move to Harlem and pour his seemingly boundless energy into the nascent motion picture industry.

A natural at creating and marketing heroic black characters in conflict, Micheaux didn't flinch at difficult subjects, as we have seen, taking on the Ku Klux Klan and miscegenation in his next two films. Convinced that "a colored man can do anything," as he once said, but bothered that many black Americans weren't trying hard enough, Micheaux also included in his films many explicit critiques of laziness, illiteracy, disloyalty and hypocrisy that he observed in the black community, attacking especially the color caste system by which blacks often judged one another. As historian Pearl Bowser has noted, Micheaux was often criticized for casting light-colored actors in leading roles, but the debate rages on as to why he did so.

Some of Micheaux's hardest knocks on his black contemporaries came in Body and Soul, his 1925 silent film which introduced to the silver screen the now legendary actor Paul Robeson. In the film, Robeson plays two roles, a duplicitous, alcoholic, murderous preacher and his exceedingly more virtuous brother. Bowser notes that Robeson, who is darkly complected, played both roles, hero and villain, with no makeup. She posits that Micheaux didn't associate his looks with qualities such as goodness or badness. In fact, by using the same actor, he instead presents the problem of a man and by extension an entire race, in turmoil.

"It is almost as though Micheaux felt that in order for him to rise, he had to uplift the Race, and a criticism of negative behavior would help to advance his cause," writes Bowser. "The rub is, of course, that the character on whose back he builds his own legend of success must be held in contempt for the comparison to work."

Ironically, Robeson, an amazingly gifted Shakespearean actor, opera singer and internationally respected movie star until the early 1940s, was blacklisted in Hollywood for his Communist-leaning political views and remained best known for decades afterwards for his bale-totin' black servant's role in the 1936 musical Showboat, in which he famously bellows the song, "Old Man River." His reputation was dramatically rehabilitated in 1998, however, when a number of books and films about his wide-ranging artistic career and personal accomplishments were issued to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Micheaux, whose film legacy until the 1990s was equally underrated, based on the mediocre musicals, gangster films and melodramas of his less impressive, post-1930 period, is poised to enjoy the same royal treatment. That's not to say that problematic aspects of his films will be glossed over. Blacks protested God's Stepchildren when it was released in 1938 for its callous put-downs of darker-skinned blacks, who are characterized by lighter-toned characters as lazy, unambitious and "afraid to think." Some critics today still see it as a technically sloppy, embarrassing sell-out film, while others read it as an awkward but pointed critique of intra-racial discrimination, one that still bests the more saccharine take on the subject by Hollywood in such films as 1934's Imitation of Life.

Indeed, as the impressive record of his work and career builds, there is much more of social and historical importance to say about Micheaux than a simple judgment of his films. Many scholars point out that it isn't fair to compare the products of an underfinanced independent film company to the lavish films made by Hollywood studios in the 1930s, when wealthy moguls ruled the industry. Some are more interested to find out how Micheaux hung on at all, being the lone black filmmmaker to survive the Crash of 1929, which did in dozens of other black film companies. When Micheaux died in 1951, he had produced 48 feature films, more than any other black director, before or since.

Among those inspired by Micheaux's legendary audacity and prolific output is actor-director James McDaniel (Lt. Fancy on NYPD Blue), who is developing a fictional account of Micheaux's life for HBO Films, along with Bowser (who produced the acclaimed 1994 documentary on race film, Midnight Ramble). McDaniel shopped the story treatment around Hollywood for two years until it found a home at HBO (which also recently produced the Dorothy Dandridge Story, starring and produced by Halle Berry).

McDaniel, who feels there are still not enough good roles for blacks in today's film industry, says, "Everything this lone black man accomplished, with so few resources, gave me a much-need shot in the arm." McDaniel says he doesn't know if he will play Micheaux, direct the film or both. "It's my dream," he says, "to look at the footprints Micheaux left behind and to unearth his character. He is mysterious and fascinating, a risk-taker, a man who was more out of his time than any one else I've heard of. I have so many ideas about him."

And he's not alone. Other prominent black actors and directors who are reportedly interested in Micheaux film projects include Robert Townsend, a long-time admirer who attended the rededication of Micheaux's previously unmarked tombstone in Great Bend, Kan., in 1988, and Spike Lee, perhaps the most visible heir to Micheaux's legacy. Lee has called Micheaux his hero on many occasions and said last summer in a New York Times essay, that black artists and audiences, who often gravitate towards mindless films such as Set It Off and Booty Call, shouldn't squander the opportunities created by black film pioneers such as Micheaux, Melvin Van Peebles and Ossie Davis, whom he said built impressive bodies of work "by hook or crook" and "took the many bullets so we can make our films today."

For now, those who would like to see some of the rare Micheaux films (out of the 15 known to exist) and to learn more about him will get the chance when an ambitious educational project led by several prominent film scholars gets rolling in the next year or so. A project that grew out of a conference on race films held at Yale University in 1995, the book and film tour, called Oscar Micheaux and His Circle, will include a 200-plus-page book full of essays about Micheaux and seven early black films (including three silent films by Micheaux, The Scar of Shame (1927) by the Colored Players Film Corp. and a documentary by anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston). Yale film studies professor Charles Musser, who co-edited the book, says the tour, which will travel to various schools, museums and cultural centers around the country, will launch when funding is secured for the reproduction of several more 35- mm film prints and will be distributed by the Museum of Modern Art.

Musser translated the French intertitles of Symbol of the Unconquered into English after it was repatriated to America from Belgium in 1990. He was among those who attended the star-studded premiere of the newly restored version of Symbol at the Apollo Theatre in July of 1998, during which master jazz drummer Max Roach, who scored the restored film, played live with a full orchestra. McDaniel was on hand, as were Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (who also narrated a highly-rated program of race movies that aired on Turner Classic Movies that same month, the first time in 70 years that Micheaux's silent films were seen nationwide).

Seeing the fiery midnight ride of the Klan among such a storied and "authentic" Harlem audience, Musser says, "I felt like I'd seen it for the first time. It was so powerful. I hope more Americans get to bear witness to what Micheaux did."