From silence to speech

New bio exposes the legacy of silent-era filmmaker Oscar Micheaux



Birthright, Oscar Micheaux's film examining racially restrictive real-estate covenants, made its Baltimore debut during the winter of 1924. The Maryland State Board of Motion Picture Censors had agreed to allow the film to be shown only if Micheaux eliminated 23 scenes. As authors Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence relate in Writing Himself Into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audience, the Maryland censors "were particularly offended by the suggestions of miscegenation, the questioning of white authority, and the depiction of racist attitudes of whites in the everyday interactions between the races." Micheaux screened the film without making the cuts, and the Board of Censors — with the help of local police — confiscated the film.

Film pioneer Micheaux had debuted his first picture, The Homesteader, just five years earlier. The film adapted his novel of the same name, Micheaux's own classic American tale of striking out to the South Dakota prairie to stake his claim. The premiere took place in Chicago's Eighth Regiment Armory, home of the all-black regiment that had fought with distinction in World War I, only to return to a Jim Crow America. Huge crowds watched The Homesteader, much to the consternation and fear of local whites. A local paper dubbed the film "the best motion picture yet written, acted and staged by the Colored man."

Micheaux went on to produce, direct, write, and act in more than 40 films, as well as write seven novels. His subject matter was the broad canvas of American life, and he examined lynching, peonage, concubinage, rape, and hypocrisy with an honesty one rarely sees even today. He was a singularly fascinating and important American artist who used his own life as his muse, and Bowser and Spence bring subtlety and historical insight in this excellent new book about his life.

Writing Himself Into History is no mere biography. Boswer and Spence focus on Micheaux's silent films (though he went on to make talkies) but they also pay critical attention to the fascinating social context of these works. The authors explore in detail the audience for these so-called "race films" and explore what that audience can tell us about film, race, and America. Writing Himself Into History explores the emergent urban African-American culture following the great migration north that came to redefine American cities by the early part of the 20th century.

Bowser and Spence also perform close readings of several Micheaux films, including a chapter on 1925's Body and Soul that establishes the book's worth all by itself. The film marked the screen debut of a young Paul Robeson, who played both the controversial, lecherous preacher and his noble and industrious twin brother. Bowser and Spence unravel the film's complex narratives of rape, hypocrisies of the church, and the meaning of redemption for blacks living in a segregated America.

Micheaux died in 1951, and most of his films are lost to us. In 1996, South Dakota claimed Micheaux as a native son and inaugurated an annual film festival in his honor. May Writing Himself Into History have the same effect on the film industry. The book is a necessary reminder of Micheaux's unique importance.

Michael Corbin writes for the Baltimore City Paper.