|Want to send this page or a link to a friend? Click on mail at the top of this window.|
|More Books and Arts|
|Posted August 5, 2007|
Micheaux Film Corporation/Photofest (1931)
|By Patrick McGilligan.|
|Illustrated. 402 pp.|
|HC/HarperCollins Publishers. $29.95.|
|By PHILLIP LOPATE|
ONE of the fascinating side streets in American film is the history of race pictures, celluloid productions by black artists for black audiences during those decades when Jim Crow laws enforced segregation. The mainstay of race pictures was Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951), an intrepid filmmaker-novelist-entrepreneur whose career spanned four decades and who made more than 40 movies. Not surprisingly, given that he opened doors for future black filmmakers and collaborated with important figures like Paul Robeson and the novelist Charles Chesnutt, a whole scholarly industry has grown up around Micheaux. Now Patrick McGilligan, biographer of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and George Cukor, has synthesized the advance work of these scholars and written Oscar Micheaux, a popular life of this colorful figure.
McGilligans prose style may be pedestrian, but he organizes his biographical materials into a lively, readable tale. We follow Micheaux through his early years in small-town Illinois, his jobs as a Pullman porter, factory drudge and coal miner, until he had the pivotal experience of his life as a South Dakota homesteader. There he fell in love with a white woman, then regretfully gave her up and married the more socially acceptable black daughter of an officious Chicago clergyman. His wife did not adapt well to farm life, especially after their child was stillborn, and she returned to her fathers house. He would reuse this painful episode in numerous novels and films, often supplying the wish-fulfillment happy ending he craved, by having the white woman discover that she does in fact have some Negro blood, allowing the two lovebirds to go off together.
Micheaux, a born salesman, raised capital by selling advance shares in his movies. He had the American genius for self-invention (adding an e to the family name, Michaux) and self-promotion. His biographer, perhaps falling under his spell, is given to similar hyperbole, calling Micheaux the Jackie Robinson of American film ... a Muhammad Ali decades before his time who deserves to be considered in the same breath as the sainted D. W. Griffith.
The only problem with these comparisons is that Robinson was a magnificent ballplayer, Ali a pugilistic virtuoso and Griffith a brilliant creator of screen images, whereas Micheaux was simply not a very good filmmaker, on any technical level. Two-thirds of his movies have been lost, and the surviving ones are hardly intact; but what remains borders on the campy. Their strongest suit is their subject matter: Micheaux dealt with important issues of the black community passing, intermarriage, lynching, voting rights and courageously challenged censors by doing so. But even his best pictures, Within Our Gates, Body and Soul and Gods Stepchildren, all of which have at least one sequence bursting with verve, suffer from hammy acting, preposterous melodrama, confusing continuity, stiff dialogue and clumsy lapses in film grammar.
Micheauxs earlier, silent pictures seem less amateurish, partly because sound film is more technically unforgiving and partly because Micheaux became increasingly indifferent to cinematic niceties as bankruptcy loomed.
In the early 1930s ... Micheaux had made movies like a man running from a subpoena, which he was, McGilligan writes. He would turn a deaf ear to actors pleas for retakes or technicians requests for more setup time. According to the cinematographer Haskell Wexler, hed say, O.K., boys, change the pictures on the walls! and they would rotate wall hangings, move furniture around and pretend it was a different set. In 1980, the film critic J. Hoberman wrote a provocative article, Bad Movies, which singled out the egregious Edward Wood and Micheaux for left-handed praise. Edward Wood may be the Worst, but Oscar Micheaux ... is the Baddest. ... Micheauxs films define objective badness. His camera ground relentlessly on while the key light wandered, traffic noise obliterated the dialogue, or a sound mans arm intruded upon the frame. Actors blew their cues, recovered and continued. ... Thirty years before Warhol, Micheaux approached mise-en-scène Degree Zero. Left stranded in scenes that are grossly overextended, his performers strike fantastic poses, stare affectingly into space or gaze casually off-camera. Haunted by the fact that the longer Micheaux made films, the badder they got, Hoberman concluded puckishly that if Oscar Micheaux was a fully conscious artist, he was the greatest genius the cinema ever produced. That is a mighty big if.
McGilligan rejects interpretations that would make Micheauxs gaffes the result of Brechtian, Surrealist or Warholian stylizing: Again and again, surviving eyewitnesses have contradicted the legend that Micheaux was an intentionally cheap, fast and shoddy director: the mistaken notion that the partial remains of his censored, maltreated films represent a deliberate style. When Micheaux found the money and time ... he worked hard, from read-throughs to dailies and retakes. In other words, sloppiness was all the fault of the moneymen who kept him on a tight budget.
McGilligan leans over backward to rationalize his subjects artistic and human flaws: He sold illusions to inspire others, while living a hard-luck life of heartbreak and disappointment himself. Some of this hard luck included getting fired from his Pullman porter job because he stole $5 out of a womans purse, bouncing checks, failing to pay authors for literary rights, lying constantly and possibly committing bigamy. While holding back nothing about Micheauxs chicanery, the author prefers to see his subject the same way Micheaux saw himself, as a victim of circumstances and others betrayals. Even when Micheaux brazenly lifts nearly 200 pages from Chesnutts fiction for his own novel, McGilligan, acknowledging that of all the questionable things he had done ... this was the worst, still finds it in his heart to quote a more charitable scholar, who says it reflected Micheauxs general naïveté and unprivileged background in intellectual matters. I would tend to look at it as a major folk artist being drawn repeatedly to a story and accomplishment that he admired, but wanted to do some work on. The plagiarist who knew plenty about entertainment contracts is suddenly recast as a major underprivileged folk artist.
As for Micheauxs filmic shortcomings, there is an explanation for that, too: he was not allowed to work in a Hollywood studio. McGilligan writes: While Micheauxs choice of subject matter is generally given high marks by contemporary film critics, his cinematic skills are often faintly ridiculed. That seems absurd, considering that he plied his craft as a true independent filmmaker, long before that phrase became popularized. But shoestring budgets did not stop Jean Vigo, Edgar G. Ulmer, John Cassavetes or Morris Engel from making films touched by cinematic grace; moreover, the whole rationale for independent films is that they offer an aesthetically advanced alternative to the studios formulaic product.
Just as McGilligan castigates early black film critics for their lack of enthusiasm (They never cut Micheaux any slack), so he says the Harlem Renaissance writers snubbed him because they were middle class, college educated; Micheaux was lowborn, a primitive. Never mind that they had the right to be unimpressed by his execrable English or crude filmmaking. Micheauxs films are not for perfectionists, the biographer says, and thats that. The need on the part of groups like women and blacks, who have been too long excluded from the canon, to rediscover cultural ancestors is certainly understandable. But as Susan Sontag remarked, literature is not an equal-opportunity employer. And we do a disservice to the achievements of truly superb black auteurs, like Charles Burnett, Spike Lee and Ousmane Sembène, by pretending Micheaux was a great filmmaker. The man had his own validity, as a pathfinder and as the creator of an intriguing, curious body of work, which reveals much about Americas past social and racial contradictions, and its melodramatic conventions.
Phillip Lopate is a professor of English at Hofstra University. His most recent book is the anthology American Movie Critics.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Book Review, of Sunday, August 5, 2007.
|Wehaitians.com, the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights|
|More from wehaitians.com|