As the era rocked on, only one Black dreamweaver survived the competition from Hollywood and even the Great Depression: Oscar Micheaux.
“In 1931, when most black independants were closing up shop he released The Exile, the first all-talking motion picture made by a black company. For almost thirty years, Micheaux wrote, directed, produced almost thirty-four pictures. His last film, The Betrayal, released in 1948 was promoted as ‘the Greatest Negro Photoplay of all time.’” ( Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Bogle, 1973, 2001). He is also the author of seven books (e.g. Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer and The Forged Note)
Micheaux’s company would too eventually fold. Small, Black film companies that did not have the same budget and audience as Hollywood could not possibly compete with Tinsel Town. Yet Oscar Micheaux was a genuis. A visionary. And his movies were decades ahead of their time.
Like other independants, Micheaux was trying to entertain a mostly Black audience. But his race movies had a twist. For while his films touted Bourgoise values, he did not shy away from depicting social problems– like intraracism and prostitution. Micheaux’s honesty did not exactly endear him to movie critics (From Sambo to Superspade, Daniel Leab, 1975).
Although he initially received high praise from the Black press, in time critics began to take him to task for his depiction of the African American community (Leab, 1975). Film critic Lester Walton, though he praised the Micheaux movie, The Brute (starring prizefighter Sam Lanford) was offended by the scenes of crap dives and wife beating (Leab, 1975). Walton said in no uncertain terms that scenes like these contributed to negative sterotypes of African Americans, and really weren’t very different from the attitudes of the White press.
Micheaux, for the most part, turned a deaf ear to his critics. And in his portrayal of Black women, he was in a class by himself–even today. He brought women of a different social class to the screen (Bowser, 1970). In The Brute, for example he exposed the rackets, prostitution and inner conflicts about caste and color–his female characters were easy prey for hustlers including a jackleg preacher whose terrian was both urban and rural (Bowser, 1970).
One of Micheaux’s most brilliant creations was Body and Soul, starring the late, great Paul Robeson in his first screen debut. The plot revolves around the Black laundry woman, her daughter and the handsome preacher. The mother has set aside all her savings for her daughter’s eventual marriage to the right man (Bowser, 1970). Yet her uncounscious, sexual fantasies about her daughter’s fiancee are revealed in a nightmare.
That Micheaux would even fimically tackle a subject as weighty as “unconscious sexual fantasy” is testimony to his genuis and vision placing him with– if not above– the best European directors of his day.
Yet it would take more than the dreaweavers portayal of Black folks to make a difference in our oppression. It would take a World War II.
To be continued…
Copyright Valjeanne Jeffers-Thompson, Valjeanne Jeffers 1997, 2012
all rights reserved.