“Times is very, very ticklish,” says a black minister in The Darktown Revue, the short 1931 “race film”—a caustic satire of black class differences—directed by the pioneering African-American moviemaker Oscar Micheaux.
In a scene worthy of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, Amon Davis, the comedian who plays the minister, dramatically recites the alphabet in the form of a sermon accompanied by the sedate Donald Heywood choir. The same singers start the film trilling “Watermelon Time,” a dig at the frequent racist references to the fruit as a symbol of comparative post-emancipation plenitude, as in the 1905 one-reeler “The Watermelon Patch,” in which a group of black Americans steal some watermelons and are chased by skeletons symbolizing the Ku Klux Klan.
There has never been a better time to watch Micheaux’s films, which are available on DVD/Blu-ray as part of Kino Lorber’s Pioneers of African-American Cinema. His full-length melodramas were crudely executed, but they make up in ambition what they lack in finesse. Micheaux’s analysis of black identity in the context of the Great Migration is both rigorous and ironic. A caste system favoring light-skinned citizens dominates Micheaux’s black communities—and the need to “pass” can lead a mixed-race man to bash his dark-skinned mother for blowing his cover in front of the (supposedly) white woman he’s courting.
Micheaux made at least 44 films, about half of them talkies. The three surviving silents show him at his peak: Within Our Gates (1920), The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Ku Klux Klan (1920), and Body and Soul (1925). The first two were a rebuke to D. W. Griffith’s odious The Birth of a Nation (1915). In Within Our Gates, the sharecroppers who raise the heroine, Sylvia (Evelyn Preer), are lynched by a brutal slave owner’s aristocratic scion, whose brother is about to rape Sylvia when he discovers she’s his own daughter.
There has never been a better time to watch Micheaux’s films.
In The Symbol of the Unconquered, the light-skinned Evon (Iris Hall) leaves Selma, Alabama, for the northern cottage she’s inherited and falls for the chivalrous black prospector Hugh (Walker Thompson). The crooks conspiring to rob Hugh of his oil-rich plot of land enlist a band of mounted Klansmen brandishing flaming torches. The sequence depicting their annihilation is lost to time—or maybe it was deliberately “disappeared.” When Evon subsequently visits “oil king” Hugh hoping he’ll finally romance her, she thinks he’s soured on her after learning her parents were black. But Hugh assures her that the only reason he hadn’t wooed her was because he thought she was white. Relieved to find they’re on the same side of the color line, they seal their love with a kiss.
When Micheaux cast Paul Robeson in Body and Soul, the great actor-singer couldn’t have known it would be a synthesized critique of the race-themed plays he’d starred in during 1924—Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and Nan Bagby Stephens’s Roseanne—as well as the Charlie Chaplin film The Pilgrim (1923).
Robeson is immense as the psychopathic Isaiah T. Jenkins, an escaped convict masquerading as a Holy Roller (the acme of Micheaux’s anti-clericalism). Enthralled by Jenkins’s charisma, light-skinned Martha (Mercedes Gilbert) tries to match him with her black daughter Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell), who meanwhile loves the reverend’s gentle twin (Robeson again). Jenkins rapes Isabelle and steals her dowry. In what shapes up to be a tragic ending—but proves to be only a nightmare—Martha tracks the dying Isabelle to Atlanta’s Decatur Street. Micheaux’s choice of address was provocative: it had been the epicenter of the 1906 Atlanta race riot, in which the state militia was mobilized and at least 12 lynchings, probably more, occurred.
A century on, Micheaux’s films are all too relevant.
Graham Fuller is a film critic who lives in New York