Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : February 19th 2015 Contents B4
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Thursday, February 19, 2015
Even before the silver screen learned to
talk, black actors and filmmakers were pro-
ducing, directing and acting in their own
movies. The contemporary contributions of
black filmmakers such as writer/producer Ava
DuVernay, whose film, Selma, was slighted
for an Oscar nomination in the face of critical
acclaim, reflect a history that dates back to
Oscar Micheaux and his 1919 breakthrough
movie, The Homesteader.
Micheaux and other legendary seminal artists
had served as underpinnings for wave upon
wave of blacks, many of whom have worked
on both sides of the camera.
In the early days of film, beginning in 1910,
independent black producers such as Micheaux,
William Foster, George Randol and George and
Noble Johnson created a voluminous body of
work that was largely ignored by Hollywood.
These filmmakers wove a decidedly positive
portrayal of African Americans, rebutting the
industry s depiction of blacks as contemptible
comic relief or as superstitious cowards, lech-
erous and even bestial.
Although Hollywood was insensitive to the
demands of blacks in starring roles, the rule in
1929 was, "Give the public whatever it wants."
The public got the first all-black Hollywood
films in Hallelujah! and Hearts of Dixie (1929).
The themes, however, explored the racist notion
that blacks were docile, religious and rhythmic.
Four years later, Paul Robeson, a law school
graduate who went on to become a renowned
actor, singer, orator and rights activist, shattered
that image when he starred in Emperor Jones.
Meanwhile, all-black casts backed by white
producers imitated Hollywood themes suc-
cessfully. In 1938, Harlem on the Prairie was
the first black Western.
The following year, civil rights leaders decried
the "Old South" mentality depicted in Gone
with the Wind. Nevertheless, that film provided
a milestone of sorts for blacks. Hattie McDaniel
became the first black to win an Oscar for her
supporting role of Mammy.
The scope of the old filmmakers artistic and
financial autonomy surfaced only at the twilight
of the millennium, sharing the spotlight with
a new breed of independent black artists, many
of whom operate outside Hollywood.
The history of black cinema is rife with film-
makers whose collective imagination was as
expansive as their budgets were limited. Hun-
dreds of early "race" or black-cast films included
both silents and talkies, the latter dating back
to Micheaux s 1931 release, The Exile. He had
walked the walk, or walked it like he talked it.
The black self-hate of Micheaux
Though the Johnson brothers were the first
to organise a black film company, in 1916, it
was Micheaux, as writer, producer, director and
distributor of some 35 films within three
decades, who amassed fame, albeit at the
expense of respect from industry peers.
Born to former slaves in 1884 in a small
town in Illinois, Micheaux was reviled for his
condescending attitude and callous demeanor.
His social deportment may have been shaped
by stints as a Pullman porter and an unsuc-
cessful author before he found his métier.
Michael Pounds, a film and electronic arts
professor at Cal State University, believes
Micheaux indulged in black self-hate and cites
Micheaux s fascination with the notion of pass-
ing for white.
"He grew up in the plains, and the values
he put forward were adapted from white culture
and white society," Pounds says. At the same
time, "he was tainted by black mentality.
"His films reflected the attitude of (some)
African Americans, but not the African-Amer-
ican community. They had nothing to do with
the problems the race faced, so they lacked
An artist reviled
When this writer spoke with Carlton Moss
for a paper on race movies, before his death
in 1997, the prize-winning writer-producer-
actor who starred in a couple of Micheaux s
films, painted an intimate picture of the man
as an artist reviled.
"The fact that in the beginning he was
accepted by whites who bought his books was
an early indication of his weakness," Moss had
said. "He never understood that he was a freak.
His redeeming value was that he believed in
the work ethic and success.
But despite his drive, he was never able to
achieve the big time. Ironically, discrimination
would be the death of him.
"Yet the message of his movies was that
whatever the fault of the black man, it was his
own doing. And he couldn t criticise the white
power structure or they d close the movie house
his film was playing in."
In his book Blacks in Black and White, Henry
Sampson writes that in Pittsburgh, censors
stopped The Exile in mid-screening when a
white character, taking advantage of a "near-
white" woman, was beaten by her black res-
"Micheaux thought movies had an uplifting
quality," says Thomas Cripps, Distinguished
Professor, Emeritus, at Morgan State University.
"He thought of film as an art that could teach.
Small wonder Micheaux hammered his message
home with topical themes like lynching, passing
(for white) and miscegenation.
"Indeed, Micheaux s provocative productions
teetered between acceptance and rejection. For
the most part his films crossed the line. If the
censors didn t pull them for lynching or inter-
racial scenes, the black press decried the casting
as "yellow fetishism."
Many a Micheaux film featured light-skinned
blacks who epitomised purity, while "darkies"
were seen as villainous.
Moss, too, had underscored this dichotomy.
"When he was courting the ladies, their fam-
ilies turned him down because he was too dark,"
Moss had said.
"He carried this rejection with him through
"Adding fuel to his critics ire, Micheaux
employed "D" class white cameramen who had
been kicked out of Hollywood---for a pittance.
His reason for not hiring black crews? This
ain t no school, he d say. I had to work for it.
Let them work for it.
Micheaux gave black
artists a chance to work
Micheaux s crudeness was matched only by
his frugality. He d film two reels, then show
Roots: From Oscar Micheaux to Ava DuVernay---Blacks pioneers expand Hollywood's limited vision
The other side of Selma's Oscar snub
Continues on Page B5
This November 11, 2014 file photo shows
costume designer Ruth E Carter attending the
AFI FEST 2014 Selma screening held at the
Egyptian Theatre, in Los Angeles. Carter
designed the costumes for the film, which is
nominated for an Oscar for best picture. Carter,
a two-time Oscar nominee, will be honored
today with the Visionary Award at the Black
Women in Hollywood Luncheon. AP PHOTO
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