Late Afternoon Rambles
Crossposted at the Filmlinc blog:
For a man J. Hoberman once described as “the most prolific director of so-called race movies and the forebear of American independent cinema,” Oscar Micheaux is a far cry from a household name. In spite of enjoying a flurry of critical attention in recent years – several biographies, academic scholarship, the odd retrospective – Micheaux’s work is only now coming into well-deserved relief, most notably through a joint collaboration between Columbia and Lincoln Center to showcase his films. Beginning last week, the program got off to a strong start with Birthright, an adaptation of a T.S. Stribling novel that once earned Micheaux a $25 fine for violating the state censorship laws of Jim Crow Virginia. A frank examination of the complexities of race and prejudice in the industrializing South, Birthright chronicles the efforts of Peter Siner, a half-black Harvard graduate, to open a school for black children in his rural hometown of Hooker’s Bend, Tennessee. Interspersing Josephine Baker inspired dance numbers with the picket fence conversations of the town’s older white residents, Micheaux sketches a nuanced portrait of a declining society struggling to adapt to a rising black class at the onset of the 20th century. As Hoberman also points out, what’s particularly striking about Micheaux’s work isn’t its technical prowess or narrative impact – his actors often seem acutely conscious of the limitations of their dialogue – but rather his obvious self-awareness. For a director whose career was forged in an era of institutionalized racism, his films are extraordinary in their ability to define themselves against this, and, clunkiness and all, stake a claim in the annals of film history.