19 Chapters
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14. Cinematic Foremothers: Zora Neale Hurston and Eloyce King Patrick Gist

Pearl Bowser Indiana University Press ePub

GLORIA J. GIBSON

Black women understood the power of the motion picture camera from the very beginning. During the early decades of the twentieth century, they envisioned themselves in front of and behind the camera and were cognizant of the camera’s potential to capture African-American talent as well as to document day-to-day experiences. Black women, however, were also aware of one other aspect, the inaccessibility of this new technology, primarily because of financial constraints. The result is a paucity of films produced by African-American women during the early part of the century.

A few exceptions exist, though by and large academic research has not assisted in the search for these lost pieces of history. Since references are few and footage scant, queries sometime arise such as Can these women be considered “filmmakers?” or How important are film fragments? These are serious questions with dire consequences for film studies scholarship, especially as it pertains to filmmakers of color.

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7. Oscar Micheaux’s The Symbol of the Unconquered: Text and Context

Pearl Bowser Indiana University Press ePub

PEARL BOWSER AND LOUISE SPENCE

The four pictures given the public up to date and within a period of two years—The Homesteader, a stirring story of pioneer life in the great West country; Within Our Gates, the action of which centers about the Southland; The Brute, a dramatization of the best and the worst in Negro life; and The Symbol of the Unconquered, the action of which deals rather with condition than locale—are all powerful sermons visualizing the struggle of Dark America for a place in the sun.

—Georgia Huston Jones, unidentified magazine (Spring 1921)

Moving pictures have become one of the greatest vitalizing forces in race adjustment, and we are just beginning.

—Oscar Micheaux, The Competitor, January–February 1921

Within two and a half years after founding the Micheaux Film Corporation, Oscar Micheaux had produced four features, films which critic Georgia Huston Jones called “powerful sermons visualizing the struggle of Dark America for a place in the sun.”1 The Homesteader (released in 1919), Within Our Gates (1920), The Brute (1920), and The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), according to Jones, showed “the tragedy of the Negro being enacted on American soil and voiced the heart cry of millions in a world where the common heritage of trials and obstacles and disappointments are intensified by the evil shadow of prejudice.” In a career that spanned thirty years, Micheaux made close to forty films, with approximately half of his total output produced in the first decade (1918–1929). These silent films were tools to express his personal view of the African-American experience. By addressing such contemporary social issues as concubinage, rape, lynching, peonage, and miscegenation in his pictures, he created a textured and layered response to the social crises that circumscribed African-American life. Oscar Micheaux’s silent films and early novels were acts of recollection and imagination, creations and re-creations shaped by his personal experience and the desire to construct an image of himself for his audience. Suspended between autobiography and commerce, memory and dreams, his stories, though often personal, were not unique; they were woven with threads of commonalty and communality. He spoke from his living history and from the specific realities of his time; he referred to what lay beneath or beyond the particular.

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8. To Redream the Dreams of White Playwrights: Reappropriation and Resistance in Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul

Pearl Bowser Indiana University Press ePub

CHARLES MUSSER

The white American, figuratively [forces] the Negro down into the deeper level of his consciousness, into the inner world, where reason and madness mingle with hope and memory and endlessly give birth to nightmare and to dream; down into the province of the psychiatrist, and the artist, from whence spring the lunatic’s fancy and the work of art.

—Ralph Ellison

He wanted to see a movie; his senses hungered for it. In a movie he could dream without effort; all he had to do was lean back in a seat and keep his eyes open.

—Richard Wright

Scholars have found Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (filmed in late 1924, released in late 1925) to be a puzzling work which is remarkably resistant to sustained readings. Difficult to situate, it has been convenient to ignore. Although the picture was filmed in New York, was Paul Robeson’s screen debut, and profoundly engaged the cultural output of the Harlem Renaissance, histories of that important movement in African-American life barely mention Micheaux or his extraordinary achievement.1 Likewise, American film histories have either ignored the picture completely or nodded briefly in its direction.2 Even histories of African-American cinema are remarkably cursory.3 This is all the more intriguing because the picture’s radical structure and technique make it a compelling object for analysis. Nevertheless, scholars have found it difficult to explain the ways in which these representational methods interact with the story line and subject matter to create meaning. They have ended up describing the picture as “disjointed and raggedy” with a “somewhat confusing plot.”4

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Appendix D Norman Film Manufacturing Company: Production and Theatrical Release Dates for All-Black-Cast Films

Pearl Bowser Indiana University Press ePub

COMPILED BY PHYLLIS R. KLOTMAN

* Released only in Oklahoma in 1921.

** Norman usually negotiated a 50–50 split with theatre managers, and 60–40 or 70–30 with churches and schools. However, he released The Green-Eyed Monster, The Love Bug, The Bull-Dogger, The Crimson Skull, and Regeneration as straight rentals, then did a 50-percent split on second runs (or if theater operators could not afford rental prices). After a certain amount of time, the films were contracted out for straight rental, sometimes in combination with another film. The Green-Eyed Monster started at $100-a-day rental. He did show The Flying Ace mostly at 50 percent, due to “hard times for colored films.” The price of the tickets ranged from 5–20 cents for children and from 25–50 cents for adults. Occasionally there was a 75-cent charge for adults.

Publicity still for The Flying Ace (1926). With J. Lawrence Criner (Captain William Stokes), Steve Reynolds (“Peg,” Stokes’s mechanic), and Kathryn Boyd (Ruth Sawtelle).

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Appendix B An Oscar Micheaux Filmography: From the Silents through His Transition to Sound, 1919–1931

Pearl Bowser Indiana University Press ePub

COMPILED BY CHARLES MUSSER, COREY K. CREEKMUR, PEARL BOWSER, J. RONALD GREEN, CHARLENE REGESTER, AND LOUISE SPENCE

This Oscar Micheaux filmography is a collective effort that took its current form as the catalog neared completion. Corey Creekmur initiated this undertaking by assembling information on the producer’s films by collating the published efforts from a wide range of sources up to 1992. While illuminating, the result proved highly problematic, for it produced many contradictions and unresolved questions. Creekmur’s filmography only underscored the need for a more definitive reference work. In response, Charles Musser began a more or less systematic search of the New York Amsterdam News, the Chicago Defender (City Edition), the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Philadelphia Tribune. Creekmur’s manuscript was then reworked based on this new information. Once this process was well underway, a revised filmography was sent out to Pearl Bowser, Charlene Regester, Ron Green, and Louise Spence. They each provided information from the George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection, Special Collections, Young Library, UCLA, which included descriptions of films, cast information, and selected articles as well as additional references gathered from various newspapers (including overlooked citations from newspapers that Musser had consulted). Regester also provided a wealth of information from censorship records in Chicago, New York, and Virginia; the Charles Chesnutt correspondence; additional screening dates; and cast information. Musser double-checked and refined these references, pursued further references in the Baltimore Afro-American, Norfolk Journal and Guide, and the otherwise untapped Washington Tribune and organized the information in its present form. Bowser and Spence reviewed the filmography, provided editorial judgment based on their immense knowledge, and provided a wide range of additional information, ensuring that we avoided numerous errors and enriching the overall results immeasurably.

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