Oscar Micheaux’s Brilliant Filmmaking

Thanks to film distributor Kino Lorber and his Pioneers of African-American Cinema project, we will soon be able to watch more of Oscar Micheaux’s pioneering films, not only on our computers, but even on the big screen.

NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang reported on the project yesterday, focusing on the restoration and new availability of “movies made after World War I and through the 1940s by black filmmakers with mostly black casts for black audiences.” These films were in large part a response to The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915) and include, among others, Micheaux’s Birthright and Within Our Gates:

“New scores have been commissioned for the silent movies, including Micheaux’s Within Our Gates. The new soundtrack aside, restorers plan to restore the 1919 film closer to Micheaux’s original vision. One of the shots in a lynching scene was upside-down originally, according to Charles Musser, a co-curator for the collection who also teaches film at Yale University. But he says previous film restorers who worked on the film turned it right-side up.

‘They thought it was a, quote, “mistake.” But Oscar Micheaux’s mistakes are never mistakes,’ Musser explains. ‘This is a moment when, in fact, the world is turned upside down. He shows that by turning the shot upside down. See, now that’s like brilliant filmmaking.'”

Listen to the NPR piece below or read it here. For an interdisciplinary perspective on Micheaux’s work, see A. Van Jordan’s poetry collection The Cineaste, which weaves together film, history, memory, and meaning. From a review of The Cineaste at The Rumpus:

“The centerpiece of the book is a long, demanding, middle section, ‘The Homesteader,] which takes the arrest, trial, and extra-legal lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 as its context. The series of more than 40 poems uses this event, and the pioneering black turn-of-century filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux, to explore race in the years 1902-1919. Frank was a Jewish-American factory superintendent who was convicted of killing a 13 year-old factory worker, Mary Phagan. Frank was killed by lynch mob of prominent citizens in Marietta, Georgia in 1915. Since Frank’s murder reflected racist fantasies of the time, Jordan employs a lost 1919 Micheaux film, The Homesteader, to understanding the poetic dimensions of historical literature and the historical dimension of poetry.”

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