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.”

Oscar’s Gift on Sale through February

From now through the end of February, in honor of Black History Month, the paperback version of Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux is $4.09 at Amazon (or get the Kindle ebook for $2.99).

“Oscar’s Gift is a fine and much recommended pick for community library youth fiction collections.” ~ Midwest Book Review

“Lisa Rivero, a native of the Rosebud country, expertly weaves fact with fiction in Oscar’s Gift.” ~ South Dakota Magazine

The year is 1904 on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and eleven-year-old Tomas, the son of Swedish immigrants, thinks that life is a game of chance. Now you see it. Now you don’t. His father. School. Dreams for the future. It doesn’t matter how hard he tries or how much he hopes. In the end, everything he loves can disappear with the delivery of a telegram.

Then one hot day, on a dusty street in Bonesteel, South Dakota, he sees a tall, dark, city-slicker of a man as they both are trying their luck in a land lottery. Tomas does not know that he has just met the man who will one day write novels about his homesteading life on the Great Plains and be known as America’s first African-American feature film maker. Oscar will also become his friend and mentor.

Could it be that Tomas’s luck is changing?

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Ragged, Jagged Jack and the Problem of Stereotypes

Oscar’s Gift Reading Guide: Day 22

Ragged, Jagged Jack and the Problem of Stereotypes

“Oscar did not dance with the adults. He entertained the children, who were in the corner of the barn opposite the fiddlers. He sang a song called ‘Any Rags?’ and danced while he sang. ‘Did you ever hear the story of Ragged, Jagged Jack?’ he sang. ‘Here he comes down the street with a pack on his back.'” ~ Oscar’s Gift

The scene at the barn dance in Oscar’s Gift where Oscar sings “Any Rags” is drawn from Micheaux’s life. Biographer Patrick McGilligan recounts that the homesteader and future filmmaker enjoyed attending local barn dances and would amuse the children with his rendition of the song, a schottische (a partnered country dance), recorded by baritone Arthur Collins in 1903. Collins helped to popularize what are known as “coon songs,” a legacy of blackface minstrel shows. The album cover for “Any Rags” shows a caricature drawing of a Black peddler, and the lyrics, while not as offensive as other examples from the time period, do rely upon stereotypes and exaggerated dialect.

I debated whether to include the scene in the story. In the end, I decided that the personal, human dimension it added to Oscar Micheaux’s character was valuable, and parents and teachers can, if they choose, use the song as a way to discuss racial stereotypes and the lingering, pernicious effects of music and images made popular more than a century ago.

“Whether it’s in the perceptions of black people who drive fancy cars—Miles Davis complained about being pulled over every five minutes for driving a Maserati—or whether it’s in the hardly updated version of Jim Crow and something like the welfare mother. I think there are still the lenses white people put on when they look at black Americans, and it’s sad but it’s kind of desperately indicative of the way in which this country still hasn’t surmounted the kinds of feelings that gave rise to minstrelsy in the first place.” ~ Social Historian Eric Lott

Here are some resources to consider:


Click HERE for the full Oscar’s Gift Reading Guide.

Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux is available from Amazon as a paperback and ebook.

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Pullman Porters

Oscar’s Gift Reading Guide: Day 13

Pullman Porters

“Porters were expected to smile all the time and to keep their jackets spotless. They had to use their wages to pay for their own uniforms and caps, shoe polish, and shining cloths. Most of the money Porters made came from tips from passengers, so it paid to smile a lot, no matter what passengers asked for.

~ Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux

Pullman Porter
Pullman Porter, 1880s

Oscar Micheaux was not lucky in the land lottery, but he was able to get his first homestead by purchasing a “relinquished” claim from someone who didn’t want it. He saved the money he needed for the relinquishment by working as a porter for the Pullman Palace Car Company, which by the 1920s employed more African American men than any other company in the nation (National Museum of American History). The porters’ union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was “the very first African-American labor union to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major U.S. corporation” (A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum).

Learn more about the experiences of Pullman Porters from Steven Taylor, who shares stories and memorabilia from his grandfather, Emmanual Hurst:

Playwright Cheryl L. West was inspired by her grandfather’s experience to write Pullman Porter Blues, a play about three generations of Pullman Porters:

“When I started to research the story of how invisible the Pullman Porter men were, I wanted to give them justice, and I wanted to give them justice, and I wanted to say what was behind the smile of these men, because they had to smile so much, that there was a story, there was pain behind those smiles. And these were men of dignity and discipline, and they were so sharp. And what a wonderful thing to put on stage now, to show Black men taking care of their families, elevating each other.” ~ Cheryl L. West

Learn more about the play in the PBS NewsHour video, “In ‘Pullman Porter Blues,’ a Family’s Trip Through Time.”

Click HERE for the full Oscar’s Gift Reading Guide.

Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux is available from Amazon as a paperback and ebook.

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Oscar’s Gift Reading Guide: Day 12


“‘The other boys nicknamed me “oddball.” I was an oddball because I read more than they did. I learned more. And I dreamed bigger. I was glad to be an oddball.'” ~ Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux

oddballThe lines, below, from Patrick McGilligan’s biography of Oscar Micheaux were what made me know that if I were to write about Micheaux, I needed to write for and about children:

‘About the only thing for which I was given credit was in learning readily,’ Micheaux recollected, ‘but was continually critiqued for talking too much and being too inquisitive.’ (p.11)

“His peers nicknamed him ‘Oddball,’ and older people regarded him more suspiciously as ‘worldly, a free thinker, and a dangerous associate for young Christian folks.'” (p.13)

Everything I read about the early life of the novelist and filmmaker reminded me of what I have learned about gifted children. They are not just smart. They are also usually intense, inquisitive, excitable, sensitive, perfectionistic—and often all at the same time! What author Stephanie Tolan wrote in 1990 about highly gifted children rings just as true today (from ERIC EC Digest #E477):

“To understand highly gifted children it is essential to realize that, although they are children with the same basic needs as other children, they are very different. Adults cannot ignore or gloss over their differences without doing serious damage to these children, for the differences will not go away or be outgrown. They affect almost every aspect of these children’s intellectual and emotional lives.

A microscope analogy is one useful way of understanding extreme intelligence. If we say that all people look at the world through a lens, with some lenses cloudy or distorted, some clear, and some magnified, we might say that gifted individuals view the world through a microscope lens and the highly gifted view it through an electron microscope. They see ordinary things in very different ways and often see what others simply cannot see. Although there are advantages to this heightened perception, there are disadvantages as well.

Since many children eventually become aware of being different, it is important to prepare yourself for your child’s reactions. When your child’s giftedness has been identified, you might open a discussion using the microscope analogy. If you are concerned that such a discussion will promote arrogance, be sure to let children know that unusual gifts, like hair and eye color, are not earned. It is neither admirable nor contemptible to be highly gifted. It is what one does with one’s abilities that is important.”

Knowing they are not alone in their oddball-ness is crucial for the social and emotional health of gifted people of all ages, which is why I gave Tomas the mentor that every highly gifted child needs and deserves.

Photo credit: Dominic Morel

Click HERE for the full Oscar’s Gift Reading Guide.

Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux is available from Amazon as a paperback and ebook.

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