With a Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux

With a Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux

With a Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux

With a Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux

Synopsis

With a ""crooked stick,"" filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) sought to hit a ""straight lick"" by stressing the strategic importance of class mobility, or ""uplift,"" for African Americans. A theme in all of his more than 40 feature-length, black-produced, black-directed, blackcast, and black-audience films, uplift would allow for the better things in life: fast cars and fancy clothes, freedom of belief, financial security, and an unencumbered intellectual life. Although racism was an impediment to uplift for Micheaux and other African Americans, race as a category was of a secondary order for him in the larger game of class. In With a Crooked Stick, J. Ronald Green pursues this seeming contradiction in a detailed analysis of each of Micheaux's 15 surviving films. He presents critical commentary on each film's plot and action and its contribution to the overall theme of uplift. Readers will also find this an invaluable guide to the preoccupations and features of Micheaux's remarkable career and the insight it provides into the African American experience of the 1920s and 30s.

Excerpt

My first book on Oscar Micheaux, Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux, made a case for the importance of Micheaux’s cinematic art, including his style and representational politics, both of which were characterized by wit, originality, resourcefulness, drive, self-analysis, intertextual “signifying,” inexpensive production values, oppositional attitude, critique of racial stereotyping, and progressive goals for African Americans. Micheaux’s forty-some black-produced, black-directed, black-cast, black-audience films were all devoted to class advancement for African Americans in a racist society. In pursuing uplift, Micheaux also established one of the significant beachheads of middle-class cinema, a rare and undervalued accomplishment in the history of film.

With a Crooked Stick is designed to complement Straight Lick but also to stand on its own; in spite of its self-sufficiency as a guide to Micheaux’s films, there is very little repetition of material from the first book. This second book fills in the outlines of the argument of the previous book by concentrating on textual and contextual analysis of all of Micheaux’s existing films.

With a Crooked Stick is also intended as a useful and suggestive resource for teaching and studying Micheaux’s individual films. All of Micheaux’s existing films are discussed, each film treated in chronological order in terms suggested by its own concerns and traits, but always with one eye on its relationship to Micheaux’s overriding goal of class advancement and on his concomitant formation of a coherent, successful middle-class film style to accomplish his goal.

Sorting Out Race and Class

The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think
of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor
as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.

—C. L. R. James, quoted in Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy
and the American Working Class

Both “race” and “class” are vexed terms. The slippery nature of the idea of class is discussed in several sections of Straight Lick, including Appendix 1, “On

1. Micheaux’s thematic concerns and his stylistic accomplishment are briefly reviewed in this introduction and are reconsidered in the concluding chapter of this study. Also, for an extended review of the critical literature on Micheaux, see Charlene Regester, “The Misreading and Rereading of African American Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux,” Film History: An International Journal 7, no. 4 (1995): 426–449; J. Ronald Green, Straight Lick: The Cinematic Accomplishment of Oscar Micheaux (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000); and J. Ronald Green, “The Reemergence of Oscar Micheaux,” in Oscar Micheaux and His Circle, ed. Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001; co-published with Le Giornate del Cinema Muto).

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