Academic journal article Framework

Sophistication under Construction: Oscar Micheaux's Infamous Sound Films

Academic journal article Framework

Sophistication under Construction: Oscar Micheaux's Infamous Sound Films

Article excerpt

What we witness as we experience his work is an evidence of the extreme effort required of maker and spectator alike at the pivotal point in space and time when a new tradition (one uses the phrase without hesitation) is sensed and known to be "under construction": and, best of all, the extreme satisfaction consequent upon that effort in its most coherent moments.

Hollis Frampton, "Inclusions for Patrick Clancy," in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton

Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) was and remains the most prolific and celebrated director of African American films during the era when they were called Race Movies. He made some forty independent feature films between 1919 and 1948, and though he was largely forgotten for several decades, recent interest in his work has been robust.1

Almost everyone has initial problems taking seriously much of Oscar Micheaux's sound-era film work.2 An example of the problem from The Girl from Chicago (1932) is the second solo by Mary Austin's sister (see figures 1a-1d; also, a corresponding clip is located at www.frameworkonline.com).3 This scene is awkward, owing to amateurish acting, blocking, editing, sound mixing, and lighting, especially the wandering key light in this shot, which sometimes includes Norma, the younger spectator, in its light and sometimes does not (figures 1a-1c). This keylight radically realigns itself after a couple of edits in the same scene (figure 1d).

Such ineptitude is hard to recommend even to the most sympathetic film fan or race-movie supporter. However, there is a technically awkward scene of similar ineptitude from Ten Minutes to Live (also 1932) that almost anyone can appreciate, the two-and-a-half-minute taxi ride when Letha enters New York City for the first time (see figure 2). This sequence is sublime, comparing well with Expressionist classics and American avant-garde films of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. In fact, Ken Jacobs reputedly has stated that he could happily have incorporated not just this scene but the whole of Ten Minutes to Live as his own work.

But I want to stick with the more typical Micheaux scene. Soon after the solo illustrated above from The Girl from Chicago, another very similar solo occurs with similar problems (see figure 3). This scene is as amateurish in its handling of technical elements as the first solo mentioned above, and it doesn't really work as normal cinema, nor does it transcend its technical problems like the taxi ride in Ten Minutes to Live. In addition to the wandering key light, the establishing shot is static and tableau-like, the eyeline matching seems off, the lighting setup alters between the tableaux and the closeups, expressions on people's faces are not appropriate to the progress of the action, and emphatic facial expressions repeat unaccountably and without ever being acknowledged by the other members of the group.

However, if this scene is taken as a set-piece production number, like Al Jolson's solos in The Jazz Singer, then there is a kind of logic to some of these mistakes. Micheaux is mounting a secular version of a spiritual that might be titled "Shout, Sister, Shout!" The dialogue has already established that both the piano player and the vocalist, Wade Washington, are members of the local church choir. The film's editing of this set-piece interpolates their religious song into a worldly social-uplift skit in which the Devil is represented by a peonage boss's informer, and the sister's shout is represented by Norma's wide-open mouth. The shooting and editing of the scene accomplish this transposition perfectly well. I say perfectly in the sense that the elements that Micheaux cares about-the conjuring of a Negro spiritual, the lines of the song about the devil rising up, the close-up of a snitch rising up in the window, the particular lines of the song about a sister shouting, and the shocking foregrounding of Norma seeming to shout-these several elements all work to make the spiritual-to-secular transposition Micheaux wants to construct. …

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