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Lost auteur

Oscar Micheaux, plus El método
By GERALD PEARY  |  July 11, 2007

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EL MÉTODO: Seven candidates vie for an executive job — haven’t we seen this one before?

There’s no business like Micheaux business. Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951), that is, the novelist turned movie mogul. In a prodigious career of independent films as writer/director/producer, he was responsible for the first African-American feature (The Homesteader, 1919) and the first African-American talkie (The Wages of Sin, 1929). And he’s the subject of a meticulously researched tribute biography, Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only, by Patrick McGilligan, a former Boston journalist now residing in Milwaukee.

For McGilligan, one reason Micheaux became a filmmaker after World War I was Hollywood’s racist treatment of black people — most egregiously in D.W. Griffith’s TheBirth of a Nation (1915). In 1919, Micheaux wrote of his fellow “coloreds,” “We are always caricatures in almost all the photoplays [and] we have the smallest and most insignificant parts.” Whereas Griffith had roguish black characters played by whites in blackface, Micheaux used light-skinned blacks for the white villains. In The Birth of a Nation, it’s a horror when a mulatto man makes eyes at a lily-white girl or a black man chases after a Caucasian pearl-of-the-South so he can rape her. In Micheaux’s The Homesteader, a white woman seems to have a romance with a black man. In his Within Our Gates (1920), which McGilligan calls “an astutely written, beautifully directed landmark,” a white man threatens to rape a black woman, and nine negroes are lynched by Caucasian mobs.

Although he made film after film, Micheaux got little respect in his lifetime. No surprise that the studios never came knocking — no African-American directed a Hollywood film till Gordon Parks did The Learning Tree in 1969. But the self-taught Micheaux was estranged likewise from the African-American intellectual community — most significantly from members of the Harlem Renaissance. They looked down on his potboiler novels, which were embraced by less-demanding blacks, and they had little interest in popular cinema, by Micheaux or anyone else. Micheaux could have found supporters in the ’30s and ’40s from the American Communist Party, which backed African-American novelists like Richard Wright. But he was a proud individualist, and always suspicious of Marxist boosters.

How good were his movies? Many were made cheaply and crudely. “Micheaux was cinematic when he had the means and opportunity,” writes McGilligan, who crossed America in the course of his exemplary scholarship, watching Micheaux’s extant movies in various film archives. I’ve seen only one, and that on DVD: Body and Soul (1925), which has a lively dual performance by Paul Robeson as good/bad brothers plus two sequences that display definite filmic prowess. We need a national tour of restored 35mm works by Oscar Micheaux, this essential African-American filmmaker artist.

Outside on the Madrid sidewalks, anti–World Bank protesters clash with police. High up in a management suite in Marcelo Piñeyro’s El método|The Method (which opens this Friday at the Kendall Square), seven candidates with impeccable résumés vie for an executive job with a mysterious corporation. El método is based on a one-set play, and Mateo Gil’s adapted screenplay, which won Spain’s Oscar-like Goya award, suffers from stage-drama talkiness. There’s a little dramatic tension: one of the seven is probably an impostor, a company mole. But for the most part El método is an overlong, uninspired Spanish ripoff of The Apprentice.

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