This is why I love Black History Month. Every year I honestly find myself learning something amazing. For example, Oscar Micheaux – ever heard of him? Neither had I until earlier last month. To be frank, I was a little embarrassed with my lack of knowledge. Micheaux is credited as being the only African American writer-director-producer during the first decades of the 20th century. His legendary films catered to Black audiences with storylines that addressed the racialized and oppressive reality of American society.
Luckily for me as a tribute to Black History Month, TIFF Bell Lightbox showcased eight of his films which included a discussion piece on his first successful motion picture Within Our Gates. It was my first time going to TIFF Lightbox without the Toronto International Film Festival going on. I must say it was a wonderful experience. The building wasn’t filled with paparazzi, endless concession stand line-ups and glimpses of famous people which really just turned out to be impeccable look-a-likes.
I chose to watch one of Oscar’s timeless 1930s romantic films, The Girl from Chicago. The plot included a perfect mix of love, action and mystery, with interludes of elaborate singing and tap dancing scenes. The film begins with Alonso White, an undercover U.S Secret Service Agent arriving in Batesburg, New York on a mission to catch criminal gang leader Jeff Ballinger. Ballinger runs Batesburg with an iron fist, destroying anyone in his path and taking any woman he pleases.
The film takes a dramatic twist when the beautiful Norma Sheppard moves to Batesburg to become a schoolteacher. Quickly becoming the fixation of Ballinger, he claims Norma as ‘his girl’ and plans to take her as his prize. Unfortunately for Ballinger, Alonso and Norma fall in love with each other and the couple scheme to overthrow the infamous mobster. Without giving to the rest of the plot away, Alonso and Norma move to Harlem in the hopes of starting a peaceful life together. However their honeymoon is short lived when Norma’s former employer, Mary Austin, is wrongfully accused of murder and Alonso must once again go undercover.
Though this box-office hit was an optimistic romance story, many of Micheaux’s films have been known to offer political commentary on the early struggles of Black civil rights. His films have addressed everything from issues such as racial segregation and lynching, to aspirations of creating a Black middle class society in America.
For over a century, American pop culture depictions have helped mobilize racial tensions between Whites and Blacks. Pop culture production became rooted in the idea that Black people were inferior beings who needed, and wanted, to be enslaved and oppressed. Racist caricatures which included the Mammy, Zip Coon, and Sambo all worked to serve the overarching racist ideology of White America. During the turn of the 20th century, Micheaux’s films offered a breath of fresh air from the colonialist pop culture depictions of the African American body.
As Black History Month came to an end, I could think of no better way to celebrate then watching a film by Oscar Micheaux. As a legendary independent filmmaker and icon of African American history, Micheaux has earned his title as The Black Czar of Hollywood.