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Blazing a Trail : Oscar Micheaux's early black westerns offer an alternative vision of the frontier. Almost forgotten, he is the subject of a talk Tuesday.

March 03, 1997|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The name of Oscar Micheaux won't register with a lot of people when the subject of the earliest days of the movie western comes up. Tom Mix, maybe William S. Hart, and that's probably it.

Micheaux, however, was the most important figure in the black western, a small but significant film industry that began in the late teens and continued for a handful of years.

Micheaux was a Pullman porter-turned-rancher- turned-novelist- turned-filmmaker who produced movies that depicted the black experience in the Old West.

His contribution, and that of Noble Johnson and his Lincoln Motion Picture Co., is the focus of "The Frontier Through Dark Lenses: The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, Oscar Micheaux and the Imaging of the Black West," a Tuesday morning talk at Cal State Fullerton by film historian John Anderson.

The presentation by Anderson, a former researcher for the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles and authority on African American films, is in conjunction with CSUF's "The Frontier in American Culture" and "The West," an exhibition and lecture series continuing through April 3 at the library.

Through his talk on the obscure history of Micheaux and the Lincoln company, which will include archival movie stills and posters, Anderson hopes to show how blacks portrayed themselves as fitting into the Western frontier and how their cinema was used to form a more progressive self-identity for African Americans around the country.

"The West was seen as a place of opportunity, for entrepreneurial and other reasons, for African Americans," Anderson said by phone from his home in Whittier. "The films often showed them getting ahead, on their own terms.

"Since white [-owned movie companies] weren't representing blacks in their films, blacks had to do it themselves. They didn't want to portray their community in a burlesque or minstrel way; they wanted to see their own in a dignified, redeeming way."

*

Although none of the movies exist today in their entirety (they were improperly stored and eventually disintegrated in warehouses), Anderson has studied portions that are on file with the Library of Congress and has unearthed other historical information to offer what he believes is a clear picture of the genre. One of the earliest examples was Johnson's "The Realization of a Negro's Ambition," which came out in 1916.

In the film, a black engineer heads west to make his fortune but can't find work until he saves the daughter of the president of an oil company. The grateful owner gives him a job and the engineer eventually buys his own land. He strikes a gusher and becomes rich. More important, he becomes an independent black man.

"The movie, like others, promoted self-reliance" among blacks, Anderson said. "The black newspapers were doing that [and] the West seemed like a place where African Americans might have a chance . . . unlike in the Jim Crow South [or the] industrialized North."

Micheaux, like Johnson, wasn't particularly interested in Hollywood's depiction of the frontier as a land of rough-riding and gunfights. Historians have noted that his films, while usually strict melodramas, often reflected on issues affecting blacks, such as racism.

His first feature, "The Homesteader," was based on his own novel of the same name. The Lincoln company originally wanted to turn it into a movie but balked when Micheaux demanded that he direct. So Micheaux went out and sought investors, many of them white, and started his own small studio. By late 1918, "The Homesteader" was in theaters that served black moviegoers (though most of those theaters were owned by whites).

Anderson pointed out that, among other things, "The Homesteader" looked at interracial love. The hero becomes a successful farmer, then falls in love with a white woman. But realizing the marriage would "be a betrayal to his own race," he travels east to find a black wife, Anderson said.

When that marriage ends and the hero is accused of murder, the white woman helps exonerate him. The happy, albeit contrived, ending comes when the women learns she has a distant blood relative who's black, allowing her to marry the hero without repercussions.

*

Anderson said that Micheaux's next film, "Within Our Gates" (1919), has passages that indict slavery, and his "Symbol of the Unconquered" (1920) touched on the influence of the Ku Klux Klan.

Although most historians praise Micheaux, not all cheer his contribution. He's been faulted for his films' crudeness (most of the early ones were shot on a budget of around $7,500, using unskilled actors) and a personal bias that showed in the characterizations. Critics note that lighter-skinned blacks were invariably cast as heroes, with darker-skinned actors as villains.

Regardless, Anderson and others believe Micheaux's role as a pioneer can't be ignored. He went on to make 40 films over three decades, the later ones reaching progressively larger audiences.

"From my perspective, and with the early films I'm looking at, he is just a very interesting man," said Anderson, noting that through his work and that of Johnson "other racial groups [besides whites] were able to show they had an investment in the frontier myth as well."

* "The Frontier Through Dark Lenses: The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, Oscar Micheaux and the Imaging of the Black West," a lecture by John Anderson, is Tuesday at 10 a.m. in Cal State Fullerton's University Library-North Room 303, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton. "The Frontier in American Culture" and "The West," two exhibitions focusing on the American West, will be in the library through April 3. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Friday, 10-5 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, noon-5. The lecture and exhibitions are free. (714) 773-2724 and (714) 773-2414.

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