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Writing Himself Into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audience.

Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence. Writing Himself Into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audience. new brunswick: rutgers UP, 2000. 313 pp. $52.00 cloth/$20.00 paper.

With painstaking research and outstanding skill scholars Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence have written an important historical document on the accomplishments of Oscar Micheaux. Using black newspapers, primary documents, and literary sources, they have contextualized their discussion by positioning Micheaux in contemporary discourses. Because African American novelist and film-maker Micheaux's writings and film productions (of which only one-third are extant) were primarily centered on the Western Prairie, Bowser and Spence had to reconstruct his works from the point of view of a black homesteader positioned outside of the literary canon of those affiliated with the Harlem Renaissance.

Micheaux has far too often been misrepresented, misinterpreted, misunderstood. His works were censored and unfavorably received by whites, who objected to his racially provocative themes, and by blacks, who were outraged at his candid exposure of the erosion and the evils he found in black life. Thus he was often the catalyst for criticism, alienating himself because of his unrestrained conjectures. Additionally, his writing was less stylized than the writing of authors dominating the Harlem Renaissance. Therefore, most of those writing on Micheaux are forced to both construct and deconstruct as they attempt to reposition him in contemporary discourses. Bowser and Spence, in constructing Micheaux, are equally engaged in exploring his motivations, dispelling the myths, and searching for the truth, not an easy task when the subject left little-to-no paper trail, wrote novels anonymously, and is still being discovered. As Bowser and Spence affirm, "We have not only been searching for Oscar Micheaux, but creating him anew." They do so in three parts.

Part I attempts to provide a biographical treatment of Micheaux, shaping him both personally and professionally. Drawing upon Micheaux's writings, mostly fiction, Bowser and Spence proceed cautiously, often providing explanations as to how his early years intersected with his later filmmaking and book publishing career. Though Micheaux is more well-known for his films than his novels, Bowser and Spence re-position him among literary circles, too, interjecting writings popular in his time period, astutely observing that, "although our research suggests that there was a social distinction between Micheaux and the intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance--Micheaux and his popular melodramas were either ignored or not taken seriously--he apparently felt a strong kinship with these artists."

Bowser and Spence judiciously defend Micheaux, contending that his "retelling and moral lessons should not be judged solely by modern, Western, or commercial standards (of uniqueness, individualism, etc.), but within non-Western traditions, as variations on stock forms and ideas." The authors narrow their focus to foreground Micheaux's filmmaking (i.e., creation of a black star system and elusive filmmaking techniques that resulted in technically marginalized films).

Whereas far too often Micheaux scholars attempt to critique Micheaux on the basis of contemporary or Hollywood standards, Bowser and Spence situate Micheaux within the context of his peers, thus destabilizing much of the pejorative criticism he has received. Comparing Micheaux to filmmakers who worked within the same confines, such as George and Noble Johnson of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the authors not only re-write Micheaux, but also augment and fill the void in black film history concerning the audiences. These were the targeted spectators Micheaux sought to please; they developed a critical eye as spectators for assessing quality versus non-quality black film productions. And embedded in their discussion of race pride, Bowser and Spence also include an historical examination of the race theaters.

Additionally, Bowser and Spence focus intently on Micheaux's competitors, who despite their appeal to black middle-class interests and tastes worked also to document black life--in entertainment, education, and the many other cultural aspects that collectively created race pride. "By bringing Black voices and visions to popular culture, by portraying identities more diverse and more complex than had previously been expressed in mainstream commercial culture, by declaring their own identity, they were writing their world into existence." As the authors reconstruct these historical moments, they cleverly interweave commentary provided by literary figures such as James Weldon Johnson and Claude McKay.

In the third part of this book Bowser and Spence turn their attention to Micheaux's silent films, offering no apologies for his films' technical failings. They defend Micheaux's screen representations in Within Our Gates, a film that featured a lynching and revealed the complexities of white patriarchy, noting that the movie depicts "intelligent, honest, dignified people, with ambition, other middle-class professionals (e.g., doctors, educators, businessmen) and workers (e.g., sharecroppers, laborers, domestics, prospectors)." They further suggest that "it is best to think of his works as complex sign systems with both real and imaginary referents, different cultural matrices interacting, a heterogeneous ensemble."

Examining the racially incisive politics of Within Our Gates and an equally sinister intraracial conflict in Symbol of the Unconquered, Bowser and Spence explore the issue of blacks who attempt to pass as white both for access to a world denied as well as a vehicle of race denial. The authors surmise that Micheaux intended his portrayals to present victories not only for the actor, but for the spectator as well, "putting to rest notions of Black 'inferiority.' "Bowser and Spence also critique interracial politics in Within Our Gates, and intraracial politics in Symbol of the Unconquered.

In Body and Soul, Bowser and Spence examine Micheaux's self-reference through presenting the protagonist as a former convict disguised as a minister, played by Paul Robeson, who similarly poses as the preacher's morally upright brother. As Rev. Jenkins, he commits a variety of dastardly acts--involving rape, murder, and gambling--only to be revealed as a figment of Sister Martha Jane's imagination in a bad dream. According to Bowser and Spence, "Only the dream structure relieves the tensions." Because this film was harshly criticized, the authors go to great lengths to defend Micheaux's position, even quoting his own rebuttals to the criticism.

Concluding their work, Bowser and Spence note recent tributes paid to Micheaux and suggest ways future works might proceed in reconstructing him. Because this current work focuses primarily on his silent films, one may ask if they are planning a second venture featuring his sound films.

This book dually functions both to reconstruct history and to provide explanations for Micheaux's offenses. This process is further complicated by the task of imposing structure on a career that survives in only disparate and often disconnected pieces rather than one that exists as a unified whole. Yet the authors successfully manage to conceal this palpable absence.

Writing Himself into History is a synthesis of the various and diverse reports on Micheaux already extant. Among these are Jane Gaines's Fire & Desire, which provides a more theoretical approach to reading Micheaux while formulating a theory of race movies, and Ron Green's Straight Lick, which deconstructs Micheaux's filmmaking style and technique. Bowser and Spence have grounded their work in the history of race movies, but there is still a wealth of material that remains unknown that might add a refreshing alternative perspective.

Bowser and Spence's Writing Himself into History has been the recipient of the Theater Library Association Award, and ranks among the leading scholarly works produced on Micheaux--the man and the myth.
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Author:Regester, Charlene
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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