Friday, February 8, 2013

Lights, Camera, Action!

I work at a book store, and yesterday I was setting the top shelves for Black History Month for adults and kids. Top shelves are the one or two top shelves in a section that might have buyer or company recommended books or a publisher may purchase that space to highlight their stuff. I'm not a big fan of Black History Month, if I'm being honest. It's not that I think it's pointless or unfair. Americans, black children in particular, need to know the impact blacks have had on this country because I don't think black kids know they're worth. I don't like Black History month because it's the same old boring stuff every year: MLK, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Tubman. These are important people and we should continue learning about them, but there are more black people in our history than these four. There's more to black people than slavery or the civil rights movement.

If you ever take a film class, whether it's history or appreciation, there are three films you are guaranteed to watch in part or in whole: Citizen Kane, Stagecoach, and Birth of a Nation. Directed by D.W. Griffith in 1915, Birth of a Nation is as three-hour black and white silent controversy that portrays black men as sexual deviants and the KKK as heroes on horseback. I'm lucky; I had to watch the entire thing my freshman year. While the subject is deplorably hilarious and offensive, I loved it. I'm a film nerd; the progression of film over the last 100 years, which isn't very long for any industry, blows my mind, and Birth of a Nation was not only ahead of it's time, but it set the basis for the modern feature film. What does this have to with Black History? Naturally, the film spawned outrage. Cities banned it and the NAACP, just a few years old at this point, protested. One man responded in a different way.

Though he denied it, many believe Oscar Devereaux Micheaux's Within Our Gates is a response to D.W. Griffith's film. Released in 1920, it centers around a woman who travels to the North to raise money for a southern school for poor black kids. She falls in love with a black doctor, naturally causing problems, but it's later discovered she is of mixed race. Born in Illinois and one of thirteen, he wrote seven novels and directed at least forty-four films between 1919 and 1948. Though he never received an Academy Award, he did receive a special award from the Directors Guild of America in 1989 and the Producers Guild of America named an award after him. His films and novels centered around blacks wanting to better themselves and racial tension in America. He had a hard time getting past censors because of his portrayal of lynching in his films and they feared it would spark riots.

Did I mention he was black? Yes, black people were making films in 1919 before Gordon Parks, before Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing and Tyler Perry's mediocre box office boom. Black people were making what were called "race films" starting around 1910 to counter Jim Crow and negative stereotypes, but it was Within our Gates that set it off. D.W. Griffith used white men in black face in Birth of a Nation. Micheaux employed black actors and black crew memebers - he created stars. He was a fearless director using themes and subject matters he knew would make his audience, black and white, uncomfortable. His goal was to educate the masses and empower black Amereicans.

I had never heard of Oscar Micheaux until my freshman year of college when we watched a documentary about Birth of a Nation. Why is that? Before Rosa Parks sat down, before Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, Oscar Micheaux was telling black people, "Yes you can." While Gordon Parks holds title of "First Black Director of a Major Hollywood Studio Film", Oscar Micheaux paved the way as the first black feature film director.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please comment and tell me what you think! But be careful! Comments are moderated, and if you have something vile and nasty to say, I will put you on blast. I am a woman of my word :)