Cinema and the Black Struggle Against Lynching: An Analysis of a Film by Oscar Micheaux

by Dr. Susan Zeiger, Regis College, Weston, MA  

When Smithsonian Video released an archival print of Within Our Gates several years ago as part of their African American Cinema series, they made this extraordinary film available to a wide audience of teachers and scholars. The film is a 1919 feature by African-American producer-director Oscar Micheaux. In the last two decades, film historians have come to know more about Micheaux's work, thanks to the discovery of salvageable prints of two of his previously "lost" films--the 1935 Murder in Harlem (discovered in a warehouse in Tyler, Texas in the 1980s) and Within Our Gates (rediscovered in Spain's national film archive and deposited in the Library of Congress in 1989). As I taught this film in my own U. S. history courses, I became interested in the highly charged and politicized manner in which Micheaux's film critiqued racist violence. It seemed clear that Micheaux's film was part of a larger African-American discourse on violence and white supremacism in the early twentieth century.

I was also intrigued by the possibility of using film as a source for studying the history of lynching because the history of lynching is so intimately and disturbingly tied to images, and the use and abuse of images. Lynching was murder, but it was also voyeurism--a ritualized act of violence, often involving bodily mutilation, carried out before the eyes of an expectant audience--a performance. One example, the so-called "opera house lynching," stands for countless others and highlights this theme. In 1911, an African-American, allegedly the killer of a white man, was brought up on the stage of the local opera house in Livermore Kentucky and tied up, then shot repeatedly, more than one hundred times, according to contemporary newspaper accounts. Members of the audience purchased tickets to view and take part in this lynching.1 Similarly, graphic photos of lynch victims were sometimes mass produced and distributed commercially, as penny postcards or other mementos. Here some important parallels between violent racist images and pornography are apparent. Like pornography, these images were produced to reinforce power, race and gender hierarchies, and both, in some perverse way, were meant to give pleasure to the empowered viewer.

Lynching and images are intertwined in another sense as well. The struggle over images, specifically images of black sexuality and violence, was from the very start, embedded in the organized movement to stop lynching. The journalist- activist Ida B. Wells (later Wells-Barnett), pioneer leader in the anti-lynching crusade, identified and exposed the "myth of the black rapist" in her first searing article on lynching in 1892. In her own paper, the Free Speech of Memphis Tennessee, Wells editorialized, "Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women." But Wells understood that such "big lies" are difficult to refute. As she went on to explain in her famous pamphlet A Red Record, published in 1895, "With such unanimity, earnestness and apparent candor was this charge made and reiterated that the world has accepted the story that the Negro is a monster which the Southern white man has painted him."2 Wells used the tools of the progressive investigator--facts and logic-- to reveal a truth: that the vast majority of lynching's involved not even an allegation of rape, and that the few rape allegations were with rare exceptions highly questionable. But Wells was also a brilliant creator of counter-images. Scholars have shown how she built her narratives around her own set of subversive images--the civilized and restrained black male, the brutish and uncivilized white mob, the moral black female--which later came to serve as rallying points for the anti-lynching movement.3 Micheaux's film must be understood in relation to the black anti-lynching crusade set in motion by Ida B. Wells. Following Wells, Micheaux engaged this movement as social critic and propagandist for racial justice, bringing her work forward to the post-World War I period.

There is another crucial context within which Micheaux's film must be situated--the African-American campaign of opposition to the film The Birth of a Nation. Twenty years after Wells's Red Record, a Southern white man revivified the traditional racist image of the black rapist, this time in the new medium of film, and reigned the struggle over lynching and representation. David Wark Griffith, the Kentucky-born son of a Confederate officer, released his epic film history of Southern race relations, Birth of a Nation, in 1915. The Birth of a Nation was offensive to race liberals, black and white, in almost every detail, from its demeaning characterization of black slaves and free people to its imputation of gross incompetence and corruption on the part of black legislators during Reconstruction. But most explosive of all was the film's treatment of African-American sexuality. The infamous rape scene still has a visceral impact. In it, a wild looking black soldier (played by a white actor in blackface), a prototypical "black buck," in the phrase of film historian Donald Bogle,4 pursues the dainty white sister, played by Mae Marsh. The power and persistence of this image (the predatory sexual brutality of the black male, the vulnerable innocence of the white female) is suggested in a piece of hate mail written in the 1920s to Jessie Daniel Ames, a white feminist and Texan (later founder of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching) who had recently begun to speak out in her home state against lynching. Her anonymous correspondent wrote,"God will burn . . . the Big African Brute in Hot Hell for molesting of God-like pure snow white angelic American women."5 This image of black-on-white violence was, of course, part of the folklore of American racism, but in the wake of Griffith's film it had taken on a visual, almost cinematic quality which undoubtedly deepened its resonance.

Black activists and their white allies took two approaches to confronting The Birth of a Nation, attempting either to suppress Griffith's negative images of African-Americans through censorship and boycotts or to create "positive," uplifting counter-images of African-Americans. The NAACP initially took the lead in opposing Griffith's film. Racist mob violence was a consistent and central focus of NAACP concern for many decades after its founding in 1909.6 James Weldon Johnshon, the NAACP's multi-talented field secretary appointed in 1916, and later director of the organization, had himself been a near victim of white mob violence (sitting on a park bench with a light-skinned African-American woman, he was attacked by a crowd who mistook the woman for white). Now, to their regular arsenal of organizing tools against lynching-- investigation, court action, publicity, agitation for federal and state anti-lynching laws, and so on-- Johnson and the NAACP board added media protest in response to Griffith's film and to a Paramount release of the same year, titled The Nigger.

The NAACP's initial protest strategy involved suppression-- either to have the film banned outright, or to have offending material removed. The censorship strategy needs to be understood in historical context. In the early years of cinema, films were regularly cut and spliced to meet the demands of local review or censorship boards. A film was not regarded as a complete and immutable artistic conception, but rather as a shifting and negotiable object. In the weeks and months following the release of Griffith's film, NAACP leaders had some isolated successes in their bid to censor the work. Banding together with conservative groups to pressure for the removal of scenes deemed immoral or likely to cause violence, the NAACP managed to impose cuts in Boston (including the rape scene), and helped to ban the film outright in Chicago. But the controversy surrounding the film, including sidewalk pickets and the arrests of black leaders for trying to attend showings in whites-only theaters, proved to be good publicity, and created a racist backlash effect, which ultimately added to the film's acclaim.

The NAACP and several other African-American constituencies also attempted to formulate a different response to Birth of a Nation-- "a cinema, rather than a censorship, alternative." In the summer of 1915, Mary White Ovington contacted Universal Studios on behalf of the NAACP and proposed a collaboration to create Lincoln's Dream, a film that would applaud African-American achievements since the Civil War, but the plan was hung up on financial difficulties and never came to be. Simultaneously, and independently, Booker T. Washington and his assistant (soon to be successor) Emmett J. Scott began to feel out the possibility of formulating their own film response to Griffith. Washington's group envisioned a black-controlled production financed with white capital. This project too bogged down in financial complications, but Scott ultimately brought Birth of a Race into being, though virtually no one was pleased with the artistic result.7

The Birth of a Nation was also a spur to the development of several fledgling black film companies, most importantly the Lincoln Motion Picture company of George P. Johnson and Oscar Micheaux's own Micheaux Book and Film Company. It is in this setting that Oscar Micheaux undertook the production of Within Our Gates. There is no direct documentation, at this time in any case, to prove that Micheaux made his film as a response to Birth of a Nation (though the indirect evidence is compelling). Little is known about Micheaux from a biographical standpoint, and even less about his views and ideas. Like Griffith, he was born in Kentucky, Micheaux the grandson of slaves. By the time he was in his mid-twenties, he had worked variously as a Pullman porter, a farmer and homesteader in South Dakota, a traveling salesman and a novelist. In 1918, he founded his own film company in Sioux City, Iowa, and in the next 30 years he turned out perhaps as many as 40-45 films (the number is disputed) for the primarily black audiences who viewed cinema in segregated movie houses, North and South. Micheaux served as director/producer, and often as screenwriter and actor as well. With "the rattling chutzpah of a black Sammy Glick" (a line of Thomas Cripps'), Micheaux traveled the country marketing his films, drumming up investments, and staying one step ahead of his creditors.

Micheaux engaged in an effort to create an independent African-American cinema outside the grip of the white media monopoly, in the long tradition of black self-help. He seemed determined to make race theme movies and address racial oppression in his films. Ironically, it was racial segregation which opened the artistic and economic space to make this possible. But Micheaux, like other independent black filmmakers, found himself swimming upstream, and not only because of financial constraints. Micheaux appears to have received less acclaim from black audiences and critics than he felt he deserved. Discouraged by what he viewed as a lukewarm reception for "Within Our Gates," Micheaux wrote his colleague George P. Johnson, "Our people do not care . . . for propaganda"; nonetheless, he vowed to continue making films "that leave an impression."8 This is one of Micheaux's few recorded comments on his own work as a director, and though it is little to go on, it at least suggests that he intended to align his art with social change.

Within Our Gates is certainly a film that "leaves an impression." It tells the story of Sylvia Landry, a young African-American woman, and her search for love and meaningful work in the "uplift" of her race. Born in the South, Sylvia is living temporarily in a Northern city when the film opens, trying to raise funds for a Southern school for black children. The audience soon learns that the school is on the brink of financial ruin, and that Sylvia previously worked there as a teacher. The viewer also learns of the ups and downs of Sylvia's romantic life: one boyfriend, an African-American mining engineer, leaves her in a fit of misguided jealousy, but she soon meets and is pursued by a charming and idealistic African-American physician. The most compelling and impressive aspect of the film is its concluding twenty minutes, an extended flashback that depicts the heroine's traumatic coming of age. Here we are shown the lynching of her adoptive parents, framed for the murder of the local white landowner, and the sexual assault of Sylvia by the landowner's brother. The film closes with avowals of love between Sylvia and her doctor-suitor; sharing her painful story, they are now ready to share their lives.

On the most obvious level, "Sylvia's Story," the extended flashback sequence, calls us to look at the violence and injustice "within our own gates." Here the WWI context of the film is significant. Micheaux made his film as the U. S. army, including many African-American soldiers, prepared to return from their struggle to "preserve democracy" overseas. The war effort had been endorsed by the vast majority of African-American leaders, (including, reluctantly, W. E. B. DuBois himself), who believed that black men's military service could strengthen the case for African-American enfranchisement. Micheaux reminds the viewer of this wartime context when he ends the film with a string of patriotic references to the war (despite all the bad things that have happened to her as a black woman in the U. S., Sylvia's betrothed tells her, she must still love her country!). But the lynching sequence leaves a sharply different impression from Micheaux's patriotic tag line. For Micheaux, lynching is a profound expression of white racism, the ugly heart of American society. Micheaux shows his audience a slowly unfolding and unadorned portrait of terror and hatred. The field where the lynching takes place is an American battlefield, a racial battlefield where men, women and even children are victims.

D. W. Griffith too used war as a metaphor for race relations, though in a radically different style and for obviously different purpose. For Griffith, the race war at the end of Birth of a Nation is retribution for the perversion of the proper order of society-- white over black, with all of its political, economic and sexual connotations. Griffith's KKK night riders are avenging demigods, sweeping across the land to restore order and exact righteous retribution. Micheaux completely inverts Griffith's cinematic message. Using a naturalistic style, he humanizes both the victims and the aggressors. The lynching takes place in daylight, and the crowd is made up of utterly ordinary white folk, of mixed economic backgrounds. There are white women in the crowd as well. Micheaux situates violence within a political and economic context. Micheaux shows that whites are threatened when blacks assert themselves, when they attempt to challenge the economic blackmail of sharecropping, the economic and political stranglehold of white power. It is Sylvia's "schooling" that sets off the sequence of events leading to the lynchings. Philip Gridlestone, the white landowner, is threatened by the tenant farmer Landry, who tries to challenge the systematic cheating that keeps him in debt, and by Landry's "uppity," educated daughter, Sylvia. Racial violence, for Micheaux, is part of a system of racial oppression from which many people benefit, including even some blacks (a fact which Micheaux highlights through some of his black characters). To summarize, Micheaux places lynching in a political-economic context while also creating sympathy for, identification with the so-called "victims" of lynching. And he does so in a way that draws a metaphoric and historic connection between social violence and war.

The word "victims" leads to a second set of observations. Micheaux's characters are victims who do not want to accept victimization. Here the references or parallels to slave history, and the history of slave resistance, are striking. In the haunting scene where the family flees we are told they hide out in the swamp, a resonant image in the history of slave resistance. In both the lynching and the rape scenes, the so-called victims put up a stiff resistance. Sylvia's little brother Emil actually manages to escape, by using a variety of survival mechanisms deeply rooted in slave history, including subterfuge (he plays dead for a moment to escape detection) and flight, on a stolen horse, no less. Sylvia really fights with her would-be rapist, punching him, trying to strangle him with his necktie, wielding a knife. This representation of the woman as rape victim is very different from that in The Birth of a Nation. Poor ethereal Flora (the helpless flower of white womanhood) can only take the step of self-negation, leaping off a cliff to her death (and through the WHITE portals of heaven, the intertitles assure us!). Micheaux tells a story of lynching through representations of resistance. The film's primary audience was African-American, and Micheaux was creating images of self-assertion and self-protection for this audience.

Also on the theme of victimization: Micheaux took on (and I think, finessed) the difficult task of portraying the violence against African-Americans in a way which preserves the dignity and privacy of the victims. Here we return to an earlier point about voyeurism. The production and distribution of images of lynch victims was a second kind of lynching, a form of visual terrorism which served as a warning to the black community and a sign of white supremacist triumph.9 By putting a lynching on the screen, then, Micheaux also ran the risk of feeding, or reinforcing the lynching phenomenon. I think his choice to cut away in this scene protects the Landrys, preventing anyone from gazing on their mutilated bodies.

The representation of rape is also a crucial aspect of Micheaux's political vision. Sylvia's story is built on a pair of events, the paired traumas of her young adulthood: the lynching of her adoptive parents is followed by her own sexual assault. The rape scene in Micheaux's film both references and subverts that in Birth of a Nation. Micheaux's scene challenges the racist and sexist ideology of Griffith. In Sylvia's story, the rapist is a white man, the victim, a black female. Micheaux's point was not new, of course. He translated into visual terms an observation and a moral condemnation asserted by every African-American intellectual of his era, from Wells to Mary Church Terrell to W.E.B. DuBois. In the words of DuBois, for example, the white Southern man was a "rapist," and the black community could never forgive white Southern manhood "its wanton and continued and persistent insulting of black womanhood which it sought and seeks to prostitute to its lust."10 But by putting a specific white man on the screen, carrying out a rape, Micheaux "embodied" and personalized the abstract accusation, in a manner that many whites would surely have found inflammatory.

It is significant, too, that the rapist is not the white hillbilly sharecropper who also ogles Sylvia. Rather, he is the "civilized" white Southern male. He is "massa," the heir to the slave owner's sexual ownership of black slave women. Micheaux uses the scene to make a strong point about racial and sexual violence: that white men's rape of black women, like lynching, is a tool of white supremacy, wielded by the white ruling class to keep African-Americans subjugated.

Finally, there's one other theme I'd like to suggest. Micheaux places his critique of racist violence, Sylvia's story-within -a-story about racial violence, in the context of a larger story about black citizenship and self-determination. Again this is a counterpoint to Griffith, whose story line about interracial relationships is embedded in a larger narrative about the necessity of stripping political power away from African-Americans. Micheaux makes his point on many levels in the film. The theme of race uplift through education is very prominent. Out of the trauma of her young adulthood, out of her anger, Sylvia Landry embraces the crusade for racial advancement by fighting for funds for a Southern school for black children. For Micheaux, education is related to political power and liberation, and must clearly come first (opening him to charges by critics of an elitist, black bourgeoisie approach).11 The theme of self-determination and self-definition is raised also in the love plot of the film. Here Evelyn Preer, the stage and vaudeville actress who portrays Sylvia so winningly, must share credit with Micheaux. The courtship of black men and black women, their love, respect and desire for one another, was for self-evident reasons an appealing theme for an African-American audience. But it was also a politically potent message in the context of a culture built on lies about black sexuality and immorality: that black women were ugly, that they were promiscuous, that black men lusted uncontrollably for white women and denigrated women of their own race.12 In Micheaux's film, on the contrary, Sylvia is pursued romantically and respectfully by no fewer than three eligible African-American bachelors. Closely linked to the theme of courtship in the film is the theme of marriage; the implication of an egalitarian, two-career marriage between Sylvia and Dr. Vivian is another interesting feature of the plot. If we follow historian Glenda Gilmore's argument about egalitarian companionate marriage in the black middle class, then Micheaux was reflecting the normative reality of African-American family life in his era. (Ida B. Wells herself, for example, was part of just such a two-career family).13 But Micheaux did more than simply mirror reality. In putting this image of black middle-class family life on screen, he was once again, with quiet self-assertion, confronting lies and distortions.

Oscar Micheaux's film was part of a wider African-American conversation about race and violence in the United States at the beginning of the century. There is much that historians still do not know about this movement. The historian Glenda Gilmore, for example, calls attention to the nuances of tone and intent within the African-American discourse on racial violence-- nuances determined by class, by gender and by region. It is also important to note that the discourse on racial violence was never static; Oscar Micheaux's film, a full generation later than Wells' Red Record, differed in subtle but important ways, perhaps most notably in its emphasis on resistance. We need more information too on the ways that white Americans entered this conversation. Clearly many whites were deeply threatened by the African-American discourse on lynching. Time and time again, white supremacists tried to silence these voices-- as we see in the death threats against Wells, the destruction of her press, and later, in the censorship and suppression of Oscar Micheaux's film. Yet some white progressives listened to and learned from the black struggle against violence, and some spoke up to condemn lynching.14

Micheaux's contribution to the discourse on lynching was unique and noteworthy. Micheaux's film offered a sophisticated critique of racist violence, from its economic roots to its intertwining with gender oppression.

Micheaux's film moved the conversation about rape, race and white supremacy into the realm of cinema, potentially deepening its scope and increasing its impact (though the question of audience response to Micheaux's work is still definitely an unanswered one). And finally, as a filmmaker, Micheaux provided powerful visual images of African-American realities, pictures of racial conflict in the stark black and white of the cinema.

For information about these videotapes, write to Smithsonian Video, 955 L'Enfant Plaza, Suite 7100, Washington, D.C. 20560.  

END NOTES

1. Robert L. Zangrando, The NAACP Crusade against Lynching, 1909-1950. (Phila: Temple Univ. Press, 1980), p.26.

2. Ida B. Wells, "A Red Record" pp.10-12, reprinted in Wells Barnett, On Lynchings (NY: Arno press, 1969).

3. Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. (NY: Wm. Morrow, 1984), chap 1; Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, (NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987); Gail Bederman, "Civilization, The Decline of Middle -Class Manliness and Ida B. Wells's Anti-Lynching Campaign, 1892-94," Radical History Review 52, Winter, 1992), pp.5-30, reprinted in Barbara Melosh, Gender and American History Since 1890 (London, Routledge, 1993), pp.207-239.

4. Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (expanded ed. NY: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1989), "The Brutal Black Buck and The Birth of a Nation," pp.10-18.

5. Anonymous letter to Jessie Daniel Ames, cited in Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign Against Lynching, rev. ed. (NY: Columbia Univ. press, 1993), p.112.

6. Robert L. Zangrando, The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950 (Phila: Temple Univ. press, 1980), chaps. 1 & 2.

7. Zangrando, NAACP; Thomas R. Cripps, "The Reaction of the Negro to the Motion Picture Birth of a Nation," The Historian (May 1963), pp.344-362; Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942) (second ed., Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), chap. 3.

8. Cripps, Slow Fade, p.186.

9. Ruth Feldstein, "I Wanted the Whole World To See: Race, Gender, and Constructions of Motherhood in the Death of Emmett Till" in Meyerowitz, Joanne, ed. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Post-War America, 1945-1960, (Phila: Temple Univ. Press, 1994), fn. 11 and 44 cite evidence of the scarring effect that photos of lynch victims had on young African Americans; in the Emmett Till murder, however, Feldstein asserts that Till's mother regained control over his body by making the choice to use an open casket, thus graphically illustrating the barbarity and horror of racism.

10. W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. and Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, quoted in Lawrence J. Friedman, The White Savage: Racial Fantasies in the Postbellum South. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1970) p. 140; and Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (Chapel hill: UNC Press, 1996), chap. 4.

11. Cripps, Slow Fade, p. 189.

12. Gilmore, Gender, p. 104.

13. Gilmore, Gender, pp.17-20. Paula Giddings, too, portrays the remarkable success of African American women as mothers, wives, and activists, though she balances this argument by pointing to patriarchal and conservative attitudes of some African American male leaders; When and Where, pp. 108-117.

14. Linda K. Schott, Reconstructing Women's Thoughts: The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom Before World War II, (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1997), pp.131-49. Frances Early is also at work on this question in her ongoing study of women involved in civil-libertarian and feminist-pacifist activism.