Watching movies from the silent era was always the most difficult part of film school. The classes were always the earliest in the morning, and having a night job meant it was always a struggle to stay awake (or even make it to class). But one of the times that the era silent film caught my attention was when my instructor put on a documentary about the films of Oscar Micheaux.
Our common knowledge is that filmmakers of color are by and large a recent phenomena, due to the the injustices of the American studio system. But even in the earliest days of the motion picture industry, several independent production companies found a way to finance and showcase films to the ignored audience of African Americans. And one of the most prolific and well known filmmakers was Oscar Micheaux – an author, playwright and film director who created “Race Films” in both the silent and sound era.
Oscar Micheaux (1884 - 1951)
As the lights dimmed, I for once was completely awake. I had known of course about he films of Spike Lee, Mario Van Peebles and even Paul Robeson. But I did not know that there were filmmakers who found a way, with little to no resources, to create art for audiences at the turn of the 20th century. The race films of the silent era dealt with topics such as oppression, segregation, and also interracial marriage.
While it’s easy to pick apart the perspective of a bygone era, several elements of all of his films I found fascinating as they are still prevalent in modern society. Frequently, lighter skinned African Americans were always well educated and of a higher class in his work. He also had a disdain for religion and all clergy in his films were frequently villains or the unwitting pawns in someone’s grander scheme. And what really caught my attention was the earliest on screen depiction of the One Drop Rule.
Although not enacted into law until the early 20th century (and only on a per state basis), America has had the mindset that anyone whose ancestry is even the smallest of amount African American is considered a “person of color”, known as the One Drop Rule. This rule has been expanded to other ethnicities, but the intent has always been the same – to reinforce false racial hierarchies that revolve around “white” being at the top. And as a side benefit, keep the diverse lower classes from organizing together. Many poor whites were deemed “persons of color” and had their rights to vote stripped from them. Along with several other laws preventing the poor from voting, such as needing to show ID or proof of literacy.
The Race films of the silent era exposed the oppressions of people of color, they also inadvertently helped reinforce it.
A common character in many of Oscar Michaeux’s films was someone of mixed race, usually a woman, who was either saved or damned by discovery of her diverse heritage. Either they would hide it from their spouse to “pass” as white, or they would discover they were part black and could then marry the love of their life.
This depiction of multiethnic people was derived from the “tragic mulatto” trope, where someone who is mixed can never fully be at peace until they embrace the “colored” side of the themselves. This stereotype was created in the early part of the 19th century, often used by abolitionists to garner sympathy from those who still believed in slavery or to show the mistreatment of indigenous Americans. The idea being that the institution of slavery had created “misfits” who looked white, but were doomed because of their “other heritage”.
And while their ultimate intentions were noble, the idea of this trope still relied on the idea of there being an “other”. That we are ultimately composed of different “races” where the barrier to understand one another is too vast to overcome. And combining those two genetically, would only lead to mental unrest and genetic impurity. And even now, subconsciously, this remains the American outlook. Despite the fact that our common human ancestor is sub-Saharan African. Thus, according to the rule, making us all a “person of color.”
As long as we deal with the Negro as a kind of statistic, as something to be manipulated, something to be fled from, or something to be given something to, there is something we can avoid, and what we can avoid is what he really, really means to us. The question that still ends these discussions is an extraordinary question: Would you let your sister marry one?James Baldwin – The Price of The Ticket
These early depictions of the multiracial have created a zeitgeist that is now only starting to be addressed. For decades it’s been unthinkable to see an interracial couple on screen. The most backlash received when the couple is an African-American man and a woman of European descent. As humans we gravitate towards stories, they reinforce our beliefs and values. And in the case of mixed ethnicity, it’s been depicted as a tragic aberration.
A simple Cheerios commercial received waves of hate and backlash towards the company simply by showing a mixed family. Bringing up centuries of hateful thoughts that she was married to “one of those.” Or on the flip side of the coin, that the man had “betrayed his race.” Rearing the dark, eugenic mindset of America that one must declare a racial allegiance; a concept built on fallacy.
This is because the depictions of interracial families and multiethnic people have not truly advanced. With a few exceptions, most portrayals feature either a happy, interracial family where the topics of ethnicity are not addressed at all or they’re looked at in the simplest of terms, i.e. “just remember that you’re a person first.” While couples and people on a day to day basis (for the most part) aren’t consumed by their ethnic differences. Those differences need to be depicted in realistic and human way, with equal parts nuance and depth.
Because after centuries of propaganda showing us how different we are. We need even more media show how those differences are part of a grander, richer human experience.